Home Civil Society Voices Malaysia’s new anti-corruption strategy: Beacon of hope or recipe for more scandals?

Malaysia’s new anti-corruption strategy: Beacon of hope or recipe for more scandals?

Wipe out corruption in Malaysia - BENEDICT LOPEZ/ALIRAN

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By C4 Center

On 7 May, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim launched a national anti-corruption strategy for 2024-2028.

This anti-corruption strategy is a continuation of Malaysia’s national anti-corruption plan for 2019-2023, which provides a framework to address and combat corruption by improving governance and strengthening integrity, transparency and accountability in public service administration.

However, since the launch of the policy, a slew of governance controversies have dominated headlines:

  • The reappointment of Azam Baki as Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission chief
  • The Selangor state government’s appointment of Asia Mobiliti, which raised major questions of conflict of interest
  • The appointment of Kluang MP Wong Shu Qi as TalentCorp chairperson
  • The involvement of federal ministers in campaigns for the Sungai Bakap by-election

Will full implementation of the national anti-corruption strategy prevent the recurrence of governance scandals such as those listed above?

In its current form, the strategy suffers from several key weaknesses that will likely limit its effectiveness.

Below, the Center to Combat Corruption and Cronyism (C4 Center) highlights three urgent areas of improvement to the strategy that must be addressed in light of recent events, namely:

  • Limitations in using the Corruption Perception Index ranking to measure success
  • Inadequacies in the monitoring and evaluation process of the implementation of the anti-corruption strategy
  • The strategy’s omission of several key reforms

Targeting a top 25 ranking in the Corruption Perception Index

Among the key metrics of success in the anti-corruption strategy is to rank among the top 25 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI) within the next ten years.

While the ambition is commended, there are several important criticisms of using the CPI as the main indicator of success in the fight against corruption.

Which is more important – country ranking or score?

The CPI measures how corrupt each country’s public sector is perceived to be. Scores are calculated by using data collected from corruption surveys and assessments, from sources including the World Bank and the World Economic Forum. Subsequently, countries are ranked according to their score and the index is published.

Importantly, Transparency International itself states on its website that “[t]he rank is… not as important as the score in terms of indicating the level of corruption in that country”.

This is because rankings are dependent on the performance of other countries, and may not reflect actual changes in the perception of corruption in a particular country. A country’s rank can even change if the number of countries included in the index changes.

To illustrate, Malaysia ranked higher in 2022 (61st out of 180 countries) than in 2021 (62nd out of 180). However, Malaysia’s score was higher in 2021, at 48/100 compared to 47/100 the following year. As such, the higher rank did not reflect an improvement in the perception of corruption in Malaysia.

Achieving a top 25 ranking in the CPI would be a significant improvement for Malaysia relative to its current position. However, the main focus must be on how much Malaysia’s score has improved as it would better reflect improvement under the CPI.

A better approach would have been to identify a score for Malaysia to achieve, from which a respectable CPI ranking would follow.

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What do CPI indicators measure?

An improvement under the CPI also does not necessarily mean that all forms of corruption are being adequately overcome. Here, closer attention must be paid to the criteria employed by Transparency International to measure the score for a given country. They include:

  • Bribery
  • Diversion of public funds
  • Access to information on public affairs or government activities
  • Nepotistic appointments in the civil service
  • Ability of governments to contain corruption in the civil service
  • Legal protection for people who report cases of bribery and corruption
  • Laws ensuring that public officials must disclose their finances and potential conflicts of interest

Importantly, the CPI does not take into account major areas of corruption such as tax fraud, illicit financial flows, money laundering, enablers of corruption, and private sector corruption.

This absence is especially notable for the Malaysian context as the these areas of corruption are common elements of grand corruption – infamous local cases include the SRC International case and the 1MDB scandal.

Thus, while the CPI improvement can be considered progress, it does not necessarily mean that all forms of corruption, especially grand corruption, are being addressed.

The anti-corruption strategy and government agencies implementing the policy must be particularly cognisant of the limitations of the CPI and ensure that such gaps are also addressed by the policy.

Inadequate monitoring and evaluation processes

According to the anti-corruption strategy, 85 out of the 111 national anti-corruption plan’s initiatives were completed, amounting to 77%. However, it is ambiguous as to what is considered “completed” and how the impact of this completion is measured.

For example, initiatives 1.1.6 and 1.1.7 of the anti-corruption plan – which stipulate the establishment of independent committees to handle Electoral Commission issues – such as appointments – were reported as “completed” following the creation of a parliamentary Select Committee on Election in 2019.

Despite this, it remains questionable whether the supposed completion of the initiative has led to a positive impact on Electoral Commission governance.

In 2024, the government appointed Sapdin Ibrahim and Lee Bee Phang as Electoral Commission members without going through the special select committee. Subsequently, on 26 June, the government appointed Ramlan Harun as the new chairperson of the commission in a similar fashion.

Hence, the claims that 85 out of 111 initiatives in the plan were completed cannot be taken at face value, as the completion does not take into consideration the actual impact of the initiative and should not be uncritically accepted as progress.

Furthermore, there exist several initiatives marked as “completed”, when in actuality a watered-down version was passed in its stead.

As an illustration, initiative 5.3.4 in the plan targeted the establishment of an “independent police complaints and misconduct commission” (IPCMC).

Instead, Parliament established the Independent Police Conduct Commission (IPCC), a body widely criticised for lacking independence and sufficient powers to combat police misconduct – which were present in proposals for the IPCMC.

