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Malaysia’s war on corruption: One step forward, two steps back?

Caution and circumspection cloud conspicuous corruption

Wipe out corruption in Malaysia - BENEDICT LOPEZ/ALIRAN

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By M Santhananaban

Punishment for corruption is not an inescapable certainty. Not in Malaysia.

Catastrophic corruption seemed well set on its way, over a decade ago, to its mischievous destination and completion.

It slowly germinated, grew and ‘graduated’, remarkably and respectably, from a phase of concealed or discreet corruption. This process took about four decades.

This perception of widespread, deep corruption was built up from the turn of the century and acquired a strange cadence. Concerns about corruption were echoed both by former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, somewhat dutifully in a token way, and now by Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, repeatedly and in more unequivocal terms.

Mahathir used to claim that corruption was at one time an under-the-table affair. He could not have been unaware that corruption and certain sweetheart deals had, in his time especially, enormously enriched – particularly through monopolies and privatisation – a select group of politicians, well-connected corporate czars and a small number of highly placed bureaucrats. This was achieved at the expense of the public.

Corruption appeared to thrive, partly because there was a covert ecosystem that tolerated it. Individual failings, including some egocentricity and an extreme faith, seemed to have provided the reassurance that corruption was somewhat acceptable.

A seemingly flexible ecosystem allowed certain categories of an elitist political and super administrative upper class to indulge in corruption. This fostered an environment for corruption to grow unchecked.

It may also be speculated and suspected that corruption in the public service superstructure had an element of comeuppance or an implied corrective, compensatory feature about it. Moderately compensated civil servants – relative to their counterpart corporate entrepreneurs – were not that well off. A few million to bolster a public official’s bank balances would not overturn the national applecart, so he or she must have rationalised.

Raids by immigration and security officials of foreign workers’ work sites on paydays were not unusual. The workers were made to squat outside, beneath the glare of searchlights, while their possessions were rifled through for drugs and – what else?

That was during the building boom years ago when a sparkling Putrajaya was being built. There, the bridges were built before the water bodies appeared!

In recent years, however, many are much more aware of the colossal and corrosive cost of corruption. Losses to corruption, wastage and collusive deals are estimated at a couple of trillion ringgit over the past four decades.

Yet the people of Malaysia seem to approach the scourge of conspicuous corruption and cronyism in a calm, cool and cautious manner. They have not demonstrated in large numbers against corruption since the Bersih rallies. In recent years, corruption has not evoked the same kind of emotions one would have expected.

This seems to be the way of a rather peaceful – or is it passive? – people, who have taken in stride much egregious misconduct and blatant acts of abuse by their political masters.

The mainstream media maintained a discreet silence in the face of outrageous corruption. Undoubtedly, we witnessed much lip service in the fight against corruption. Sometimes, because a few topmost civil servants were complicit, compliant or complacent, these obvious crimes and abuse enjoyed a rare confidentiality and could be easily covered up.

Corruption has sometimes faced some obstacles, objections, negative coverage and opposition. But nothing of an exceptional significance curbed it.

Those indulging in corruption, especially the highly elitist and powerful ones, felt they had full mastery over the bureaucracy and of the whole situation because corruption had become so widespread.

They even acquired, partly through corruption, a respectable stature. They would, in the normal course of things, have also secured an independent source of untaxed income, thus upgrading their financial wellbeing.

Understanding unlawful conduct

A root cause or crude motive for corruption is often created when a clear conflict arises between a person’s private inclinations, interests and preoccupations and that person’s official duties, functions and professional responsibilities.

The ideal public official would become immediately alive to such a conflict and would avoid such a situation. Real trouble starts when a public servant’s impulse is to ignore this conflict and carry on as if there is no conflict or confusion.

In such a situation, in a matter of time, public servants in this position would become compromised and try to conceal the truth. Invariably, they would sink into a pattern of operating within the public service system in a conflicted manner.

