A man on a mission

Dato’ Sri Abu Kassim is passionate about the fight against corruption in Malaysia. Lesley Junlakan meets the man charged with succeeding where others have failed

Dato’ Sri Abu Kassim is a man on a mission. A charismatic proponent of transparency and good governance, he begins the interview by recounting an incident from the late 1970s.

“When I was 18  years old, my father, who was the manager of a branch of Singer‘s, asked me to go in the van to deliver some of the company’s electrical goods. On the way we were stopped by a policeman, whose manner clearly implied that he wanted us to pay a bribe. Well, I refused outright. I mean, what offence had we committed? We had done nothing wrong. Citizens have to dare to refuse to pay bribes and fight for their rights, even though they might be afraid of doing such a thing. I still believe in that today!”

In 2010 Abu Kassim was one of the few Asians – and the only Malaysian – to be honoured by the Ethisphere Institute, the international think-tank dedicated to the creation, advancement and sharing of good practices in business ethics, corporate social responsibility, anti-corruption and sustainability.

So how did the youngest of 12 children end up in his current role? “My mother advised me to go into the public sector…..she wanted me to avoid my father’s long working hours and late nights.” He rejected job offers from two multinational corporations after graduating in Social Science from the local University of Science Malaysia. “Being a government scholarship student,” Abu Kassim explains, “I was committed to working in the public sector so I had no hesitation in accepting a post at the Anti-Corruption Agency, as it was then, when they phoned to offer me a job.”

While in the service, he was offered a scholarship to further my studies in the United States where he obtained his Masters in Criminal Justice. Abu Kassim rose through the ranks, becoming its head in January 2010, exactly one year after the rebirth of the agency as the MACC in the
fulfilment of Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s pledge on becoming prime minister in 2003 to create a new political culture of public integrity, with zero tolerance of corruption.

It has been a tough 18 months for Abu Kassim, during which his main concern has been to make people believe in the independence of the organisation.  “Too many people say that it is just a case of old wine in new bottles,” he says, smiling perhaps at the irony of a devout Muslim using such a metaphor. “But we really have transformed and truly act ‘without fear or favour.’ We are answerable both to parliament and the public,” he adds.

Catching the big fish

The MACC’s critics are constantly prodding the organization to prove itself by catching some so-called “big fish” instead of playing with minnows.  “The problem is that people have selective memories,” he comments before reeling off a list of impressive facts and figures: 23 politicians arrested since 2009 and 15 charged; in 2010 the highest number of arrests in the history of anti-corruption in Malaysia; 2 former transport ministers charged in the Port Klang Free Zone (PKFZ) scandal.

“At a recent IAACA [International Association of Anti-Corruption Authorities] meeting in Shanghai, we discussed the increasing complexity of high-profile cases which nowadays may require extradition and mutual legal assistance to be used to bring them into the courts.” In Malaysia’s case that means any one of the 14 new Corruption Sessions Courts, established to complete the trial of corruption cases, especially high profile ones, within 12 months.

It is indicative of the importance which Malaysia attaches to the fight against corruption that it has been included as one of seven National Key Result Areas (NKRA) in the Government Transformation Programme (GTP) being run under the banner of “1Malaysia: People First, Performance Now.” Among the NKRA against Corruption’s main objectives are the reduction of corruption through enforcement and compliance; and the enhancement of transparency, with a view to improving Malaysia’s score in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). Like it or not, the CPI has become the acknowledged global corruption indicator, used by economists, investors and a range of other professionals as a touchstone on which to base their policies and strategies.

As a State Party to the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC), Malaysia is committed to tackling corruption at the interface between the private sector and the government…notably in the corruption-susceptible area of procurement. “Many Government Owned and Government Linked Companies approach the MACC,” Abu says, “but the MACC is not an organisation for ‘image laundering.’ They must be sincere in their wish to tackle the problem, must have certain mechanisms, like a whistleblower policy, in place.”

The MACC has been instrumental in developing various Integrity Pact projects, culminating in the July signing of a pact at multimedia launch of the RM43bn Klang Valley Mass Rapid Transport (KVMRT) megaproject.  It is an achievement of which Abu Kassim is proud. “The KVMRT project is the first such megaproject to have an Integrity Pact signed by contractors committing themselves not to engage in bribery in the implementation of their contracts with a Government Owned Company,” he comments.

The Chief Commissioner draws a parallel between the current struggle to contain corruption and the combat of communism and communalism in Malaysia in the 1950s and 1960s: “That fight was successful due to the concerted effort of the government and the involvement of the public. In other words, unity and involvement were the two key factors. No significant strides can be made unless and until all parties are united in fighting corruption, regardless of ideologies. The most difficult thing is how to bring the people on board…..how to take the people with you. That is not easy and takes both time and patience. However, the MACC is learning from other organisations.”Asked about his vision for Malaysia in 2020, Abu Kassim is quietly confident.  “By then the country may not be corruption-free but certainly it will be a nation which is serious about fighting it.  I believe Malaysia can achieve developed-nation status with citizens who have high moral standards and integrity.” Whether or not his dream will be fully realised, Dato’ Sri Abu Kassim appears 101 per cent committed to its pursuit.

Dato’ Sri Abu Kassim was in conversation with Lesley Junlakan, a Thailand based freelance writer

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