Thursday, December 3

Letters on (and of) support

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I WROTE a support letter last week.

I described how well I knew the subject, gave my observations of work ethic, skills and experience, and recommended that an offer of employment should be extended.

Yes, this was a character reference, in which a private sector job applicant listed me as a contact for more information (happily, the person got the job). This is a normal professional practice and I doubt anyone would have a problem with it.

But in light of recent controversy over support letters, I thought about where boundaries become iffy.

Just a few weeks after my father became Yang di-Pertuan Besar 11 years ago, I was alerted to someone collecting funds for a ‘charity badminton tournament’ I was supposedly supporting. I had never heard of the event (and clearly they didn’t know me well enough to make it squash or tennis instead), and after efforts to chase down the perpetrator, everything vanished.

Over the years I’ve received innumerable requests to support students trying to get into certain schools or universities, which makes me ponder why they think my recommendation carries any weight: because they think I’m academically qualified or because they think my fancy letterhead will attract extra attention?

Almost any business owner in Malaysia, whether of an SME or a large corporation, will have encountered tricky situations before: to pay certain ‘fees’ to a company affiliated to a politician or being asked to ‘employ’ a politically-connected person in exchange for approvals or a government contract.

As much as everyone knows this is not how business should be conducted, many business owners with honest intentions feel they simply have no choice — not because ‘everyone else is doing it’, but because of competing moral considerations such as ensuring family members have enough to eat, that employees continue to have a job, and that customers remain customers.

Fighting such malpractices has increasingly been a key subject for policymakers using the language of ethics and anti-corruption, especially when it comes to the nexus between business and politics.

When I worked at the British House of Commons, I saw how seriously the declaration of MPs’ interests were taken: omissions could result in media excoriation, action by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, expulsion from parties, and the ending of political careers. At the World Bank, I began to understand the difficulty of encouraging reforms in countries — many of them poverty-stricken — to prevent the looting of public assets by politicians. The rewards are too great; and once you have power, there is no incentive to change anything (indeed, the power you gained is probably due to promises to distribute public money to your supporters).

Since returning to Malaysia in 2007 I’ve seen some positive changes: public expectations of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission keep on rising, politicians are increasingly compelled to be more transparent in their assets, and as an independent director to public companies I’ve seen fiduciary duties become increasingly onerous. High-profile convictions for abuse of power, breach of trust and money laundering have raised hopes that similar cases will be prosecuted. Yet, for some, higher governance standards simply result in new ways to circumvent them, leading to authorities (and the slow process of lawmaking) constantly having to catch up.

Providing references and recommendations will always be part of business, for there must be mechanisms to verify the trustworthiness and capabilities of people and companies. But the prevalence of the practice for non-meritocratic reasons has polluted the whole environment to the extent where the existence of a support letter is now often presumed to mean that the writer stands to benefit personally. (This translates to social media where, after posting a picture of myself drinking a certain chocolate flavoured beverage, I was asked whether I had been paid to do so, when I certainly had not!)

But sometimes, a VIP might actually write a letter to support an initiative that they believe will be good for the country; or to highlight an unrealised opportunity for development; or to introduce an innovative idea that the government has not previously considered. Rather than perpetuating rent-seeking, these cases serve to create new wealth that sustain communities and contribute to the economy.

And I too, on rare occasions, having been blown away by dazzling academic records and brilliant examples of musical or sporting aptitude, have written in support of intelligent and capable young Malaysians applying for scholarships and places at prestigious educational institutions — with the suspicion that perhaps that many others, perhaps using other justifications, are also trying to do the same.

That, of course, segues the discussion into the education system, which is a discussion oft-had for another day.

Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.