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Anti-Corruption, A Losing Battle?

By Ravi Perera –

Ravi Perera

“Integrity, transparency and the fight against corruption have to be part of the culture. They have to be taught as fundamental values” ~ Angel Gurria- OECD Secretary General

To a person unfamiliar with the workings of modern concepts of governance, the recent debate in our parliament on a proposed anti-corruption bill would have been rather puzzling. After all, the scope of any anti-corruption bill will necessarily cover the parliamentarians, the many allegations of their financial impropriety, the rapid and unexplained financial prosperity of many legislators. In other words, the very people who may eventually come under the law’s scrutiny have the privilege of determining the scope and effect of the anti-corruption law! 

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As legislators their emoluments are modest, demands on their resources high, yet in Sri Lanka there is hardly a member among them whose financial situation has in fact deteriorated while serving. On the contrary, their life style; assets gained, plush vehicles, sleek clothes, foreign education of children, luxury holidays, all point to sudden wealth, a rapid asset betterment. As a career option in this country, it is difficult to do better than becoming a politician, while on the other hand, it is a country most ill-served by its politicians 

Under today’s commonly accepted principles of democracy, the norm is for elected parliamentarians to make the laws, unlike the feudal era when the word of the king was law (with ill-defined customs, and religious ideas more or less forming what was loosely referred to as the law then) 

The appropriateness of our elected representatives making the laws is incontestable. What can be better than people’s representatives legislating for the people? However, from the sorry results of our experiments with the parliamentary model, it is apparent that even such a healthy concept needs other, often unwritten, supporting realities for the system to deliver. Fundamentally, the culture, attitudes and instincts of a people, are crucial for the success or the failure of the system.

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Any parliament, in any country, is bound to have its rotten eggs. However, by and large, the vast majority mean well and want to do the right thing. Whatever the Bill, whether it be an anti-corruption law or a simple budget allocation, they will aim at the greater good, the overall betterment of society.

In Sri Lanka, it is apparent that the political system is used as an instrument of personal advancement, politics is a life- long career here. Everything becomes a tool to make money and gain social status. By various methods, leadership is retained, thus ensuring if not the Presidency, at least a Cabinet position on a future day for the leader (politician defined as a leader). Exhausted by seeing the same face for decades, the voter gives in, eventually endorsing the man. Obviously, there is a gaping flaw in the voter too; common in attitude, mediocre in performance, he gives a particular impression of a lowliness which encourages a megalomania in the political leader, who after a few years on the public stage begins to think of himself as masterful.

Unlike in the mother of parliaments, we do not come across a Cameron or a Chamberlain here, resigning from Premiership upon electoral defeat or policy reversals. (Cameron was only 50 years old when he resigned from premiership) Nor do we have Barrack Obamas, retiring gracefully, having done their allotted years. (Obama was 56 when he concluded his presidency) The idealism and the value system that went to develop the concept of a representative of the people in the originating cultures, are sorely lacking in the adopting country. It seems there is a huge misunderstanding in the interpretation of the meaning of it all.

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When it comes to the basic function of the parliament – making laws (and even constitutions – this country has had two, since independence), we need not expand on, the state of the country today is ample evidence of their confounded effects. One cannot think of any situation, whether economic or social, that has been addressed adequately by our laws, some situations have only worsened!  Many of our Acts of Parliament have been found to be inept or deficient, necessitating   countless amendments; one could even anticipate a world record in the number of amendments, the kind of dubious achievement we are inclined to claim! 

Corruption

A stabbing case in a village is commonly committed in front of many witnesses, the entire village is aware of the aggravation that led to the fatal conclusion. Before the police is an ‘open and shut case’. There is no private life , there are no secrets in the village. Corruption is very different; it is not something that happens in the open. Nor is it    a crime of passion, the corrupt man is a shrewd man, taking every effort to hide his tracks. And, unlike various other crimes, corruption has a very wide definition, often the average person may not even realize that a corrupt act is being committed before his eyes. Contrary to the common perception, corruption need not always involve the giving or taking of money. Sometimes an act taken in isolation may not in itself be corrupt, but it could well form a part of a chain of events in a corrupt design.

Clearly, corruption investigation is far beyond our average policeman, who by his obtuse bungling is more likely to blotch the vital trails than nabbing the actual culprit. To fight corruption, the country needs special courts and investigative agencies, completely independent, strongly empowered, manned by experienced and intelligent professionals; lawyers, accountants, forensic investigators and so on.

Qualifications alone will not do the job, the agencies must be absolutely committed to its task, imbued with a crusading zeal, working around the clock, leaving no stone unturned to wipe out corruption. The agency must have sweeping powers to summon witnesses, call for any document, search property, tap phones, tail suspects; in other words- total unhindered investigation. Either we wipe out corruption from this country, or corruption will destroy the country.

Informant be aware

When debating such a pressing challenge, it was amazing to observe that the proposed anti-corruption law was particularly concerned about what it deemed false or slanderous complaints, prescribing heavy punishment to those responsible for making them. Typical of the ossified Sri Lankan mind-set, how dare anyone even suggest such a thing about an august personage! 

Unless he was party to the crime, it is unlikely that a witness or a whistle blower will have all the facts of a corrupt transaction with him. What he has is only partial, information of an activity suggesting an irregularity, if not corruption. The investigating agency must pursue the matter, connect the dots, and form the complete picture.

 For example, the chauffer of a businessman may report that his master took ten million rupees in cash to a house of a minister. That is all he knows. On further investigation it may transpire that the businessman is a director of a company which was bidding for a contract at the ministry. The minister is not on the tender board, which is constituted of officials of the ministry. Obviously, there is a lot of investigation to be done. Considering the weak quality of corruption investigations in this country, it may well be that the agency will not proceed further. Does the intrepid driver now run the risk of facing a charge of a false complaint?

From 1948 we have been making a hilarity of investigations and punishments. The witness ending up as the accused is keeping with our uninspiring record. For trying to shed light on what he thought was corruption, the man faces prolonged harassment and even imprisonment. No sensible person will willingly place himself in the hands of a decision maker of the Sri Lankan State, especially the police. In the circumstances, who dares to be a whistle blower!

Whether in their hearts and souls our law makers are truly in the war against corruption we cannot say, however, it is well known that an effective anti-corruption law is currently demanded by the International Monetary Fund(IMF) and other aid agencies. They do not want their funds to go to the pockets of the corrupt! By threatening dire consequences to false informants, the proposed law may well have closed the door to even an honest informant. As to who is a false complainant, is an open question. A proper and intelligent investigation would have given credence to what is dismissed as false.

In advanced societies, corruption complaints are confidential. After examining the matter, the investigative agency may proceed to further investigations or decide to either keep the matter on a back-burner or close the investigation. It ends there. The most vital element in corruption fighting is information, the informant should not in any event face adverse consequences. If we are to succeed, Information must be encouraged in every way. Any discouragement of informants will only shut the life blood of corruption fighting.

Leave alone fighting corruption, it is apparent we have not even grasped the true nature of systemic corruption. The corrupt can breathe easy, the campaign against them is at sixes and sevens! 

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