Anti-Corruption Reform In A Setting Of Widespread Corruption — The Case Of Malaysia

September 2, 2015

Anti-Corruption Reform In A Setting Of Widespread Corruption — The Case Of Malaysia

by Greg Lopez

FT NajibThe Most Tainted Malaysian Prime Minister

Why is Transparency International surprised that levels of corruption has reached crisis point in Malaysia?

Melanie Manion’s “Corruption by Design – Building Clean Government in Mainland China and Hong Kong” provides one methodical way to analyze widespread corruption in Malaysia, and why reforms have failed. The excerpt of the book provides a nice synthesis of her framework:

 …where corruption is already commonplace, the context in which officials and ordinary citizens make choices to transact corruptly (or not) is crucially different from that in which corrupt practices are uncommon. A central feature of this difference is the role of beliefs about the prevalence of corruption and the reliability of government as an enforcer of rules ostensibly constraining official venality (dishonesty). Anti-corruption reform in a setting of widespread corruption is a problem not only of reducing corrupt payoffs but also of changing broadly shared expectations of venality (dishonesty).

Corruption is widespread in Malaysia. In a discussion, Datuk Paul Low Seng Kuan – the minister in the Prime Minister’s Department in charge of governance and integrity, and Ravindran Devagunam, Performance Management and Delivery Unit’s (PEMANDU) anti-corruption director, captures succinctly the fact and the reasons why corruption is widespread in Malaysia.

Datuk Paul Low: If you have a Government that is in power for a long time, there tends to be a situation where it takes things for granted. If they have all the powers where people will not question them, then it is likely that abuse will occur. Therefore, we deteriorated in our fight against corruption. The best way is to have a check and balance. Not only in a system by itself, but also politically, where it should have a counter-balance with different views and debates on issues.

Ravindran: Corruption in this country has become an accepted norm. We have corruption in schools, kids have basically said it’s okay to take or give. It has become pervasive and society has become accepting of it.

Manion identifies the crucial first step on why Hong Kong was successful in its anti-corruption reform despite corruption being widespread.

The crucial first step was the creation of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), an anti-corruption agency independent of the police force and civil service, accountable solely to the Governor, with its commissioner appointed by and reporting directly to the Governor. In creating the ICAC, the Governor signaled his recognition of the public confidence problem posed by an anti-corruption agency based in the police force, the government department perceived as the most corrupt in the territory. This argument is what Blair-Kerr characterized as the “political and psychological” rationale for an independent agency. The structural change was aimed not only at better enforcement but also at producing a shift in public perceptions, to challenge the prevalent view about government complacency.

Reforms in Malaysia fail because the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) is not independent. It is a department under the Prime Minister’s Department from which it receives funding for its operations. The position and tenure of the Commissioner is not secured under the Federal Constitution.

More critically, the crucial first step – of making the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission truly independent – is not possible in Malaysia for two structural reason: (i) the political economy of Barisan Nasional and (ii) the general attitude of the majority of Malaysians towards patronage and corruption.

Barisan Nasional is a patronage machine. The line between patronage and corruption is grey. Former Prime Minister Tun Mahathir has alleged that Najib Razak had ‘bribed’ all the parliamentary members of UMNO. Was the ‘bribe’ patronage or corruption?

Prime Minister Najib Razak himself reminded his UMNO supporters that the RM2.6 billion was for them. It is not surprising that the cabinet and Barisan Nasional leaders remain steadfastly behind him.

Beyond these quips, there is consensus in the political science field on the nature of Barisan Nasional as a patronage machine. Publications by acclaimed academics such as Nicholas J. White’s, “British Business in Post-Colonial Malaysia, 1957-70: Neo-colonialism or Disengagement” and “The Beginnings of Crony Capitalism: Business, Politics and Economic Development in Malaysia, c.1955-1970”; E.T. Gomez and Jomo K.S., “Malaysia’s Political Economy: Politics, Patronage and Profits”; Barry Wain’s, “Malaysian Maverick: Mahathir Mohamad in Turbulent Times”; but also the works of other eminent academics such as William Case, Harold Crouch, Thomas Pepinsky, Meredith Weiss, Bridget Welsh and countless others has demonstrated the centrality of patronage politics in Malaysia.

