How To Improve Whistleblower Protection in Malaysia

Malaysia’s poor reputation on corruption took a serious hit with the 2015 scandal concerning the 1Malaysia Development Board (1MDB), and things have not improved much since then. If the Malaysian government is serious about cleaning up the country, and improving its international reputation, it needs to do more than just hold accountable those responsible for 1MDB and other scandals. Looking forward, Malaysia must also improve its legal framework for the detection and prevention of corruption. In this regard, as leading anticorruption advocacy organizations have emphasized, stronger whistleblower protection is essential. Most forms of corruption are hard for outsiders to detect, and those with first-hand knowledge of possible wrongdoing will be reluctant to report what they know unless they have, at a bare minimum, sufficient protections against retaliation.

Malaysia does already have a dedicated whistleblower statute, the Whistleblower Protection Act 2010 (WPA2010). But while the existence of this law is a good first step, its provisions are not satisfactory. Even the government has acknowledged this: Noting the gaps and weakness of the current statute, the Minister for Parliament and Law recently placed the question of amending the WPA2010 on Parliament’s agenda. As Parliament takes up this vital question, the following improvements to the law should be high priorities:

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The Future of FCPA Enforcement After KT Corp.

Earlier this year, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) settled a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) case with KT Corporation, the largest telecommunications operator in South Korea. The facts of the case, as described in the settlement documents, are cinematically scandalous: From at least 2009 through 2017, high level executives at KT maintained enormous slush funds in off-the-books accounts and physical stashes of cash, from which they made illegal political contributions and paid off government officials in both Korea and Vietnam. In their home country, they frequently used these slush funds to pay for substantial unreported gifts, entertainment, and campaign donations to members of the Korean National Assembly who were serving on committees that addressed issues of public policy directly related to KT’s business. Furthermore, after the South Korean press reported on the slush fund allegations back in 2013—reporting that led to a Korean criminal prosecution of KT’s president for embezzlement—the company simply shifted its tactics for filling its slush funds: Rather than siphoning off inflated executive bonuses, KT had its Corporate Relations (CR) Group purchase gift cards, which were then converted into cash to replenish the slush funds. In genuine “cloak and dagger” style, a member of the CR Group would meet the corrupt gift card vendor in the parking lot behind the KT building and receive a paper bag containing a large envelope of cash.

In a magnificent understatement, the Chief of the SEC’s FCPA Enforcement Unit noted that KT “failed to implement sufficient internal accounting controls with respect to key aspects of its business operations,” and that in the future, the company’s leaders should “be sure to devote appropriate attention to meeting their obligations under the FCPA.” But this was not simply a case of a company failing to keep its financial records up to date. Rather, there was a complete and total collapse of any semblance of a culture of compliance at KT. The fact that executives at the highest levels of this corporation, including the president and the CR Group, were directly responsible for these bribery schemes indicates that the culture of this corporation was corrupt, thorough-and-through; bribery was an indispensable component of its business model, and continued even after the company’s president was prosecuted. Yet because KT cooperated with the SEC’s investigation, the SEC only required KT to pay a paltry $6.3 million in combined disgorgement and civil penalties; the SEC also put the company on a two-year probation, during which KT must update the SEC every six months on its compliance measures, though it is unclear what, if anything, will happen if KT somehow mishandles the recommended compliance improvements.

This outcome is unacceptable. If the U.S. government is serious about its intention to deter future misconduct, it must ensure that civil penalties for FCPA violations cannot simply be seen as an “acceptable cost of doing business.” Over the past few years, SEC and DOJ leadership have repeatedly emphasized the importance of anticorruption enforcement and have suggested a desire to reverse the trend of steadily declining FCPA enforcement actions. If deterrence of corrupt corporate conduct is truly a priority for the SEC and the DOJ, then now would be a good time to start substantially ramping up FCPA investigations and enforcement actions, especially in cases of companies like KT that have exhibited the incorrigible culture of brazen corruption.

