Datuk Nur Jazlan Mohamed FCCA left a promising finance and business career to enter politics at constituency party level 20 years ago, and despite some misgivings about the path he’s taken, the senior Parliament backbencher remains determined to leave his mark on public service.
Nur Jazlan, a three-term member of parliament for Pulai, Johor, and three-term Umno Pulai division chief, was elected as the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) by his peers last year. He hopes that, in this role, he can lead the panel – often regarded as a ‘toothless tiger’ – in the push towards enhancing public accountability and transparency.
The committee’s main role is to examine the auditor-general’s (AG) report on the financial statements and performance of ministries, agencies, government-linked companies and matters that concern public interest. The current committee is made up of nine members of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition and five members from the opposition, one of whom serves as the deputy chairman.
Nur Jazlan, who was formerly chairman of UDA Holdings and a director of Telekom Malaysia, says his combined political and corporate experience has been an interesting one as well as helping him tremendously in his role as PAC chairman.
‘It reminds me of the time I was chairman of the audit committee of Telekom Malaysia,’ he says. ‘The audit committee experience is always the most enriching committee experience for any board member, and here, because the PAC is akin to the government’s audit committee, we have the opportunity to see a wide range of government activity, especially when it comes to licensing, privatisation, revenue raising, procurement of goods and services, and the implementation of projects.’
Right from the start, Nur Jazlan decided that a top priority would be to lead the committee in an independent manner. ‘People have been saying PAC is a toothless tiger and that government is not taking the committee’s recommendations seriously,’ he says.
He concedes that, although the government is not obliged to heed the PAC’s recommendations and act on them, it is in their best interest to do so – particularly to instil among civil servants a fear of being audited.
‘The three fundamentals of having a good governance system are institutional memory, audit trail, and instilling an environment of fear of being audited,’ he says. Working towards these three objectives will take time and needs consistent attention to get all the people involved to toe the line,’ he says. Still, he’s heartened by some of the changes he’s observed so far.
Called to account
‘Previously civil servants would only take [corrective or remedial] action after the release of the auditor-general’s report and the PAC findings which are based on the report,’ he explains. ‘Now, we’ve found that government departments are investigating the issues and taking action as soon as the AG’s report is released – even before the PAC has the chance to look into an issue and call for a hearing. So it’s a good sign that they do not want an issue highlighted by the PAC.’
He adds that government ministries and departments called up before the PAC take these situations seriously. ‘I was told that one ministry conducted simulations where they had someone play my role and they would practise answering questions. They also know that there is a chance that they may be questioned on matters beyond the scope of the main issue which they’ve been called to account for in the first place.
‘So it can be quite embarrassing for them if they can’t answer any query, and since the answers are recorded verbatim in the hansard they also have to be careful because the answers can affect their careers and potentially be held against them even after retirement.
But that’s exactly the idea, he adds. ‘We want to enforce the fear of being audited so that civil servants are always on their toes – that whatever they do can be justified by facts and that they are held accountable. It is important for people to take things seriously,’ he says.
More than a year into the high-profile job, Nur Jazlan’s leadership of the committee has earned the respect of its members. ‘The respect is there; they know my background and that I am a progressive politician. They know that I will do the right thing because they know that I have my professional credibility to protect,’ he says.
In carrying out his duties, Nur Jazlan counts on his previous experiences of having served on the previous PAC and his 25 years spent in the corporate sector. ‘I have basically used the commercial experience I gained in terms of audit techniques, business planning, procurement knowledge and commercial auditing to direct or influence the work of the PAC.
‘The quality of questioning done by the PAC also improves with my background. I can also guide the AG’s department in the way they conduct their audits, and offer suggestions on how to look at issues from a performance perspective and not just a financial one,’ he says, pointing to the dearth of professional accountants in the civil service.
Critical to improving public sector accountability and transparency is the need for more finance and accounting talent in the civil service. Nur Jazlan does not mince his words when he says he’s surprised at the lack of ‘account-savvy people in the civil service.’
‘Even in the accountant-general’s department, only the accountant-general and a handful of her staff are professionally qualified. Most state financial officers don’t have an accounting background,’ he laments.
It was against this landscape that Nur Jazlan threw his hat in the ring for the recent ACCA global committee elections. He was successful in his bid and became the first Malaysian politician to be elected to the committee.
‘My mission is to help the development of public sector accounting with the idea of attracting more recruits, as well as encouraging potential graduates and even graduates to take up professional accounting qualifications so that they have the opportunity to work in government,’ he says, conceding that it is equally important for the civil service to recognise professionally qualified accountants by giving them better remuneration and benefits.
‘Due to the pressures of the auditor-general’s report, which now comes out three times a year, and the presence of PAC, increasingly ministries and government departments see the need to have people who are account savvy to be advising them,’ he says.
Looking back over his political career, Nur Jazlan, who entered politics at the encouragement of his late father Tan Sri Mohamed Rahmat, a former information minister and Umno secretary-general, says there are some regrets. ‘If I look at my contemporaries who are still in the corporate sector, there are regrets in terms of financial compensation, and corporate and professional fulfilment,’ he says.
Nonetheless, he also believes that the political experience, especially that of a Member of Parliament, has been a fulfilling one. ‘In a way, I end up having a richer life experience anyway because I have the corporate experience and at the same time I am helping people, shaping development in my constituency and gaining the respect of the community, all of which I could never have achieved had I stayed in the corporate sector,’ he says.
Still, based on his experience, especially as a progressive politician and a moderate voice within Umno, Nur Jazlan says that climbing up the political ladder is fraught with challenges, and he’s candid about not harbouring any political ambitions.
‘Age does not permit me to dream anymore because I am nearly 50 years old, and the new politics is a game for the young. I am already passed the sell-by date,’ he quips. On a more serious note, he says that he’s already reached his ‘maximum potential as a professional in politics’, and having made his peace with this allows him now to speak to his conscience and focus on the tasks at hand, chiefly his duties as PAC chairman.
Surprisingly, Nur Jazlan says that he was initially hesitant about taking on the role as chairman of the PAC, and had declined the nomination. The hesitation, he says, was due in part to the perception that the role could spell the end of his political career, pointing out that those who have held the role in recent years have been former ministers.
‘But then since the prime minister nominated me, I decided to do it because I am one of the most senior backbenchers and I have the financial and corporate background,’ he says, adding that when he accepted the job he made clear that it wasn’t a role that he had lobbied for.
Explaining his reluctance to take on the role, he says: ‘It’s a job that you would not wish upon your enemy because it can kill political careers. Yes, if you do the job well you will earn the reputation and admiration [of the public]. But for all that you gain, you will also earn a lot of enemies; in politics you don’t want that because you may not be able to survive that.
‘But I have made my peace with this, and the focus now is the job. So that at the end of the day I can say that I have achieved something – being a good PAC chairman.’
Sreerema Banoo, journalist
This article was first published in the Malaysia edition of Accounting and Business magazine in March 2015