My wife and I are very happy and grateful to be here in Manila as guests of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation. I am indeed delighted to be able to receive in person the 1985 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service at this colorful ceremony.
I thank the Board of Trustees for having considered me worthy of receiving this high honor -- an honor that I never dreamt of winning. Indeed, when a representative of a local newspaper in Kuala Lumpur told me the news around noon on August 1st, before I received the official telegram, I could not believe it. I thought I was being made a victim of a joke! This award is truly a godsend to me.
It is also a great privilege for me to join the ranks of distinguished recipients, who have achieved distinction in various fields of human endeavor far greater than what I have been able to do in my own. They come from different academic and professional backgrounds, and their achievements have often been at great personal sacrifice. By comparison, I am just like a dwarf among giants, both in terms of physical build and personal accomplishments. I have been given this award for just doing the work for which I get paid. I did not think much about getting recognition. If the result of what I am doing in the line of duty has brought about an impact of some benefit to society, that in itself is already reward enough for me. This Award is even more significant to me and the audit profession, for I understand that this is the first time a member of the auditing fraternity has been so honored.
The late President Ramon Magsaysay is remembered for his belief in the ideals of social justice, in the rights of individuals and in the importance of morality in government. He is remembered for his courageous efforts to realize these ideals. We want good government. We should learn from his wisdom how to put these ideals into practice.
About 300 years ago the British poet, Alexander Pope, wrote rather cynically, "For form of government let fools contest, whatever is best administered is best." Governments everywhere are still searching for the best methods to get the best out of public administration. We in Malaysia have chosen parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarchy as our form of government. It has worked quite well for the past 28 years. Today, August 31st, is the 28th Anniversary of our Independence, the starting point of that form of democracy. However, we are still trying to improve our methods of administration.
The business of government becomes increasingly complex as it gets more directly involved in economic activities. We experience this phenomenon in my country.
A responsible government knows that it must be accountable to the people for what it does or fails to do. There is, however, a tendency among governments to show this accountability more by appearances than by reality. For example, it is the fashion nowadays for governments to publicize far and wide what they plan to do for the good of the people with tax money and borrowings; but they tend to be less informative about their blunders and failures. Chances are that the civil servants get the blame, not because of hastily conceived plans, but for doing the wrong things.
The rapid growth of public expenditure in my country during the last decade -- from about M$7 billion in 1975 to an estimated M$29 billion in 1985 -- has placed a heavy strain on the administrative and management capacity of the public service. It has brought in its wake problems of accountability. Until the impact of economic recession was seriously felt in 1982, the emphasis was to achieve the maximum financial targets in development spending. Control became lax, and as a result the standards of accountability suffered. When I joined the Audit Department in 1976, I thought that the accounting and auditing systems were very much in need of reform.
Auditing in its wider sense means to review and evaluate results of financial activities in order to ascertain value for money spent. It is not just to express an opinion on the correctness of the accounts. Public accountability should cover the whole spectrum of financial management. I believe that with trained and experienced officers, the Audit Department could play a more useful role in public administration. True, we still have to look for errors and omissions. But this is not an end in itself. What is more important for auditors is to identify weaknesses in the system, analyze their causes, and suggest that administrators and managers take remedial measures as quickly as possible. We should try to make people aware of the need to be careful with public money. It is everybody's money. It should be spent for a purpose which serves the greatest good for the greatest number. The people have a right to know how their money is used. They must have confidence in the Audit Department in carrying out its functions objectively. The press also has a role to play in promoting public accountability. It should be fair in reporting matters published in the Audit Reports and avoid sensitive issues that may cause misunderstanding and tension.
If there has been any impact from what I have done to make the Audit Department play a more positive role in public administration, I alone cannot claim credit. The right to find faults and failings in public administration is not exclusive to the Audit Department. Others like the consumer groups, the press and interested individuals who care about public spending have also contributed their efforts to make the ordinary people in Malaysia understand the meaning of accountability of government. Those are the people who make democracy work.
I share the honor you have given me with the people of Malaysia.