If more than one person is voluntarily placed in this invidious position, then a pattern of abuse and corruption is bound to emerge.

An individual in the system who refuses to be drawn into the nexus of an obvious conflict-of-interest situation will invariably suffer. That non-conforming person will be deemed a non-team player and may be subject to ostracisation, discrimination and even denigration.

That person would then become a marginalised and marked loner – a particularly dangerous person to those involved in the network of abuse of power and corruption.

If conscience pricks too hard, that loner could stand up to become a whistleblower. But that again would carry risks, especially if the system of abuse and corruption is ingrained and institutionalised in the system.

For these reasons, that one dedicated, decent person has to be constantly extra cautious, correct – and extremely diplomatic or silent.

The long-term cost of that silent passivity is an eventual breakdown of efficiency. Meanwhile some highly place people will find themselves enormous enriched – at the expense of the state, the nation or the overall public good.

When the perpetrator and beneficiary of the abuse and corruption is the most powerful and influential person in the land, then society pays the price.

In the real world, when corruption is unchecked, it acquires a sense of tribalism, a troubling stature that justifies tampering with set standards, involving trickery, theft or even treason.

Ascertaining and reacting to blatant, systemic and pervasive corruption requires a massive and complex process and rigid procedures.

The process of investigating thoroughly and prosecuting former Prime Minister Najib Razak, for instance, involved a whole general election, his ouster and his successors’ collective determination to see to the fair and full conclusion of the case.

It is understandable that so far only one former PM in 66 years has been convicted for outrageous corruption and is currently serving a 12-year jail term. His collaborators, including one unmistakable conman and other enablers, are largely free; two notable ones remain somewhat free, possibly abroad.

One collaborator has been convicted in New York with a 10-year jail term. Although he provided some inconvenient details of the relatively poor state of incarceration facilities in his home country, he has been released temporarily to endure the poor incarceration environment and to face charges in Malaysia. Given an option, he would have opted for a stay in a US penitentiary.

Disappointment with Najib’s conviction

It would seem odd that there are still misgivings, unhappiness and dissatisfaction in certain quarters over the sentence meted out to Najib – even though his matter had gone through some procrastination, a proper phase of investigation and a fairly lengthy and thorough trial, which attracted the expertise of several well-regarded lawyers and prosecutors and the acumen of respected judges.

Recently, the rather powerful and seemingly authoritative Attorney General’s Chambers, through a deputy public prosecutor, made a startling application to not pursue a case where a prima facie basis had already been established much earlier. The accused was Zahid Hamidi, one of the two deputy prime ministers in the current Anwar-led government.

The Attorney General’s Chambers provided various reasons for this seemingly unexpected action, including the remote possibility that more investigations are needed to proceed.

This reason does not cut ice because the judge who gave the discharge not amounting to an acquittal had commented that valuable court time had been wasted on the case.

Since that decision on 4 September, the country’s relentless rumour mill and social media platform has speculated and offered all kinds of analyses and assumptions about the case.

Perhaps there is one plausible one which merits some attention. It is speculated that had the case run its normal course and had the accused, on the basis of the strong incriminating evidence, been found guilty, there would be some serious implications, particularly for the country’s political stability.

The most speculated serious result is that there would be an outpouring of support and sympathy for the then expected-to-be convicted deputy PM, especially from his Umno and Barisan Nasional members of Parliament.

A pullout by these sobbing hearts from the current “unity government” could have paved the way for a former prime minister or his ethno-religious allies to form a predominantly Muslim-Malay government.

An eventuality of that sort would naturally derail and dethrone the widely perceived moderate Anwar and his mixed band of both moderate ethnic Malay-Muslim and ethnic minority MPs.

To avert such an outcome, many reason that a somewhat tainted deputy PM with a plausible prima facie case (before his conditional discharge) being allowed to continue in office is a far better or less toxic option than allowing a narrow ethno-religious-based leadership to come to power.

