By M Santhananaban
Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s all-encompassing anti-corruption drive enjoys the implicit support of the vast majority of the country’s population. There is no doubt about this.
Anwar’s upright allies
Retirees and upright people in active employment and business have long awaited such an anti-corruption drive.
A key feature of this top-down initiative is that it is clearly a no-holds-barred mission statement. It does not target so much the petty official as it does the big sharks, the movers and shakers, and those who have held the highest public or corporate positions.
However, some tangible and timely action is needed on this magnificent statement of intent. Immediate action will convince the masses more than words can.
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Powerful decision-makers who have lived their lives in an upright and above-board manner have nothing to fear. They, like the vast majority of ordinary folk, will not lose sleep over the prime minister’s ardent anti-corruption drive.
But those who have plundered, siphoned public funds to benefit their relatives, and stashed away money to be used as slush funds have everything to fear. So too those who steamrolled projects to transfer public assets worth millions of ringgit to private hands.
Proving such notorious misconduct will be difficult. If clear parameters are not set, the PM’s efforts will turn into a sham.
Anwar would know from his high perch, experience and hushed corridor talk if and how certain major infrastructure project costs were inflated astronomically to allow for political slush funds.
But some of those funds could have entered private personal accounts in financial institutions rather than any political party’s accounts. Highly placed officials could have used proxies with overseas accounts to collect big payoffs. Tracing such transfers after a lapse of several years will be difficult, even impossible.
Still, those involved in securing franchises, monopolies and long-term concessions using nominees will have cause for concern and worry.
With his pronouncements against corruption, Anwar has probably antagonised and angered a few officials at the highest levels – past and present – including a few of his past contemporaries and colleagues.
Their reactions and response to Anwar’s actions will be worth knowing. They cannot say they are against the anti-corruption drive. But they can hide behind more generic inflammatory rhetoric by, for instance, accusing him of giving in too much to the ethnic minorities.
These older corrupt people may still have tons of money, some influence and insights into inciting people using the readily available tools of crude ethnicity and religious extremism. What will they do?
This can be reasonably anticipated; it is not rocket science.
Their recourse could well come from a Trumpian playbook. But the US government had robust institutions in place to cope with any untoward incidents.
In our case, we have to give the police, the anti-corruption agency and the civil service authorities the support and solid backing they need to carry out their law and order and enforcement functions.
The press and the public must be valiant and vigilant in defending our Election Commission, which has carried out recent elections transparently and peacefully.
Fascination, forbearance and forgiveness?
Over the past three decades, corruption has thrived in Malaysia. It even engulfed the highest institutions, where proper conduct and probity was required.
Wealthy individuals living off fraud and corruption fascinate, frustrate and infuriate upright people. Obviously, there has been some forbearance and possibly forgiveness of past fraud and corruption.
What Anwar is signalling now is that that phase has ended. It is a “the buck stops here” moment. This will prove unpopular and unpalatable to those who have solicited bribes and ‘commissions’.
Stop outflows of illicit funds
The government has little choice but to undertake this anti-corruption drive, as the public system has been bled for a long time.
Look at the recorded illicit outflows of funds from Malaysia. The nation ranked among the top five countries for illicit outflows in the mid-2010s, alongside much bigger economies such as China, Russia and India.
Illicit outflows mean less money for domestic use and development. Illicit flows are drawn from corruption, drug trafficking, tax evasion, crime and outright acts of grand larceny.
Anwar, do something
The PM must have the authority, ability and the ‘ammunition’ to carry out his anti-corruption work, with no objections or obstacles. If the authorities can recover some funds from those who had stolen or siphoned them away, then the extra money will benefit the country.
We must let – and even lecture – the prime minister to get on with this most important clean-up.
The success of this process will improve our security, economic wellbeing, and education and healthcare systems. It will also boost Malaysia’s infrastructure, poverty eradication programmes and overall law and order.
Dato’ M Santhananaban is a former ambassador with 45 years of public sector experience