In a corrupt country, the public vote for the most upstanding bureaucrat

By: This article was originally published by Apolitical.

There is no glitter or pop music, but Integrity Idol aims to do much more than choose a hit new boyband. The international competition puts on TV shows to find the most upstanding officials in countries with endemic corruption – Nepal, Pakistan, Liberia and Afghanistan among them – and hold them up as role models to encourage the rest.

Run by the NGO Accountability Lab, it began in Nepal (read Apolitical’s interview with the first ever idol here) and has just chosen its first winner in Pakistan, which ranks 116th out of 168 countries on the Corruption Perceptions Index.

Around 20,000 votes were cast online or by text for the five finalists. The winner was Rai Manzoor Nasir, with some 7,000 votes, who beat other finalists such as a lab assistant who is revered as a student mentor and a senior official who allows the public to look at all his documents.

Nasir, whose father was a farmer, joined the civil service after university and has stayed in it for 23 years. Currently Secretary of the Punjab Cooperative Board for Liquidation, he has served all over the country in a variety of posts. He was nominated for speaking up for ordinary people, for refusing to exploit government perks and especially for clamping down on corruption in the land registry, where he fired 30 corrupt officials. Here he speaks to Apolitical:

Rai Manzoor Nasir

Rai Manzoor Nasir, winner of Pakistan’s first ever Integrity Idol

Why did you fire 30 people?

It’s difficult to understand for people in more developed countries that you can own land, but have no paperwork. Many landowners are illiterate, they have inherited the land, and so they are an easy target for bribery. Corruption has run rampant. The mafias there are so embedded, they are so entrenched, that I had to dismiss 30 people with a single stroke of the pen. They took a complaint to the high court, which confirmed my decision.

Is fighting corruption just about exerting greater discipline?
No, I also gave everyone direct access to me. I gave out my direct office number, my cell phone, I went to mosques, I delivered Friday sermons, I went to all the media and I made sure that everybody knew my number, and that they should call me if they were asked for a bribe.

“These jobs we have come with the symbols of prestige”

Did the public respond to your appeal to clamp down on bribery?
Yes, because what it did was go around the whole chain of command. Instead of going to see the patwari [a village-level official], they would come to me directly. People used to text me all the time or visit me in my office, even once an entire delegation of old people. And I have a rule that I never read a file when people are in front of me. That’s something I see, that someone is talking and the official is reading the file and taking notes. No, the person opposite you is your equal.

Should public officials be role-models for the rest of the country?
It is very important. These jobs we have come with the symbols of prestige. We have the best vehicles, the big houses, the salutes in the morning. And I say to my colleagues: we are the government. We have the responsibility.

And we do not have systems exactly. Things are improving, but the individual is very important. So when I was stationed in Gilgit, a very beautiful place, but with very heavy snow, I would be at the office at 8am – when it was normal to arrive at 11am – and I would expect everyone else to be there then as well. Because that’s when we’d advertised we were going to start.

Mr Nasir receives his award from Siraj ul Haq, leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami party

How much can an individual achieve against an entrenched culture?
If you have the reputation that you will give zero tolerance to corruption, a lot of things improve automatically. When you show people what you want, some will become good people, another segment will wait until this person moves on and the good times come again.

If you have to fight so much, why do you stay in public service?
One of my colleagues, a district co-ordination officer, told me he was leaving the service to go into business. I asked him, ‘Why are you leaving? You’re such a nice person, you’ve done such good work.’ And he told me he had financial issues. I said, ‘Sir, financial issues? Your house is paid for, your vehicle is paid for, your petrol is paid for, your medical bills are paid for, what more do you need? A person of your calibre should not be leaving the service. If you stay,’ I told him, ‘I will give you 50,000 rupees every month until retirement.’

I am not a rich man, but I have some land, and I could guarantee it to him with that. But he left, so I have very serious reservations about that gentleman. Of course I could be doing business, but here I am doing things for millions of people.

“This is a universal truth. I cannot be a thief. I cannot steal”

Why is corruption such a big problem in Pakistan?
Things were better in the 1950s and 1960s, but now it’s become an acceptable norm. People know that someone has made his money from corruption and nothing happens. And you know, this is not in Islam. I am a Muslim, I believe in Allah, and Allah gives commandments. He says, ‘Do not eat dogs and do not make money from stealing.’ How can a person say, ‘I am a Muslim, I do not eat dogs, but I do make money from stealing?’

This isn’t just in Islam. This is a universal truth. I cannot be a thief. I cannot steal. But it has become rampant. I think why people are corrupt is partly because of economic factors, external factors, maybe something from their parents, from birth.

But today there is also a lack of character building in education. Since I joined the civil service, I have read very many books for my work, but nowhere have I read how to build my character. There is a decline in role models for younger officials, and there is materialism and a lack of accountability.

“Everyone wants appreciation and acknowledgment”

What have you learned about mentoring the younger generation?
I think things like this Integrity Idol are very important. Attention is the reward. Everyone wants appreciation and acknowledgment. It is a great honour to win and so I think this will be a great temptation for younger officials to do the right thing.

And I must say, this is a really difficult task, these mafias are so well fortified that it’s very difficult to fight against them. There are so many perpetrators, and so many abettors, and there are all the stakeholders who will resist any change. Your life can be at stake. But I am convinced that if you’re right, if you’re on the right path, you will succeed. And if I have to make sacrifices, even if I have to sacrifice my life, this is the right thing to do.

(Pictures courtesy of Integrity Idol)