Many fear that a plural multi-hued and inclusive Malaysia, with its rich tapestry of indigenous, ethnic Chinese, Indian and other cultures, is unprepared for a thunderously tribal or orthodox Islamic government.

In some circles, fears were exaggerated or expressed of possible caliphates being established with the immediate enforcement of strict Sharia laws. It is a valid fear, but supporters of such an Islamic government will claim that the rights of the non-Muslims will be protected.

Unfortunately, in Malaysia, the rationale of a responsible Islamic government tends somehow to draw comparisons with distant, dismal or destroyed places like Afghanistan, Iran, Sudan or parts of Pakistan.

The reprieve for Zahid – his “discharge not amounting to an acquittal” – done with some uncharacteristic callousness has led many to suspect that the Anwar-led government is somewhat ambivalent and ambiguous about elite corruption. In this respect, the current government is probably continuing policies somewhat similar to those set by other prime ministers since the early 1980s.

The common and curious thing about high-level or elite corruption in Malaysia is that the first inkling of its existence and extensive extent is often reported from outside the country.

One well-known source of these often accurate allegations is Sarawak Report, an outfit run by a British national, Clare Rewcastle Brown. Initially, she focused on Sarawak itself and that region’s most powerful plundering family. Sarawak Report is now a respected, reputable and often reliable source for ascertaining grand larceny and white-collar crime in Malaysia.

With Zahid succeeding in securing something of a reprieve, it appears that, even if there is prima facie evidence of corruption, there is scope for some kind of redemption, if not salvation. It was Anwar’s utterances that suggested there was a good basis for the conditional discharge granted to Zahid.

Anwar should have refrained from commenting, because he has a direct vested interest in continuing to be PM. It may sound mischievous, but it would seem that Anwar’s avowed aim to combat corruption has been lately subject to some dilution or temperance.

The fight against corruption and cronyism appears to proceed at a pace where, for every step forward, there is a new, collusive element that a few steps backward can be taken without causing much alarm or distress.

A palpable sense of consternation, sadness and unhappiness with corruption has spread among the masses. While the law has often been reinforced with remarkable precision and power, the country’s political will to fight corruption and cronyism remains somewhat dubious.

Indeed, steps on anti-corruption enforcement seem not effective enough to embark even on its partial reduction,

The political-administrative elite rely on cover-ups and cronies to ensure that only the petty corruption cases get full attention, along with the customary blast of media publicity with the normal course of prosecution and concomitant penalties.

The flawed human spirit, its inclination for abuse and corruption, seems deeply ingrained in certain quarters. In those quarters, corruption and cronyism are not vehemently rejected.

Yes, it is a defect, but political and certain administrative subcultures tolerate and want to overlook it. With this kind of moral ambiguity, Najib’s and Zahid Hamidi’s misconduct may come to be seen in somewhat more forgiving terms in the future.

The reality is that quite a few among the elite have benefited from acts of corruption, but their bribes, blunders and bullying aided by conniving subordinates and superiors could not be restrained. The more powerful ones were so much and magnificently in charge, no one, especially on their own political turf, could meaningfully condemn or constrain them.

Many believe that corrupt leaders of the past got away with corruption, cronyism and collusion to defraud or engage in other kinds of equally despicable misdemeanours. These tyrannical thieves were allowed to retire gracefully, despite the hushed talk of their excesses.

Now the nation has at last a prime minister who refuses to shed his known underdog attributes and keeps sermonising about the billionaire political families.

But will corruption and cronyism continue to plague the country and affect its overall unity and security? Will it affect the nation’s standards of education, health, social and other amenities and facilities and eventually erode its overall competitiveness?

Within the current administrative system, office politics, cliques, cronies and compromised values have caused much damage and wastage. It’s time to recognise these failings and put the nation back on a professional track.

Dato’ M Santhananaban is a former ambassador with 45 years of public sector experience

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

AGENDA RAKYAT - Lima perkara utama
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