There are two substantial objections to the call to ramp up FCPA enforcement actions against foreign companies and dramatically stiffen penalties for violations, but on closer inspection neither is compelling. Continue reading

Guest Post: The Government Defence Integrity Index — Assessing Corruption in Defence

Stephanie Trapnell, Senior Advisor on Defence and Security at Transparency International, and Matthew Steadman, Research Officer at Transparency International UK’s Defence and Security Programme, authored today’s post on the UK Programme’s Government Defence Integrity Index. The Index evaluates corruption risks across defence financing, operations, personnel, political, and procurement for 87 countries using data on 77 defence-related areas. (As the index was produced by TI Defence & Security, a program housed within the TI-UK chapter, the British spelling is followed throughout.)

Corruption in the defence sector poses grave risks for security in both national and international contexts. Transparency International’s flagship report for the Government Defence Integrity Index (GDI) shows 86% of global arms exports between 2016-2020 (worth US$1439.6 billion) originated from countries at a moderate to very high risk of corruption in their defence sectors. The top five exporters – the United States (overall score of 55/100), Russia (36/100), France (50/100), Germany (70/100) and China (28/100) – accounted for 76% of the global total. Meanwhile, 49% of global arms imports are arriving in counties facing a high to critical risk of defence corruption.

Although President Biden’s new anticorruption strategy outlines a “whole-of-government approach” to countering corruption, it stresses the importance of addressing corruption specifically in defence and security. Indeed, the strategy is a critical and welcome acknowledgment, by a global power and major provider of security assistance, that corruption plays a considerable role in destabilising democracy. In Strategic Objective 5.5, emphasis is placed on assessment of corruption risk, causes of corruption, and political will for reform. Specifically for the security sector, there is a call for greater transparency in military budgets, whistle-blower protections, and oversight.

Not only does corruption have a devastating impact on both the defence apparatus itself and on wider peace and security, it can undermine otherwise robust democracies, by serving as a type of statecraft for defence officials and military elites. Corruption undermines the efficiency of security forces, damages popular trust in state institutions, and feeds a sense of disillusionment, which threatens the social contract and the rule of law, and can empower non-state and extremist armed groups.

Given the distinct nature of governance in the defence sector, and the evolving understanding of how corruption operates, the question then turns to what can be done to counter or prevent corruption in a traditionally secretive yet critical sector like defence. The answer is not to measure corruption itself, which is inherently covert and difficult to capture, but instead to measure institutional resilience to it. The Government Defence Integrity Index (GDI) is the only tool that captures comprehensive information on the quality of institutional controls on corruption in the defence sector.

The GDI recognises that:

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Humanitarian Aid Corruption in Regime-Held Syria: How Should the International Donor Community Respond?

In response to the humanitarian disaster caused by Syria’s ongoing civil war, international aid has poured into the country, to the tune of over $40 billion since 2011. Yet 14.6 million people (out of a total Syrian population of approximately 18 million) remain in need of some form of humanitarian assistance. One of the main reasons that so many people remain in need is the Assad regime’s systematic co-optation and corrupt diversion of international aid. The regime has required that foreign donors partner with one of two local Syrian organizations—the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) and Syria Trust for Development (founded and run by President Assad’s wife); these government-affiliated organizations can then deliver aid money “out of sight” of the international organizations that sent that money, thereby obstructing aid workers’ ability to ensure that aid is distributed based on need. The government also mandates that all international organizations in Damascus hire local personnel hand-selected by the regime who supervise all programming and select which beneficiaries receive aid. These tools enable the Assad regime to use aid for political purposes, and to corruptly divert tens of billions of aid to politically connected elites, many of whom are responsible for the human rights violations that made humanitarian aid necessary to begin with.

For those whose top priority is to help suffering Syrians, it may be tempting to ignore or downplay the corrupt diversion of humanitarian aid—to view it as the unpleasant but inevitable cost of doing relief work in a country ruled by a despot. But continuing with the status quo is not a viable option. Right now, the aid pouring into Syria is helping the regime much more than it is helping suffering civilians, and it would be irresponsible to ignore this fact. Does this mean the international community should simply suspend humanitarian aid to Syria altogether? That option is also unpalatable. For one thing, it would impose grave costs on Syrian civilians: Even if the regime steals or misdirects up to 90% of incoming humanitarian aid, the 10% that ordinary Syrian civilians currently receive is still better than nothing. Furthermore, a decision to halt aid completely could also send the message that the international community does not think helping Syrian civilians is worth the hassle.  

