A lesser known finding of the latest national public opinion survey is that fighting corruption tops the list of issues that the people feel needs the attention of the federal government, with a full 47% of the respondents naming it as their first or second concern.
What is striking about this response is that it is by far the clearest choice among a list of 10 issues, with the other responses trailing well behind. In descending order, the rest of the concerns were fighting inflation (29%), improving the police and security service (22%), providing affordable housing for the people (21%), expanding public infrastructure in the rural areas (16%), improving government efficiency (14%), improving judicial independence (12%), environmental protection (11%), bringing in foreign investment (6%) and improving media freedom (4%).
This aspect of the survey by the Merdeka Centre for Opinion Research, which was conducted at end-June, had been overshadowed by more apparently newsy findings such as the prime minister’s approval ratings and notable shifts in the level of satisfaction with his performance — an entirely predictable preoccupation in our media-dominated world.
Moreover, the corruption theme had been buried in the public’s responses to another question: “What is the number one problem facing people in this country today?”
The replies put the spotlight on economic issues, which made up 39% of responses, social problems, including crime, comprising 12%, and political instability at 8%. Corruption was named by a mere 2% of the respondents.
This may not be surprising since economic problems manifest in the lives of the people in tangible forms such as the rising prices of essential items, transport, housing and services are naturally a constant preoccupation of the ordinary people.
In comparison, corruption issues tend to remain out of view because, among other things, the perpetrators often go to great lengths to avoid coming under scrutiny.
However, when corruption becomes endemic, and especially if it is considered in the wider sense of abuse of power for private gain, the people can more clearly recognise the many forms in which it impacts their lives.
So while the payment of a bribe is the most common form of corruption that is cited, the people have unfortunately become acutely aware of an entire range of corrupt activities that they see pervading the fabric of society. These include kickbacks, extortion, embezzlement, fraud, cronyism, conflict of interest, vote-buying and regulatory capture, to name some of the well-known ones.
The significance of the survey finding that is referred to at the beginning is that it shows that the people have come to clearly recognise that corruption has now become so serious that they consider it to be the single most important issue requiring the government’s attention, even though they must be clearly conscious that many of the problems that they want addressed have become institutionalised in the government apparatus. Put in another way, the situation is akin to having the fox guarding the hen house.
The more egregious examples of these include the issuance of thousands of Approved Permits to select individuals for the import of cars, the award of massive infrastructure projects to well-connected business leaders without open tenders, the privatisation of public services on hugely favourable terms to select business people, and so on.
Massive as these deals are, they merely form one dimension of the corruption situation. The people must surely be also conscious that the erosion of ethical values that lies at the heart of the problem is everywhere to be seen, and no sector seems to be immune to the malaise.
Lawyers complain of a corrupt legal system. Academics have been hauled over the coals for plagiarism and other lapses of integrity, eroding faith in the independence of their institutions. Financial executives have been censured for placing self-interest above that of their clients, and the public good.
The health industry is periodically castigated for profiteering and for the callous gouging of patients. The media, of course, stands accused of selling out to vested interests and blatant distortions of the truth. Even religious institutions and charitable organisations have come under scrutiny for deplorable deeds that they then hushed up.
Although these appear to be anecdotal instances of corruption, they indicate a systemic problem for which there is no apparent panacea. This means that people in all walks of life are surrounded by situations involving various forms of ethical conflicts, either as victims, perpetrators or inadvertent conduits of corruption. Clearly a turnaround cannot take place without a mass awakening to the scale of the problem and its consequences.
That would spark the political will to begin a new chapter in the nation’s journey towards justice and integrity.In opinion survey is merely a barometer of the public mood on a particular issue.
It indicates that the average person has developed a certain opinion about where the country is heading on the issue and what he wants done about it.
However, no meaningful change can be expected until people take personal responsibility for upholding ethical standards of behaviour in their daily lives.
They also will need to make their voices heard to their elected representatives, community leaders, civic groups and other social organisations in order to press for greater accountability, transparency and probity in public institutions.
That will require people to sacrifice time, effort and personal comfort to participate in civic life in line with the concept of citizenship that grew with the ancient democracies. A graft-free society certainly won’t be handed over to us on a silver platter.
R B Bhattacharjee is associate editor at The Edge.
This article appeared in The Edge Financial Daily on August 3, 2012.