1MDB is simply an evolution of an entrenched system. The number of corruption scandals involving Barisan Nasional has grown in frequency and scale. That Malaysians had continued to vote [only in 2013 did the ruling party lose its majority] in the majority for Barisan Nasional is a testimony that patronage and corruption is accepted in Malaysia.

The fiasco surrounding the 1MDB also demonstrates why Barisan Nasional cannot initiate and implement anti-corruption reforms. It undermines the basis of Barisan Nasional’s access and control of patronage and power.

Barisan Nasional will not reform until the attitude of the majority of Malaysians towards corruption change. Until then widespread corruption is a reality of Malaysian life.

8 thoughts on “Anti-Corruption Reform In A Setting Of Widespread Corruption — The Case Of Malaysia

  1. Quote:- “If you have a Government that is in power for a long time, there tends to be a situation where it takes things for granted”

    So is he suggesting that changes of government is necessary so that no government would “take things for granted”?

  2. Najib was suppose to have officiated this anti corruption conference held at Putra Jaya but pulled out by Paul Low last minute-and wow..He must be relieved he did so.! So much for decorum -respect or protocol for the host,principles of transparency in the message is far more important WHat will Najib and his defenders do now,! Eject the whole lot out of the country for demeaning the Host. Lets see what they have to say in response to this damning remarks

    And the placard at the Bersih Rally carried by international media that read
    “My Prime Minister embarasses me !” Indeed !

  3. I agree with Greg that BN is a patronage machine. To certain extent, I fear that our opposition would fall into similar trap also, especially in light of how Azmin Ali has recently push through the creation of a Darul Ehsan Investment Fund, without providing any thoughts and measure to prevent it becoming another 1MDB, in spite of objections from DAP.

    According to rakyatpost, Darul Ehsan Investment Fund is fashioned after 1MDB by Khalid Ibrahim in 2013.
    If successful, the fund would be Malaysia’s second sovereign wealth fund after Terengganu Investment Authority (TIA), which has now been transformed into 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB).”

    An opposition party alone would not guarantee a ‘Bersih’ nation. Similarly, one party rule doesn’t necessarily result in corruption. Singapore is our best case study.

    Political will is the key ingredient for success
    The anti-corruption agency must be independent from the police and political control
    The anti-corruption agency must be incorruptible
    Minimize corruption by tackling its major sources: low salaries, ample opportunities, and poor policing”

    On hindsight, Bersih 4.0’s has dropped ‘stop corruption’ from Bersih 3.0’s demand. Some have hijacked the motivation of the movement.

    Given the conversation post Bersih 4.0 rally, I see little hope for our nation to be able to rise above from the grip of ‘corruption’.

  4. Look at the intelligence of the CABINET drumming support to PM despite all the odds are against him. Having this type of cabinet members and MPs of BN government on a gravy train to suck the rakyats’ money, it has to end this rule. Hopefully this rule of no morals and integrity will come to an end in the next GE14.

    First and foremost the stooges in the EC must be kicked out if we want to have a fair and transparent elections. The delineations of boundaries and shifting of people to the advantage of BN should be vehemently dealt with to avoid another gerrymandering. It’s of no point taking these unscrupulous members of this commission to take to court because it is for sure Najib will win at one tier of the level if not succeeded at lower courts or at the high courts.


  5. Any government that stays dominantly in power for an extended period of time becomes a paragon of corruption. Even a long-serving president or prime minister will unwittingly encourage corruption. Like the oldest profession in the world, corruption can never be completely and surgically excised for good.

  6. The removal of the Attorney General is constitutionally crafted in Article 145(6) – he suffers the same fate as a judge of the Federal Court. The Cabinet is not involved. Article 125(3) FC spells out the criteria for removal: breach of the code of ethics; ground of inability, from infirmity of body or mind or any other cause. Gani Patail satisfied every ground mandated in Article 125(3). Najib ought to have constituted a tribunal a la Salleh Abas in 1988 to have made it even more effective.

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