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Is Malaysia losing the battle to uphold integrity?

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It is excruciating to watch a government systematically dismantle any semblance of integrity and accountability, Prema Devaraj writes.

In recent months, several things have happened which suggest the level of integrity in Malaysia is steadily eroding.

In late February, the infamous Sheraton Move brought down the Pakatan Harapan government (PH), leaving many Malaysians stunned. Politicians who had at the last general election pledged to follow a reform agenda for the country, including getting rid of kleptocrats, made their move after months of planning. Many observed that even the Game of Thrones plot could not light a candle to the plotting, manoeuvring and backstabbing that finally toppled the PH government.

We were then told to stop referring to the new unelected-without-a-manifesto Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition as a backdoor government because nothing illegal had happened. But surely the integrity of those involved in the change of government must be questioned?

Over the following few months, PH lost a string of state governments – Johor by the end of February, Perak and Malacca in March, and Kedah in May – as several state PH assembly members deserted their parties or the PH coalition for greener pastures, moving to where the rewards lay. PH now governs only Penang, Selangor and Negeri Sembilan, with Warisan leading Sabah.

This has been a breathtaking leap year with the amount of ‘leaping’ going around. This behaviour we have all seen before under previous federal and state governments. Sadly, such defections are not against the law in Malaysia. But they do leave little doubt about the level of hypocrisy and self-interest of the defectors, especially if they join a party or a coalition they have vehemently spoken out against in the 2018 general election.

As the fight for power among the political elite brews, this leaping behaviour will probably continue. Just think about what PN and PH have done or are having to do to ensure they “have the numbers” especially if the margins are narrow.

With the focus on gaining and keeping power, where is the time and effort required for ensuring the people’s wellbeing?

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We then witnessed how the unelected PN government rewarded their MPs – through appointments to positions in the cabinet (70 posts in the PN cabinet compared to 55 posts under PH), government agencies, port authorities, government-linked companies, governing bodies and special diplomatic positions.

It is disturbing when such appointments are made as rewards and not based on merit and competency. Irrespective of which government is in power, does such a practice actually uphold professionalism and good corporate governance?

Next came the one-day Parliament sitting on 18 May, ostensibly due to the Covid-10 situation. This amounted to an even further erosion of integrity. One constitutional law expert reportedly said such a short sitting of Parliament was “regrettable” even though it complied with the Federal Constitution.

Well, over 75,000 people echoed this regret as they protested over the one-day sitting through an Aliran-initiated online petition. They must have felt it mind-numbing to witness a two-hour Parliament sitting which did not allow MPs any opportunity for debate or discussion.

What sort of government hides behind a Covid-19 excuse? How are other countries around the world able to have their parliaments in session with social distancing in place? With all the proven skills of planning, why couldn’t the PN government manage this? Or were there other reasons why an unelected government did not want to be confronted in Parliament?

Next up: the discharge not amounting to an acquittal (DNAA) of Riza Shahriz Abdul Aziz, former Prime Minister Najib Razak’s stepson, who was being prosecuted for alleged money laundering offences.

(Riza Aziz was facing five charges under Section 4(1) of the Anti-Money Laundering, Anti-Terrorism Financing Act 2001 (Act 613). It was alleged that he had received funds totalling US$248m linked to 1MDB between April 2011 and December 2012. He pleaded not guilty to the charges. If convicted of any of the five charges, he could have been jailed for up to five years or fined up to RM5m, or both).

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Under the current ‘DNAA deal’ it would seem that Riza would be ‘paying back’ far less than the amount he was alleged to have laundered.

Shocked at the news, many individuals, including ex-bar chiefs, raised their voices in protest against the DNAA decision and called for clarification. An application by a senior lawyer to review the Kuala Lumpur Sessions Court’s decision to grant the DNAA was made and has since been dismissed.

Aliran recently launched another online petition, this time calling on the attorney general to review the decision granting Riza Aziz a DNAA. The petition also calls for a royal commission of inquiry to probe the mysterious circumstances of this case, especially as it could set a precedent for other similar high-profile public interest cases.

The perception that arises among some lay people would seem to be that a person accused of a crime can ‘buy’ himself or herself out of the offence. Surely this cannot be the case, for what then would it mean for the justice system in our country?

On the subject of justice, we are also reminded of the convictions and sentencing in cases related to the violation of the movement control order since 18 March – which in some instances were harsh and in others lenient, seemingly depending on the identity of the offender.

Meanwhile, the authorities have raided vulnerable communities of migrants and refugees, detaining many of them. A social media campaign of untruths, vitriol and xenophobia also unfolded.

Altogether, some 2,000 undocumented migrants and refugees were rounded up from areas under lockdown in May and sent to detention centres purportedly to contain Covid-19 transmission – despite an earlier promise not to take action against those without valid documents. These detentions made international news.

Aliran and other groups, including the Malaysian Bar, Suhakam, People’s Health Forum, Suaram, the UN and Amnesty International, protested over this action by the PN government, warning that overcrowding and the difficulty of social distancing in detention centres could heighten exposure to Covid-19.

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Worse, communities fearful of arrests and detention would evade authorities or not seek treatment, thus allowing the coronavirus to transmit elsewhere, unchecked, with serious consequences for both locals and migrants. It wasn’t long before the expected cluster of Covid-19 infections broke out at immigration detention centres.

Around the same time, shameful hate-ridden sentiments on this issue flooded social media. Other groups, however, put forward alternative and more humane views of the situation.

A few crucial questions have to be answered. Why are there so many undocumented migrants in our cities in the first place? Who actually is responsible for this? And who is making money from this situation?

These concerns are also echoed in the call for justice for Wang Kelian victims on the fifth anniversary of the ‘discovery’ of the human trafficking camps. Not a single Malaysian has been charged, and the royal commission report has not yet been seen.

On all these issues raised, many recommendations have been made over the years to protect integrity, accountability and democracy in our country. But what has been lacking is a government courageous and committed enough to implement these recommendations.

As if the pain of Covid-19 has not been enough, it is excruciating to watch a government systematically dismantle any semblance of integrity and accountability. We must find a way to stop this.

“Ultimately, the source of our problems lies at the level of the individual. If people lack moral values and integrity, no system of laws and regulations will be adequate. So long as people give priority to material values, then injustice, corruption, inequity, intolerance, and greed – all the outward manifestations of neglect of inner values – will persist.” – Dalai Lama XIV, Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World

Prema Devaraj
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
31 May 2020

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