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Azam’s view shows Malaysia faces a corruption epidemic

Azam’s statement to discredit Transparency International is probably in anticipation of what the CPI rankings will indicate next year

MACC chief Azam Baki's statements raise more questions than answers

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By Edmund Terence Gomez

Why would Azam Baki, the chief commissioner of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC), denounce the highly regarded Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) by Transparency International?

Azam is quoted as stating that since the CPI is based “on perceptions about public sector corruption”, this index “was neither factual nor based on evidence”.

Azam’s statement, coming as it is from the head of the anti-corruption agency, is both embarrassing and outrageous. Azam’s contention was his response to a question about his plans to improve Malaysia’s standing in the CPI. Malaysia had fallen five rungs in Transparency International’s 2021 CPI ranking. This was the second consecutive year that Malaysia had fallen in the CPI rankings.

There is a possible reason for such an inappropriate statement by Azam. When the CPI rankings were released this year, the MACC announced its intention to assess what had contributed to this fall. When doing this assessment, the MACC would obviously have considered the method employed by Transparency International to measure corruption in a country.

When Transparency International prepares the CPI, it evaluates a government’s ability to contain corruption in the public sector and if public officials disclose their finances and potential conflicts of interest. The CPI also appraises if a government can prevent bribery and whether legal protection is provided for people who report cases of corruption.

A review of events in Malaysia over the past six months would indicate that the government has fared badly on all these issues.

On the issue of disclosure of potential conflict of interest by a public official, it has been alleged that Azam himself did not do this. Azam reportedly owned a vast amount of corporate equity which he had not publicly disclosed.

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The person who reported Azam’s alleged conflict of interest has not been accorded any legal protection.

And, the government, specifically the cabinet, has not acted firmly to ensure that this allegation is properly investigated, nor has the parliamentary select committee (on agencies) interviewed Azam about this serious allegation.

As for the government’s ability to contain corruption in the public sector, when the incident about the Pandora Papers occurred late last year, among the Malaysians mentioned were Umno president and former deputy prime minister Zahid Hamidi, current finance minister Tengku Zafrul Aziz and former government economic advisor Daim Zainuddin, reputedly also one of Malaysia’s wealthiest business figures.

The others mentioned include MPs William Leong, treasurer of PKR, and Hanifah Taib, daughter of former Sarawak Chief Minister Taib Mahmud, whose family has vast business interests. It was only after much public discussion about the exposé by the Pandora Papers that the MACC announced its intention to investigate the matter. There has been no update from the MACC about this investigation.

UKSB kickbacks

A similar situation of apparent reluctance by the MACC to act immediately on allegations of financial impropriety occurred over the past month. During the corruption trial of Zahid, it was revealed that a company, Ultra Kirana Sdn Bhd (UKSB), had covertly channelled funds to a number of politicians.

The politicians named were former Prime Minister Mahiaddin Yasin, as well as sitting cabinet members Hishammuddin Hussein and Khairy Jamaluddin. It was later revealed that the MACC was aware of these allegations against these politicians before they were named during this court case. Only after a public outcry emerged over this issue did the MACC issue a statement that it would open investigation papers on those named in court.

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Mahiaddin was serving as Prime Minister when Azam was appointed as the MACC’s chief commissioner. This week, it was revealed that another former Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, allegedly received RM2.6m from UKSB. The funds were reportedly meant for Bersatu, then led by Mahathir and Mahiaddin.

These incidents, tainted with allegations of corruption, will have serious repercussions on Malaysia’s CPI ranking next year. Other important questions arise.

Was the cabinet reluctant to act on the issue of Azam’s possible conflict of interest because the MACC was aware of allegations of corruption involving some of its members? Is the MACC reluctant to investigate prominent politicians for corruption because the position of its chief commissioner has been deeply compromised?

These three incidents and questions are emblematic of the close interactions between the MACC and the executive arm of government, also because this agency falls under the jurisdiction of the Prime Minister’s Department.

Azam’s statement to discredit Transparency International is probably in anticipation of what the CPI rankings will indicate next year. However, his statement cannot shield the MACC and the government from a clear fact: Transparency International’s CPI correctly reflects that trust in public governance is extremely low because high-level forms of corruption are endemic in Malaysia. – Malaysiakini

Dr Edmund Terence Gomez is a former professor of political economy at the University of Malaya

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