ICT, or to give it its full name, Information and Communications Technology, is already being applied to good effect in public sector management in many countries. It is used as a tool in the fight against corruption by developing greater transparency and accountability in the way government business is conducted. The ever expanding range of contemporary electronic technologies such as E-Government and other ICT-related initiatives are making an important contribution to improved efficiency in service delivery, public procurement and internal revenue administration. The World Bank Poverty Reduction and Economic Management Network has for years been promoting the electronic approach to fighting corruption — the main obstacle to orderly economic development.
ICT applications have been the most significant development in recent years in meeting world-wide public demands for greater transparency in government affairs, with the interests of the governed at the heart of it all. As we embark on this great adventure with E-Government as part of the Government Transformation Programmes, with heightened, and I hope realistic expectations, we need to pause and reflect upon the primary purpose of ICT in the Malaysian context. If improved efficiency is all that we want, then I suggest we are wasting time and enormous scarce resources. If, on the other hand, we combine efficiency with confronting corruption in public life, then we will be getting more out of e-government. But for all that we still need to ask ourselves if we are fighting corruption for its own sake, just to claim a personal moral high ground and smirk with the satisfaction of the virtuous. There must surely be a higher purpose in life, and that has got to be poverty reduction in our rural communities, especially.
Fighting corruption, whatever the methods or means we employ, must begin with a commitment on our part to make a difference to the lives of people generally, but specifically to the lot of the poor, the marginalised, and the least educated members of our society. While E-Government is making rapid, and in some cases, decisive inroads into what were once public administration black holes, and in the process bringing about some semblance of order out of chaos, it is no panacea for societies with congenitally corrupt and defective political, economic and social systems and structures. We may not be as bad as some countries in the corruption league table; nevertheless, we will need to return to the most basic of the related issues, and may indeed have to learn how to walk all over again, a step at a time, before our country is ready to cope with the challenges and demands of an electronically connected and seamless world where transparency and accountability are non-negotiable items on the governance agenda.
The danger though and this is something we need to grasp quickly is that the step by step approach may well prove to be out of step with the whole thrust of ICT in its various applications. ICT does not lend itself to leisurely change. It is not for the faint-hearted. The entry threshold is set extremely high, too demanding for many countries but that is the nature of the beast called integrity. From my own perspective as an anti-corruption activist, I have long recognised the value of ICT applications in enhancing transparency and accountability, and that, in my book, is the starting point for the battle against corruption. It is a pity that with one or two exceptions, most authorities look upon E-Government purely in the context of improved service delivery, and not in terms of the more fundamental need to reduce corrupt practices by creating a level playing field where government business can be conducted in the full glare of public scrutiny.
There is only so much ICT applications can achieve. The human factor holds the key to the success or failure in confronting corruption effectively. In a society such as ours where people are generally tolerant of unethical public behaviour, they see corruption as a problem for the government to wrestle with and it is not their business. It is this attitude that has encouraged an escalation of corrupt behaviour up and down the line of our public service as well as in the corporate community. Corruption in Malaysia is systemic and has touched every level of society, without exception. We like to think that we are on top of the problem, but are we? Corruption has made our porous border with Thailand, for example, even more porous. Our security has been seriously breached and this, as many people believe, to use a tired, hackneyed phrase, is the tip of the iceberg.
When national security is compromised because of corruption in the police, the immigration, the customs and other services, then the country is balancing precariously on a slippery slope. And when we look at Cameron Highlands, the illegal logging in Sarawak and other cases of corrupt practices across our national economic life, we cannot afford to feel sanguine about the future viability of our nation. The war against corruption is our war, and it cannot be left entirely to the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission to do it alone. Electronic applications to fight corruption are a step in the right direction, but it is people who will have to lead the fight for a cleaner Malaysia. And that means we have to take possession of our problem.
The writer is a director of the International Institute for Public Ethics and chairman of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission Advisory Board