You don't ask a plumber to do a doctor's job

Steve Oh

Modified 24 Feb 2017, 8:53 pm

"What is happening in Malaysia?" a friend asked me recently. He rattled off news reports of the daylight killings and kidnappings and so on.

I said, “You meant to ask, ‘What is happening to Malaysia, didn't you?’"

He looked at me with a wry grin that spoke volumes for what was in his mind, about what's not right in the country of his birth for which he showed an uncanny concern but unmistakable consternation despite having lived abroad for many years.

The recent appointment of a non-accountant to the very important post of auditor-general gives another clue to the country's slippery slide. Has the government made another serious political faux pas that some may call another blunder in making the appointment?

After summarily dismissing the 1MDB scandal while foreign authorities are hot on the criminal trail, and successful convictions in Singapore, life is becoming more unsettling for more and more citizens in a country that once was the model of progress and diversity.

Someone sent me a video of an evidently impassioned Malay woman speaking out to a group in public against 'Hadi's Islam' in a bill to implement hudud. She cried out for all Malaysians, not just Malays to protest Hadi's 'unIslamic' 355 bill.

The metamorphosis of PAS from a ‘party for all’ before GE13 under Nik Aziz Nik Mat's leadership into a parochial and narrow and myopic Hadi-minded polity is another tragedy in Malaysian politics. PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang wants to decide the punishment before catching the thief. He is nonplussed about the corruption but obsessed with the collusion with a sworn political enemy.

Like new DAP member and former law minister Zaid Ibrahim, who has criticised the appointment of the non-accountant auditor-general, many also think it is a wrong decision.

The most important aspect of an auditor's role is to lend credibility to the published statutory financial reports. How will a non-accountant auditor-general lend any credibility to the auditor-general's reports? Audit is a specialised field. You don't ask a plumber to do a doctor's job, do you? It makes a mockery of years of professional training.

Were there no more suitable candidates with the pertinent qualifications for this very important post? Why was Madinah Mohamad, who graduated with a degree in political science, chosen? I think the public has a right to know.

Little credibility

In scandal-prone Malaysia, a highly respected and credible auditor-general will make all the difference in making public accounts trustworthy. The job demands an understanding of auditing. General knowledge is not enough. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing as the saying goes.

The auditor has also to be seen to be independent. The independence of the auditor adds to the credibility of the role. How will it help the independence aspect in the role of the new auditor-general, she being the wife of an active Umno politician?

The heavy cost to the government and the auditor-general's office will be their credibility. Whatever the auditor-general does will be cast with doubts and accusations of cronyism, and that's the last thing you want with published audit reports and financial statements. The role of auditor-general cannot afford to be bogged in controversy.

The government risks coming under a cloud if the auditor-general is not seen to be independent. Like justice, independence must not only be real but be seen to be real. That is why judges recuse themselves if they cannot be seen to be independent in a case before them in court.

The training of an auditor takes many years. Auditing is both an art and science. A basic qualification in accountancy is a requirement and a government auditor must have the professional qualities of the proverbial hound dog and watchdog. The incumbent must be one of proven impeccable moral character in public and capable of acting without fear or favour in a very important role and specialised field.

It is unlikely a non-auditor will have the technical expertise, the professional acumen and auditor's DNA to do a proper job, even with the best of intentions and nicest other attributes. You cannot simply transplant anyone to be an auditor-general.

If non-accountants can be auditors, it is an insult to the auditing and accountancy profession. I am speaking from my past experience as a public accountant with an audit licence, and knowing how stringent the rules and requirements are in getting an audit licence.

If it is hard for accountants to become company auditors (who must have the requisite auditing qualifications and experience), why is it possible for one without direct audit experience to take up the role of the country's highest audit office? Will we then expect airline stewards to pilot aircraft?

The role of auditor-general is not a rubber stamp but a formidable check and balance so vital in ensuring the financial integrity of governance and indirectly, the proper functioning of democracy. An accountable government is a democratic government.

In light of the humongous scandals of 1MDB and other scandals involving corruption in government departments, I would have thought the government, if dead serious about strengthening the role of the auditor-general as an exigent move to curb the many inherent financial scandals within the government, would have appointed a more appropriate and less potentially controversial person with the relevant and requisite professional qualifications and experience...

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