The tools of democracy may combat tyranny, but they do not always combat corruption. That’s not to suggest that democratic values run counter to anticorruption efforts. Indeed, a free press and a competitive multi-party system remain powerful tools in ensuring corruption does not take root. However, once corruption has snaked its way throughout a government, democratic values and institutions may be too easily manipulated to fight corruption effectively. Perhaps no world leader illustrates this seeming paradox better than Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad, who served as Prime Minister twice. His long first tenure, from 1981 to 2003, earned him notoriety as a near-dictator whose autocratic regime contributed to a deeply-rooted culture of corruption and cronyism. During his short-lived second tenure from 2018 to 2020, Mahathir was heralded as a champion of democracy—but the liberal democratic pillars that he had suppressed during his first tenure, most notably genuine political competition and a free press, contributed to the failure of his anticorruption efforts and ultimately to the fall of his government. The bitter irony is that the suppression of both political competition and press freedom helped to create Malaysia’s entrenched corruption during Mahathir’s first tenure, while the flourishing of political competition and the free press contributed to the failure of Malaysia’s attempts to root out this entrenched corruption during his second tenure.
During his first stint as Prime Minister, Mahathir stifled political competition. He jailed his political opponents without trial under the much-criticized Internal Security Act, and, most infamously, he imprisoned his former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim on trumped up charges of sodomy and corruption. Mahathir limited the power of the courts and eroded the independence of the judicial system, thus ensuring that judges would find corruption in cases involving political rivals, while finding no corruption in cases involving allies, regardless of the evidence. Mahathir also maintained tight control over the Malaysian press. Considered a master puppeteer of the media, Mahathir enforced strict licensing requirements and rewarded journalists that self-censored negative news coverage. Under Mahathir’s leadership, his ruling party bought or controlled the major media outlets, but Mahathir still threatened five small opposition newspapers with closure after rival political parties made significant gains in an election.
Thus, while Malaysia purported to be a democracy, in fact Mahathir was, in effect, an authoritarian ruler. And as so often happens in such regimes, corruption and cronyism proliferated, not least because Mahathir’s economic strategy involved intertwining business and politics. Without a free press, independent courts, or powerful opposition parties capable of mounting a credible challenge for control of the government, this corruption and cronyism went largely unchecked.
But things changed in Malaysia, and Mahathir’s former protégé Najib Razak had a much more difficult time burying evidence of his own corruption. Serving as Prime Minister of Malaysia from 2009 to 2018, Najib made international headlines in 2015 for embezzling state funds in one of the world’s largest kleptocracy schemes. Outrage over the scandal prompted Mahathir, then 92 years old, to return to politics in the 2018 general election as the leader of a new reform-oriented political party that formed a coalition with more established opposition parties.
Mahathir’s upset victory led to the first democratic transfer of power in Malaysia’s history. However, after campaigning on an anticorruption platform, Mahathir struggled to implement meaningful change. In contrast to his first tenure as Prime Minister, when he led a powerful majority party, Mahathir now had to rely on a broad, ethnically diverse coalition with whom he had little in common beyond a shared outrage at unbridled corruption. Mahathir could no longer enforce discipline with an iron fist as the unquestioned leader of a majority party. Moreover, he had to contend with a skilled rival: Najib’s ousted political party was able to exploit ideological divisions within the ruling coalition, weakening loyalties until the fragile alliance shattered and Najib’s party regained control, albeit through backdoor channels rather than a new national election. Though the country voted for anticorruption reform through democratic processes, the multi-party coalition system ultimately frustrated efforts at reform. As an authoritarian leader Mahathir steered the country in whichever direction he chose, but he found himself consistently hamstrung by his coalition’s internal divisions during his brief stint as “the people’s leader.”
Mahathir’s government was also hindered by the free press that Mahathir had championed in his second stint as Prime Minister. Najib had relied on many of the same tactics to control the press that Mahathir himself had instituted during his first tenure. But Mahathir—after winning the 2018 election on an anticorruption platform—embraced the idea that a free press is critical to fair governance, and his administration thus repealed a Najib-era anti-fake news law largely thought to be a tool to harass challengers and suppress reports on government corruption. Considered in isolation, this was the right thing to do. Unfortunately, in light of other unchanged aspects of the Malaysian media landscape, it may have proved counterproductive. Political parties and their investment companies still controlled the major newspapers, and circulation fell along ethnic and geographic divisions, limiting exposure to opposing viewpoints. Najib’s party was therefore able to utilize its traditional influence over various media channels to ensure that the weaknesses of Mahathir’s coalition remained at the forefront of news coverage while feeding disinformation to key voting blocs in an effort to undermine support for Mahathir’s government—disinformation that the anti-fake news law might have suppressed. Consequently, the repeal of a statute curbing free speech may have actually undermined Mahathir’s goal of transparent governance and anticorruption reform.
During his long first tenure as Prime Minister, Mahathir undermined liberal democratic values and institutions, and helped to embed corruption into the Malaysian government. In his short second tenure as Prime Minister, Mahathir embraced liberal democratic values and institutions, but those same institutions—particularly multiparty democracy and a free press—may have thwarted his efforts at institutional reform and brought down his government. This, then, is the irony: Autocratic systems may contribute to entrenched corruption, but after the transition to democracy, corrupt elites often remain entrenched precisely because they know how to manipulate voters and democratic processes. Anticorruption legislation can be thwarted by a powerful and savvy political minority that knows how to mobilize public opinion against a reformist government. In these efforts, the opponents of reform can weaponized an unregulated free press to divert public attention away from where it is most needed. If a reform-oriented Prime Minister can be so readily thwarted by political challengers in Parliament, and a united electorate can so quickly splinter, then we must ask ourselves some hard questions about whether democratic ideals may be too easily exploited in a deeply corrupt system.