However, the anti-corruption strategy reported that this initiative was completed, despite the clear weaknesses of the IPCC.

These examples bring into question the actual impact of initiatives in the anti-corruption plan that were reported as completed.

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The anti-corruption strategy must not repeat the same mistake. In assessing the implementation and impact of the reforms under the strategy, the government must ensure that it does not devolve from a genuine attempt to increase accountability and combating corruption into a box-ticking exercise to boost public perception.

The completion of initiatives under the strategy must be clearly explained and their impact must be measured and quantified through quantifiable data and achievements.

Civil society involvement

In addition, the evaluation mechanism of the anti-corruption strategy does not explicitly include participation from civil society groups.

Athough there exist sub-strategies aiming to amplify the voice of civil society under strategy 3 of the anti-corruption strategy, civil society group are not explicitly mentioned in the monitoring and evaluation of the strategy.

Instead, this process appears to be a largely intergovernmental affair. The MACC serves as a secretariat for the anti-corruption strategy and works alongside lead agencies, the special cabinet committee on national governance, and the national governance committee to produce monitoring and evaluation reports.

Civil society groups are crucial to the monitoring and evaluation of a policy – especially one as crucial as the anti-corruption strategy – as they provide critical and independent perspectives from the public that can often be overlooked by bureaucracy. Furthermore, these groups are often specialised in their work and can offer expert advice to complement government study.

Finally, it is imperative that public feedback is incorporated into the assessment of the anti-corruption strategy. Failure to do so creates the perception that the government can simply announce successes without a critical view.

Omission of key reforms in the anti-corruption strategy

Several crucial institutional reforms not achieved under the anti-corruption plan have either been left out of or completely reworded in the anti-corruption strategy.

This includes separating the office of the attorney general and public prosecutor, amending the Federal Constitution and state constitutions to limit the term of office for the prime minister, chief ministers and menteris besar, and introducing a written law on the declaration of assets and interests by MPs.

Separation of attorney general and public prosecutor

In the case of separating the attorney general’s office, the anti-corruption strategy mentions that the reform has been assigned to other government committee meetings at the national level.

Considering the major implications of this reform on governance, it would be prudent for the anti-corruption strategy to integrate its implementation within the country’s overall anti-corruption strategy.

By vaguely delegating its enactment to other parties, questions now arise over whether the reform will even be implemented at all.

C4 Center urges the government to reintroduce this reform as an initiative under the anti-corruption strategy with a clear path to implementation.

Alternatively, the government must clarify its timeline and strategy for the implementation of the reform.

A written law on asset declaration

Concerning an asset declaration law, the original national anti-corruption plan had it listed under initiative 1.2.9 as “to introduce a written law on the declaration of asset and interest by Members of Parliament”. This clearly outlines a need for elected representatives to reveal their financial assets transparently.

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However, in the anti-corruption strategy, the plan has been reworded as “to introduce a mechanism for declaration of interest and gift by members of the administration and members of Parliament” under strategy 2.12. It has dropped the use of the word “asset” entirely.

This misrepresents the original intentions behind the initiative under the anti-corruption plan. Its exclusion has worrying ramifications for transparency in the country.

An asset declaration law is fundamental for transparency and holding public servants – especially politicians – accountable for maladministration.

An asset declaration law is critical in preventing abuse of power and amassment of wealth by politicians and civil servants, particularly through illicit means.

The lack of initiative for this reform exhibits a failed commitment by the “Madani” (civil and compassionate) government, especially since Pakatan Harapan had previously pledged an asset declaration law in its manifesto during the 2022 general election.

Limiting terms of office for the prime minister, chief ministers and menteris besar

Plans to limit the terms of office for the heads of government at both federal and state levels were first touted in the original anti-corruption plan. Yet this proposal has been omitted in the anti-corruption strategy, with it not even being acknowledged in Appendix 1 of the strategy titled, “NACP Initiatives That Could Not Be Completed as of December 2023”, despite next to no progress having been made on its implementation.

A fundamental step in safeguarding the country from abuse of power is by instituting term limits for those holding the highest offices in the government.

Term limits ensure that no single individual can maintain his or her grip on power for too long, no matter how influential or popular that person may be.

Our country has already witnessed the dangers that the lack of term limits has had, with Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s tenure as Prime Minister widely remembered for the length of his rule, which oversaw the institutionalising of money politics and crony capitalism.

Limiting the power of the executive is crucial to strengthening the independence of public institutions, and it is highly concerning that the anti-corruption strategy has completely ignored such a fundamental reform.

Nothing less than 100%

Despite these concerns, the C4 Center believes that many initiatives and objectives in the anti-corruption strategy are pragmatic and achievable.

Due to the smaller number of reform initiatives compared to the earlier anti-corruption plan, the government should be able to dedicate more time and effort to proper and effective implementation.

However, C4 Center stresses that any completion rate below 100% for the strategy should be considered a major failure by the government.

Additionally, C4 Center reiterates its disappointment at the dilution and omission of several key reforms critical in improving governance.

As such, C4 Center urges the government to:

  • Set a CPI score target instead of a ranking target to measure the success of the anti-corruption strategy
  • Improve the monitoring and evaluation process of the strategy, especially by directly involving civil society groups in assessment and feedback
  • Reintroduce key reforms either omitted by the strategy or not effectively implemented by the anti-corruption plan

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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