A Lesson in Democracy? The Bitter Irony of Malaysia’s Failed Anticorruption Coalition

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.

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Are Anticorruption and Prodemocracy Policies Antithetical?

That is the question Pennsylvania State University Political Scientists Vineeta Yadav and Bumba Mukherjee leave readers to ponder at the conclusion of their fine new book, The Politics of Corruption in Dictatorships.  But not before the authors provide a plethora of new insights on anticorruption policy and political change in authoritarian states.

They begin with the well-known finding that non-democratic states are more corrupt than democratic ones and continue with a review of the standard explanations for why this is so.  Authoritarian states lack a free press, separation of powers, and the other means democracies have for holding corruption in check.  Furthermore, corruption is many times the glue that holds a dictatorial government together.  It’s the way rulers buy the support of the security services, business elites, and others that might be tempted to overthrow them.  It also provides leaders an insurance policy in the event supporters don’t stay bought as they can siphon off a bit (okay often a lot) into a rainy day fund somewhere offshore.

If the story were that simple, an examination of non-democratic states’ scores on cross-national measures of corruption would reveal two things:  first, the scores would all cluster at the “most corrupt” end of the measures; second, absent the rare political upheaval, the scores would remain relatively stable over time.  Here is where the story gets interesting – and where Yadav and Mukherjee go to work. Continue reading