The Auditor-General’s Report part III was recently released, and it provided fodder to ask some very basic questions - is the government and the head of public services, who holds the rank of a cabinet minister, serious about the financial indiscretions reported, once again, in the Audit Report?
My answer - an unequivocal NO! Why?
It was one of my Universiti Malaya professors, the late Dr Mokhzani Abdul Rahim, who first educated me about this truth. Malays, he generalised, do not use the cane in their homes for teaching discipline. True?
This reality was further affirmed to me based on yet other grounded experience when I once stopped at a Chinese grocery store at the fringe of a Malay village in Kampung Raja, Sungai Petani, and the owner quite nonchalantly said, “Only Chinese and Indians buy canes to discipline their children, Malays do not!”
Furthermore, if I am not mistaken, at the National Institute of Public Administration (Intan), while I was registrar there for about three years, we sacked four staff members for theft crimes, especially when they were caught and there was evidence. But, if I am not mistaken, that was the only time staff were sacked by Intan, ever.
Nevertheless, if we want this culture of discipline with respect to rules and regulations to be well-nurtured and enforced, it must be possible to ‘regularly sack miscreant officials who do not make the mark’.
The Kuantan Local Authority, in the early 1980s, regularly sacked about 25-30 officials yearly, because they emphasised compliance with rules and regulations. So, it is doable when there is political intent by requisite leadership; not otherwise.
Audit Report and pecuniary embarrassment
In all government departments, it is a senior public servant, usually at Jusa Grade, who is the chief financial officer and who is gazetted as the chief controlling officer. It is his total and absolute responsibility to ensure public monies are spent wisely, and according to the Treasury’s instructions and financial procedures. The minister has little or no say on this matter of financial rules.
The Audit Report tests or ‘audits these actions and inactions’, after the fact, or forensically, against agreed and established rules and procedures.
Therefore, I cannot understand how only one senior officer has been disciplined when the Audit Report, ever since the current incumbent assumed office, has been a ‘wrong-doings showcase’. If there has not been any follow-through by the chief secretary, the Treasury secretary-general and the Public Services Department head, it is a travesty of injustice and I think the chief secretary must be called up to Parliament to report about this lack of action.
The auditor-general can only report on such misdemeanours, and the follow-through action must come from the Public Services authorities, but if it does not, who do we hold responsible for the close one eye culture on this matter of financial indiscipline?
The responsible and accountable authority
Accountability and responsibility stops at the leadership of public organisations, not at the bottom. The fish rots from the head. Therefore, I find it ‘very operational minded’ if the senior public officials who provided oversight in the 175 cases were not called up to give account.
Have the secretaries-general been held accountable for their ‘controller responsibilities?’ My question is directed at the chief secretary, as I have already asked this question publicly to the auditor-general after last year’s report and he agreed with me that the buck stops with the secretaries-general, and not just the junior officers who ‘conduct the demeanour’.
It is the job of the meeting of secretaries-general (chaired by the chief secretary) to review, in detail, the Audit Report and to understand the due failures of responsibilities and accountabilities of the controlling officers. Then, please agree what kind and quality of reprimand is needed for those held irresponsible.
For a fact, after the submarine fiasco, and the Altantuya Shariibuu case, I found it rather amazing that the then secretary-general of the Defence Ministry and the responsible controlling officer, was actually given a promotion. On what grounds, may I ask? And then, much later, he had to be sacked from the new job for a related failure in the second-most responsible office in this nation.
Whither this nation, which used to pride ourselves of an excellent public service? And now only one that can be sacked out of 175 officials named and blamed for financial demeanours in the public service.
My conclusion is that while the auditor-general is doing a credible job with audit evaluation financial procedures, rules and regulations and reporting them; it is rather disappointing that the chief secretary takes a rather careless attitude to such serious failures with the comment,
“The number of officers involved in wrong-doing is very small compared to the total number of government officers. I would not even say they make up ‘tip of the iceberg’, as the numbers are smaller than that!”
My question to the chief secretary instead is, if you aggregate the financial failures to the level of ministries, how many secretaries-general are delinquent with their financial responsibility and accountability? Why hold the rest of the entire public service responsible and accountable for very specific financial procedures under the full responsibility of the controlling officers?
My advice to the chief secretary
Dear sir, you hold the rank of a cabinet minister. In fact, you could be the most powerful minister if you get support of all your public service colleagues; especially in matters related to wrong-doing and right-doing! The other ministers are not trained as you were, both in Intan and within the public service, including your Masters and PhD.
You only report to the prime minister; in fact, if you handle your job very well, you can work with all secretaries-generals of ministries and give private briefings to the PM especially on right and wrong-doing. The Auditor-General’s Report is tabled to the Parliament, but why don’t you brief the PM and other select ministers to explain why so much wrong-doing continues to happen even before Parliament?
Then, the PM can report to Parliament what are the real reasons for the abject failure of the public services in seeing good quality compliance with financial procedures and regulations. Frankly, in matters of finance, it is the full and total responsibility of the public services and we cannot afford to hold the politicians responsible; they are only really responsible for the abuse and not bothered with proper use of financial due processes.
KJ JOHN was in public service for 29 years. The views expressed here are his personal views and not those of any institution he is involved with. Write to him at email@example.com with any feedback or views.