If neither continuing the current approach to delivering humanitarian aid nor suspending aid altogether is acceptable, what should the international donor community do? There is no good answer to this question, but as the humanitarian crisis in Syria shows no sign of abating, the international community must do what it can to find ways to get aid to the citizens who need it most. There are a few measures that, while imperfect, might be helpful:

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From “Final Period” to “Business as Usual”: Why Has AMLO’s Ambitious Promise to Combat Mexican Corruption Faltered

In 2018, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (commonly known as AMLO) won a landslide victory in Mexico’s presidential election, and his leftist Morena Party won a large majority in Congress. AMLO and Morena campaigned on a populist platform that promised a “Fourth Transformation” of Mexico (the other three being Mexican Independence, the Liberal Reformation, and the Revolution); this Fourth Transformation would, they claimed, eliminate historic government abuse and tackle widespread government corruption. Now, more than halfway through AMLO’s six-year term, the credibility of that anticorruption rhetoric has dramatically faded. Not only has AMLO’s government failed to deliver on his promise to usher in a new era of clean government, but in many respects his administration has been moving in the wrong direction.

Understanding the ways in which AMLO’s approach to governance has undermined rather than strengthened Mexico’s fight against corruption is crucial to getting the country back on track. Four problems with the AMLO regime’s approach to anticorruption are especially significant: Continue reading

Time to Make the OECD Antibribery Convention an Antikleptocracy Convention Too

Confiscating assets acquired through corruption is a critical part of the fight against corruption. If those who would profit from corruption know they will be denied the benefit of their wrongdoing, there is no incentive to be corrupt.

As Justin explained Monday, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has given asset confiscation a major boost. Many of Putin’s superrich backers, oligarchs or kleptocrats, became wealthy through corrupt deals, and the seizure of their mega-yachts, mansions and other properties now located outside Russian territory offer the West a way, albeit indirectly, to pressure Putin to end the aggression. Italian, German, and other Western prosecutors are thus now aggressively invoking domestic forfeiture statutes to confiscate them.

But as the Washington Post reports today, with the help of pricey lawyers and other enablers (here and here), the oligarchs have hidden their assets inside complex legal thickets of offshore companies that make confiscation hard if not impossible. In response, last Thursday President Biden asked Congress to give U.S. prosecutors new powers to cut through this underbrush (here).

The President’s initiative is welcome. But it also invites the obvious question: Why shouldn’t other Western nations follow suit?  All are united in their opposition to the war and desire to make Putin’s associates suffer consequences. Why shouldn’t every Western state ease the task their prosecutors face to the rapid seizure of oligarchs’ assets? And indeed to the seizure of any asset corruptly obtained or unlawfully possessed found in their territory?

The most straightforward way to realize this goal would be to amend the OECD Antibribery Convention.

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The Anticorruption Campaigner’s Guide to Asset Seizure

Anticorruption campaigners have long argued that Western governments should be more aggressive in freezing and seizing the assets of kleptocrats and corrupt oligarchs. While targeting illicit assets has been part of the West’s anticorruption arsenal for many years, attention to this tactic has surged in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Almost as soon as Russian troops crossed the border into Ukrainian territory, not only did Western governments impose an array of economic sanctions on Russian institutions and individuals close to the Putin regime, but also—assisted by journalists who identified dozens of properties, collectively worth billions—Western law enforcement agencies began seizing Russian oligarchs’ private jetsvacation homes, and superyachts.

Many people who are unfamiliar with this area—and even some who are—might naturally wonder about the legal basis for targeting these assets. And indeed, the law in this area has some important nuances that are not always fully appreciated in mainstream media reporting and popular commentary. Continue reading