- In 1976, Noordin was appointed Auditor-General, recalled from his retirement after having served the Ministry of Finance. To propagate the concept of public accountability, he persuaded parliament to amend the Audit Act of 1957. This enabled his office to ascertain whether funds were actually used as appropriated and managed efficiently.
- Concentrating upon performance auditing, Noordin shattered the complacency of bureaucrats and politicians.
- His first audit in 1977 uncovered abuses that cost the government nearly US$35 million. Beyond auditing however, Noordin pursued the more challenging role of an auditor, to “analyze the weaknesses which give rise to such faults, and secure cooperation of the heads of the audited organizations to rectify them and to strengthen their internal controls in order to prevent recurrence.”
- In succeeding cases of financial scandal involving government institutions, Noordin would lead in restoring the faith of the people in the national banking system.
- The board of trustees recognizes “his effective, fearless exposure of inefficiency and corruption in government, making a reality of public accountability.”
Any government whose funds are chronically inadequate must ensure their appropriate and efficient use. Waste and corruption are a curse that cripples most newly independent countries, and ineffective fiscal accountability is an international problem. Yet the task of holding government departments accountable often devolves upon an auditor, whose office is a bureaucratic backwater with limited mandate, and whose reports are ignored.
Such was the situation in Malaysia until May 1976 when TAN SRI AHMAD NOORDIN, already extended beyond normal retirement as Deputy Secretary of the Ministry of Finance, became Auditor- General. His was a surprise appointment: he lacked a university degree and was the first to be selected from outside the Audit Department.
NOORDIN was born February 18,1921, in a small kampong (village) in the northeastern state of Kelantan, into a traditional Islamic family. His education began in a rural Malay school and continued in a government English school until halted by Japanese occupation of the peninsula in 1941. After World War II, while supporting a family as a clerk in the Price Control Office, he studied nights and weekends. In 1947 he passed the Cambridge School Certificate Examination which enabled him to join the Kelantan State Civil Service. Eight years later, just before Malaysia became independent from Britain, he entered the Federal Civil Service and earned distinction in successive posts for his searching mind, capacity for innovation, integrity and hard work.
With his appointment as Auditor-General nine years ago, NOORDIN began to make an indelible mark on government. The law requiring a report on the accuracy of state and federal accounts he found too narrow. Declaring “my clarion call is to propagate the concept of public accountability,” he persuaded parliament to amend the Audit Act of 1957, thus enabling his office to ascertain whether funds were actually used as appropriated and managed efficiently.
Concentrating upon performance auditing, NOORDIN shattered the complacency of bureaucrats and politicians. His first audit in 1977 uncovered abuses ranging from procurement of much overpriced noodles by the army, to discrepancies in Ministry of Education grants totaling nearly US$35 million. But the role of an auditor, he believes, is to “analyze the weaknesses which give rise to such faults, and secure cooperation of the heads of the audited organizations to rectify them and to strengthen their internal controls in order to prevent recurrence.”
In 1982 Malaysia was rocked by a scandal involving almost US$1 billion in bad loans by the Hong Kong subsidiary of the state-owned Bank Bumiputra. Public doubt of the government’s ability to investigate its own financial institution was met by appointment of a three-member special committee of inquiry with NOORDIN as chairman. Its blunt, extensively documented findings made NOORDIN and his colleagues folk heroes and restored faith in the national banking system.
NOORDIN is guided by deep moral convictions that began with his rural village family life and religious training. He believes that, depending upon their talents, all human beings have something to contribute to society, first by doing their own work well. He states that one becomes a sinner against society by giving in to pressure by influential figures, rather than protecting the rights of the powerless. “A career in public service,” he says, “should be viewed as more than earning a living. A public servant must recognize social injustice, and work towards reducing it with courage and determination.”
Modest in manner and lifestyle, NOORDIN has shown that a devoted civil servant, through his strength of character and excellence of performance, can restore confidence in government. In the process he has lent added impetus to Malaysia’s exceptionally rapid economic progress.
In electing TAN SRI AHMAD NOORDIN BIN HAJI ZAKARIA to receive the 1985 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service, the Board of Trustees recognizes his effective, fearless exposure of inefficiency and corruption in government, making a reality of public accountability.
My wife and I are very happy and grateful to be here in Manila as guests of the 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.
“To Allah, the Almighty God, belongs whatsoever is in the heavens and whatsoever is in the earth. Whether you make known what is in your mind or hide it, Allah, Almighty God, will bring you to account for it in the hereafter.”
This passage from the Koran, the sacred book of Muslims, was learned as a small boy by AHMAD NOORDIN BIN HATI ZAKARIA from his grandmother. Accepted as a maxim of conduct, personal accountability became an ingrained habit. Later as Malaysia’s auditor-general he would remind government servants, who were predominantly Muslims, that they are ultimately accountable to their creator.
Born on February 18, 1921, NOORDIN was the first son of Haji Zakaria bin Haji Taib and the only child of his second wife, Khadijah binte Daud whom he married as allowed by Islamic custom, because his first wife had not produced a male heir. Subsequently the first wife, who had already borne three daughters, gave birth to two more girls and two boys. The two wives lived in separate households in Kampong (village) Seberang Pasir Mas, a small settlement on the eastern bank of the Kelantan River, 20 kilometers southwest of Kota Bharu, in the state of Kelantan, in what was then Malaya under British rule and is now independent Malaysia. While the half-brothers and sisters were close as children and remain so to this day, the relationship between the two wives was one of tolerance.
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