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Jana Wibawa corruption trial: Political manoeuvres, institutional barriers must not hinder transparent investigations

Mahiaddin Yasin

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In another shocking historical event in Malaysia, a former prime minister is charged for corruption for a second time in its history.

In the latest developments of the growing Jana Wibawa scandal, former Prime Minister Mahiaddin Yasin was called in for questioning by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) on 9 March and was then charged in court the following day – he claims trial to four counts of abuse of power and two counts of money laundering involving RM232.5m.

The Center to Combat Corruption and Cronyism (C4 Center) commends the “unity government” for staying committed to the anti-corruption agenda. However, the government should also ensure that its oversight institutions remain untainted in the fight against corruption.

Mahiaddin’s is a strong case in point to showcase how poor institutional oversight enables the executive to extend their power beyond areas of governance to abuse it for political gains.

Mahiaddin became prime minister right as Malaysia was engulfed in the Covid pandemic. While his Perikatan Nasional government got a mixed reception for its management of Covid infections, it was besieged with allegations of improper governance and financial mismanagement.

Through the use of Emergency Ordinances, Mahiaddin’s government was able to authorise the expenditure of huge amounts of money without parliamentary oversight, ostensibly due to the urgency of the pandemic.

This was not without negative consequences – the recent release of findings by the Auditor General’s Report 2021 (Series 2) highlights immense leakages and poor governance practices throughout Mahiaddin’s tenure.

Mahiaddin now faces charges under the Anti-Money Laundering Act, the Anti-Terrorism Financing and Proceeds of Unlawful Activities Act 2001 and the MACC Act 2009.

Facts on Jana Wibawa scandal

Program Jana Ekonomi Pemerkasaan Kontraktor Bumiputera Berwibawa (Jana Wibawa) was introduced in late 2020, valued at around RM7bn of taxpayers’ money, by Mahiaddin to hasten development projects during the Covid pandemic in 2021

The project tenders were apparently given out through direct negotiation for companies alleged to be pro-Bersatu. The Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department for legal affairs, Azalina Othman Said had earlier revealed that some of the issued letters of award involved leaders of political parties

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Key suspects

  • Wan Saiful Wan Jan, former Bersatu information chief and Tasek Gelugor MP: Charged with soliciting bribes from Nepturis Sdn Bhd to facilitate its pre-approval as a contractor by the government in April 2022 for a central spine road project worth RM232m. The second charge was for receiving a bribe amounting to RM7.0m from Nepturis through his company
  • Adam Radlan Adam Muhammad, Segambut Bersatu deputy chief and businessman: Mahiaddin’s relative who faces, amongst other charges, solicitation of RM2m in bribes from Lian Tian Chuan in return for Adam’s help for Lian’s company, Nepturis Sdn Bhd, to obtain the North Klang District Office project in Selangor from the government, valued at RM141m
  • Teo Wee Cheng, a businessman who was charged for soliciting bribes worth RM12.8m and receiving RM1.5m under the programme. He was slapped with nine charges of soliciting and receiving bribes worth RM12.8m and RM1.5m, respectively, in connection with Jana Wibawa
  • Mahiaddin Yasin was accused of using his position as Prime Minister and Bersatu president to induce RM232.5m from three companies namely Bukhary Equity Sdn Bhd, Nepturis Sdn Bhd and Mamfor Sdn Bhd as well as an individual (Malaysian Bumiputera Contractors’ Association president Azman Yusoff, who was reportedly a key prosecution witness for the case)

RM120m in proceeds from illegal activity were reportedly banked into Bersatu’s account from Bukhary Equity Sdn Bhd (owned by billionaire Syed Mokhtar Shah Syed Nor and his wife Sharifah Zarah Syed Kechik)

The narrowing of the business-political nexus here is not only fuelled by the individual greed of politicians but also quite possibly to channel money back into political parties.

Unresolved issues

Time and time again, civil society organisations have pointed out the need to enact the requisite institutional reforms that would have prevented such instances of grand corruption from taking place.

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These include the legislation of a procurement act, the establishment of an ombudsman’s office, and a political funding act. On 8 March, Azalina stated that a political funding bill will be brought to the parliamentary special select committee before being tabled in Parliament. The government is reminded that consultations with civil society organisations that have advocated for this law would be incredibly useful in strengthening it.

However, a more pressing issue presented here is the collective reaction by PN politicians who allege that the investigations and prosecutions against them are politically motivated. This claim is not completely baseless – previous administrations have actively engaged enforcement agencies to intimidate and harass political opponents.

However, as Anwar Ibrahim himself correctly pointed out, “political motivations” cannot be a shield that protects politicians from all scrutiny.

What is clear is that further reforms to the MACC are needed to make the commission more independent from the prime minister’s influence. In doing so, and additionally making its investigations more open and transparent, the legitimacy of the MACC’s investigations will be more widely accepted as impartial and non-partisan as individuals from either side of the political spectrum will not be able to escape the legal repercussions of corrupt practices.

Additionally, as the nation’s top graft-busting body, it is imperative that the MACC itself is not internally motivated by political leanings of any sort. This is especially important considering that the MACC is only now conducting investigations and prosecutions after a new government has taken office – why were these investigations not initiated when allegations of the previous government’s financial mismanagement and malfeasance were already spreading?

Current MACC chief Azam Baki is no stranger to controversy himself, having been embroiled in corruption scandals of his own.

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In late 2021 a journalist published articles based on publicly available documents about Azam’s ownership of millions of shares in two listed companies while he was the head of the MACC’s investigations department.

Azam retaliated by suing for defamation in a shameless and hypocritical act of whistleblower persecution. He then used this defamation suit as one of many excuses not to appear before a parliamentary select committee, showing his contempt for oversight mechanisms. He has also publicly spoken against placing the MACC under parliamentary supervision.

While the current investigations by MACC are welcome, all these unresolved issues place further strain on the already fraught reputation of the MACC.

C4 Center urges the following:

  • Parliament must enact institutional reforms that would improve transparency and accountability in governance such as a procurement act, a political funding act, and the establishment of an ombudsman, as well as expedite the amendments to the Whistleblower Protection Act 2010 to encourage public exposure of corrupt practices
  • In the immediate term, place the MACC under the oversight of Parliament, removing it from the direct influence of the prime minister and the executive branch
  • The government must initiate long-term reforms of the MACC – a special committee must be set up immediately to implement these long overdue reforms involving an amendment to the Federal Constitution to pave the way for the establishment of an independent anti-corruption commission, effectively establishing it as constitutional commission. C4 Center, in collaboration with the Malaysian Bar Council, the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas), Transparency International Malaysia and Citizens’ Network for a Better Malaysia, made this call in a joint memorandum for the reform of the MACC in 2015 at the request of the MACC itself
  • The government must ensure that the initiatives and the strategies laid down in the national anti-corruption plan 2019-2023 are fully accomplished

C4 Center

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.

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