Rooting Out Malaysia’s Deep-Seated Corruption Requires Fundamental Political Reform

In a previous post, I wrote that to rebuild credibility and clean house in the wake of the 1MDB scandal, Malaysia needs to give the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission independent prosecutorial power. Even that much-needed reform, however, would leave Malaysia with a long way to go in its anticorruption efforts. The biggest obstacle to real improvement in Malaysia’s fight against corruption is not technical, but political: the chokehold that a single party—the National Front (Barisan Nasional or “BN”)—has on Malaysian politics.

The BN is a coalition party dominated by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), and it has been in power since the 1970s. In a country with deep ethnic divisions, the party has managed to cling to power by perpetuating a far-reaching system of preferential treatment for the ethnic Malay majority. As a result, UMNO has a lock on the Malay vote – and therefore on general elections. Furthermore, Malay-owned firms get first priority for the award of government contracts, which perpetuates a culture of cronyism. UMNO leadership has a symbiotic relationship with an elite class of Malay businesspeople. On top of all this, districts in Malaysia are gerrymandered to give more weight to rural Malay areas. In the most recent general election, in 2013, the opposition party won the popular vote but did not win enough parliamentary seats to take power.

A party with a near-guaranteed place at the top has little incentive to clean up corruption. As visibly corrupt as UMNO may be, Malay voters are forced to weigh punishing UNMO corruption against preserving their privileges in every sector of life, from education to home-buying to business. Until there are significant changes in Malaysia’s political structure, anticorruption efforts are likely to be piecemeal and ultimately insignificant. A more structural change is required if there is to be any hope for rooting out corruption in Malaysia.

One might hope that a serious outcry about corruption, especially in the wake of a major scandal like 1MDB, could be the catalyst of just such a change. Unfortunately, the government has many weapons in its arsenal to quash dissent and to distract attention from corruption. The lack of independent press coverage and freedom of information laws, coupled with the government’s crackdown on dissent, make it difficult to draw attention to corruption. Much of the media is government-controlled, and the government uses prosecutions under the Sedition Act to quash dissent and silence corruption whistleblowers. In the 1MDB case, for example, three lawyers who criticized the Attorney General’s failure to prosecute Najib were charged with sedition. An opposition party member of parliament was jailed for violating the Official Secrets Act after releasing a single page of the Auditor General’s report on the 1MDB case.

In addition, anticorruption campaigns have been politicized. The government uses relatively small offenses by opposition leaders as a pretext to charge them, discredit them, and neutralize the threat they pose to the status quo. The most famous target of corruption charges (along with sodomy charges) is longtime political gadfly and former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad brought corruption charges against Anwar after Anwar began accusing UMNO of corruption.

Is there any hope for the kind of major political change that could facilitate meaningful anticorruption reform in Malaysia? While an in-depth analysis of Malaysian politics is beyond the scope of this post, a few developments are worth noting. Najib must call a general election before August 2018. Anwar, who is expected to be released from prison in June 2018, has formed an unlikely alliance with Mahathir to create an opposition party called Bersatu that is working to win Malay voters away from UMNO. (Of course, before one gets too excited about this new party, it’s worth remembering that Mahathir’s previous time in office was marked by his own corruption scandals. And at age 92, having already been the longest-serving prime minister in Malaysian history, Mahathir would hardly be a new broom sweeping clean.)

An opposition win still seems unlikely. In advance of the election, Najib is already deploying the time-honored tactics that have kept his party in power, including approving a budget with widespread tax cuts, bonuses for civil servants timed to coincide with the possible election, and a boost in government funding for rural infrastructure. And a close race that BN ultimately wins will probably not be enough to make the political establishment take corruption seriously. After all, BN has already had a scare in the form of the very close outcome of the 2013 elections, and the 1MDB scandal still unfolded after that. So the odds of genuine change are low—but if the opposition does pull off an upset win, it could usher in a sea-change by fostering true political competition and accountability for corruption.

I do not mean to suggest that, short of a dramatic political realignment, there is no hope for Malaysia. As my previous post pointed out, there are concrete reforms that would go a long way, and groups of citizens are already pushing hard for these and other changes. But I do think it would be a mistake to get too excited about any incremental anticorruption reforms coming from within Najib’s government.

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