The setting was in historic Melaka, where more than 600 legal officers from the Attorney-General’s Chambers were gathered for a conference. The Solicitor-General was also present. Naturally the big boss, the Attorney-General himself, gave the welcoming address.

He warned his officers not to get involved in corrupt activities or he would come after them. He likened corrupt officials to termites who could infest and destroy the country without the people even knowing about it. He took the opportunity to turn the pages of history and reminded the audience about the fall of Melaka to the Portuguese in 1511, attributing the defeat to the fact that Melaka’s leaders had allowed themselves to be bought by the invaders’ money.

This speech came a few days after the Prime Minister also gave a stern warning about the dangers of corruption. Datuk Seri Najib Razak told civil servants not to steal the people’s money and alluded to the loss of the nation’s wealth if corruption was not curbed. Having both the Prime Minister and his Attorney-General saying the same thing at about the same time must be a case of great minds thinking alike. My only observation is that both men could have developed their speeches further, for more effect, so that people could have accepted the message more readily.

By this I mean the Prime Minister could have elaborated on the accusations that have been leveled against him. He could have said that he is not, strictly speaking, a civil servant and so his advice does not apply to him. He should have then emphasised that the politicians in his party and the Ministers in the Cabinet are also not civil servants, which is why a different set of rules apply to them.

As for the Attorney-General, it would have been a better speech had he not defined “corruption” strictly as the taking of bribes. Corruption has a wider meaning than that: it includes dishonest and unethical conduct by the people in power. A police officer or deputy public prosecutor is engaging in dishonest and corrupt practices if they exercise their powers to protect their friends from the law. Similarly, the Chairman of the Election Commission could be said to be engaging in dishonest conduct if the redrawing of constitutional boundaries was done purely to ensure victory for the ruling party. They don’t necessarily have to take bribes to be corrupt.

Since the Attorney-General also ventured into the dishonest conduct of the Melaka leaders who “sold” their loyalty to the Portuguese, it’s only fair to say that loyalty is also up for sale today. After all, it is money and the awarding of top positions that has led some civil servants and politicians to remain loyal and steadfast in protecting top leaders. It seems nothing much has changed since 1511.