COVID-19 crisis is no excuse to throw out transparency, accountability

By Datuk Seri Akhbar Satar


THE Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has urged Governments around the world to ensure accountability is practised as they allocate unprecedented amounts of funds to manage the COVID-19 pandemic.

As reported by Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), some political leaders have relied on the pandemic to increase their power, impose more restrictions on already limited access to information, eliminate transparency requirements from public procurement and avoid public accountability mechanisms.

Like many other countries, Malaysia has announced large fiscal initiatives to address pressing issues such as rising unemployment, boosting social-welfare programmes and meeting our urgent healthcare needs.

At this time of economic uncertainty, the public is expecting much needed support from the Government.

According to KPMG, as of December last year, the Malaysian Government had unveiled various packages totalling RM305 bil to weather the impact of COVID-19. These include an Economic Stimulus Package (RM20 bil), PRIHATIN package (RM230 bil), Additional PRIHATIN Package (RM10 bil), National Economic Recovery Plan (RM35 bil) and Kita PRIHATIN Package (RM10 bil).

In the face of this unprecedented pandemic, countries will tend to loosen existing procedures for public procurement and checks and balances to deliver support and assistance as quickly as possible.

A previous study by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) has shown that the instances of fraud generally increase during a recession.

This pandemic has shown that emergencies and subsequent rapid responses create opportunities for integrity violations, most notably fraud and corruption.

Given the vast allocations involved, this can result in substantial leakages that seriously compromise the effectiveness of the Government’s intended action.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) stated that the procurement of medicine and supplies in health systems is one of the most vulnerable areas for corruption and fraud.

Given the fast-track mechanisms that are put in place during this pandemic to source essential goods and services, corrupt actors will try to capitalise on the global shortages in both medicines and medical supplies. They see this as a golden opportunity to take advantage of the current crisis for their personal gain.

What are the contributing factors to this fraud? The Cressey Fraud Triangle describes three elements which enable fraud to occur.

Pressure arising from the need to deliver quick results, political interference and personal financial stress caused by elements such as lifestyle or expensive habits.

Opportunity including weak internal controls, poor tone at the top and too much discretionary power that comes with position. Rationalisation in seeing that everyone is doing it and believing their action is justified.

Given the vast amounts of taxpayer funds involved, what should the Government do to prevent leakages in the public procurement and delivery process and ensure that the stated goals are effectively met?

There are short and long-term measures which can be taken to achieve the above, prevent the problem from worsening and be better prepared for future crises. While recognising that enforcing budget transparency can be challenging during a crisis, it is crucial that robust and transparent procedures for budget allocations are not bypassed or compromised.

Strong principles vital during crisis

The World Economic Forum (WEF) has warned that transparency and accountability must not be lost in the haste to respond to COVID-19. Putting sound processes and accountability in place is an opportunity not just to avoid corruption, but to also rebuild trust.

Government transparency and strengthening oversight institutions is fundamental in ensuring the management of contracts has clear and robust internal accountability arrangements. Contracts should be awarded to contractors with evidence of reliability and a good track record — both technically and financially.

Sufficient due diligence must be undertaken when selecting a contractor to minimise potential risks, especially losses stemming from over-inflated prices and project extensions due to inexperience. Bear in mind that the rakyat expect to see value for money from Government contracts, even during times of crisis.

On the socio-economic front, the Government must provide fiscal support to protect stakeholders directly impacted by this pandemic. They include daily wage earners, small and medium-sized enterprises, low-income households and vulnerable communities.

In this regard, Auditor-General and the various internal auditors in the public sector must continue to perform their duties without compromising on principles.

As practised with other non-COVID-19 spending, they must report any non-compliance in the awarding and disbursement of funds from COVID-19 related packages, especially those involving front line agencies.

This scrutiny can be further supported with monitoring and reporting by NGOs and media, provided there is a guarantee of media freedom, easy access to relevant information.

We all must play our role as civil servants and citizens to perform our duties with responsibility, integrity and trust. The absence of accountability and organisational integrity opens the door to corruption for which the cost is high to all involved.

We do not need repeats of past high-profile cases which have caused and continued to damage our country. Despite decades of declaring war on the scourge, corruption is still very much rampant, and sadly there is no imminent light shining at the end of the tunnel.

In the final analysis, those who are God-fearing live according to the best religious teachings and never condone nor support corruption. On the other hand, there are those who claim to be God-fearing but enrich themselves via corruption and abusing their power.

They will ultimately have to be accountable to the Almighty. However, it is our present duty to completely reject the guilty and ensure that systems are in place to strongly sanction them, irrespective of status or position. – Feb 15, 2021


Datuk Seri Akhbar Satar is the president of the Malaysia Association of Certified Fraud Examiner. 

The views expressed are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Focus Malaysia.

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