Malaise in Malaysia: Corruption in High Places

28 December 2012

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From Huffington Post
By Azeem Ibrahim

It is an accepted cliché that power corrupts and is usually in reference to a country’s leaders and their ability to amass private fortunes at the expense of their electorate. But the real tragedy is how corruption corrodes civil society. It creates cynicism, anger or voter apathy, with people losing confidence in politicians and therefore losing their connection with democracy. If the problem cannot be solved through the ballot box because of a corrupt electoral system, then a country is really in trouble.

Malaysia may not be in big trouble yet. While it still has a robust free press and whistleblowers are protected, the current issues have a chance to be addressed fairly. But the media is under pressure to conform and whistleblowers have been arrested instead of the corrupt officials. One of the foundations of the fight against corruption is the need to protect the messenger, and while many countries are being urged to adopt such legislation, it is only effective if respected and enforced.

Malaysia ranked 60th out of 182 nations last year in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, down four places from 2010, when 178 countries were included. Two recent scandals have rocked the establishment party of UMNO, bringing disrepute to people in high places from the Prime Minister down. The Scorpene submarines deal has exposed the hypocrisy of leaders who pledge to end corruption yet proceed as if winning elections is all about self-enrichment.

Malaysia was a signatory of the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) in 2008 with a legal obligation to “prevent, investigate and prosecute” cases of international corruption. However, a complaisant majority party and judiciary allow for delays in hearings, refusals to release documents and in the case of the submarines deal, to deny that French law has jurisdiction over Malaysian transactions. The French government however, is actively pursuing its own inquiry and has released over 153 documents making it clear that apart from individuals, the ruling party (UMNO) was the biggest beneficiary, receiving commissions, bribes and support fees in the millions.

In spite of government harassment, the civil rights organization, SUARAM, is determined to uncover the truth in its pursuit for accountability and stated in a May 2012 press conference in Bangkok, that it will continue to make the results public as the case proceeds in the French Court.

Another scandal has recently become public and tarnished the reputation of a former government minister and family members when it was revealed that National Feedlot Corporation funds were misused for the purchase of condominiums using Malaysian government funds. Government patronage over the years has involved highway construction and defense contracts and a variety of other government arrangements with UMNO cronies. Prime Minister Najib Razak, who chairs the Finance Ministry Acquisition Committee, is in the powerful position of being able to award contracts and to charge whistleblowers instead as a smokescreen to protect his friends.

PKR leader Anwar Ibrahim has condemned such politically-motivated charges and his party is setting up a National Oversight and Whistleblower Centre to offer future informants protection via legal and monetary aid. Anwar promises to end corruption and dissatisfaction with UMNO and has been reinforcing the popularity of the PKR. But while the integrity of the electoral process is in doubt and the institutions responsible for anti-corruption and the rule of law have been compromised, it is difficult to foresee how the next election will play out.

It is ironic that the shining example of democracy, the U.S., has also been undergoing problems with electoral integrity, as right-wing public officials attempted to purge electoral rolls of potential Democratic electors, proving that nothing is safe, even in a democracy, if the judicial system is underpinned by a right-leaning Supreme Court.

Anwar Ibrahim is being hounded by the Prime Minister Najib Razak and the ruling party UMNO, and after surviving trumped up charges and years in prison under a previous administration, Anwar is used to having his reputation slandered by the opposition. However, the victimization is proving counterproductive as his popularity is increasing and his message of moderation, inclusion and hope is resonating with his growing coalition as well as the center.

Anwar may not yet have the following to counter the strength of UMNO, with its entrenched 20 years of patronage creating a loyal party base especially in rural communities, but he certainly has the attention of those who want to see Malaysia’s democracy strengthen and mature. The educated voters of Malaysia hope that Anwar Ibrahim will be their country’s next Prime Minister, leading Malaysia to an incorruptible leadership role in the global community.

Dr Azeem Ibrahim is the Executive Chairman of The Scotland Institute and a Fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.

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