Fixing Everything But What’s Broken: Malaysia after the 1MDB Scandal

The Malaysian 1MDB scandal sparked the largest investigation in the history of the U.S. Department of Justice Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative and has revealed serious problems with Malaysia’s anticorruption infrastructure. The DOJ has filed civil forfeiture claims for $1.7 billion in assets obtained with funds diverted from 1MDB, a sovereign wealth fund ostensibly intended to promote economic development in Malaysia. The money ended up in a stunning variety of locations around the globe. Nearly $700 million found its way into the Malaysian Prime Minister’s personal bank accounts. His stepson’s production company suddenly had the funds needed to back the Hollywood movie The Wolf of Wall Street. A financier with close ties to the government bought an Australian model jewels worth $8.1 million.

Meanwhile, the Malaysian government insists there is nothing to see here. The newly-installed Malaysian Attorney General cleared Prime Minister Najib Razak of all wrongdoing and put a stop to the investigation by the independent Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC). As an earlier post explained, the previous Attorney General, who headed an inter-agency task force investigating the 1MDB scandal, resigned under suspicious circumstances, and Najib appointed his replacement. Najib also replaced several cabinet members who had called for investigations into 1MDB. The breakdown of justice in the 1MDB scandal may seem all the more surprising to outside observers, since Malaysia had appeared to be making strides in addressing its corruption problem, and the MACC—which was founded in 2009 and modeled on Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption—had received fairly good reviews (see here, here, and here).

In the wake of the 1MDB scandal, there have been a variety of proposals for improving Malaysia’s anticorruption efforts. Most of these proposals, especially those emanating from the government, involve a flurry of activity and the creation of new anticorruption institutions. For example, the government has recently proposed creating a new National Integrity and Good Governance Department. The Malaysian Bar has called for the establishment of an Independent Anti-Corruption Commission (IACC) to provide oversight for MACC. The MACC itself, despite its inaction on 1MDB, is ramping up other anticorruption campaigns. This all fits an unfortunate pattern in Malaysia: creating lots of new agencies or new structures, or undertaking other actions that make the government “look busy,” but that don’t actually get to the heart of the main problem: the lack of a politically independent anticorruption prosecutor.  Continue reading

A Tale of Two Regions: Anticorruption Trends in Southeast Asia and Latin America

OK, “best of times” and “worst of times” would be a gross exaggeration. But still, when I consider recent developments in the fight against corruption in Latin American and Southeast Asia, it seems that these two regions are moving in quite different directions. And the directions are a bit surprising, at least to me.

If you’d asked me two years ago (say, in the summer of 2014) which of these two regions provoked more optimism, I would have said Southeast Asia. After all, Southeast Asia was home to two jurisdictions with “model” anticorruption agencies (ACAs)—Singapore and Hong Kong—and other countries in the regions, including Malaysia and especially Indonesia, had established their own ACAs, which had developed good reputations for independence and effectiveness. Thailand and the Philippines were more of a mixed bag, with revelations of severe high-level corruption scandals (the rice pledging fiasco in Thailand and the pork barrel scam in the Philippines), but there were signs of progress in both of those countries too. More controversially, in Thailand the 2014 military coup was welcomed by many in the anticorruption community, who thought that the military would clean up the systemic corruption associated with the populist administrations of Thaksin Shinawatra and his successor (and sister) Yingluck Shinawatra—and then turn power back over to the civilian government, as the military had done in the past. And in the Philippines, public outrage at the brazenness of the pork barrel scam, stoked by social media, and public support for the Philippines’ increasingly aggressive ACA (the Office of the Ombudsman), was cause for hope that public opinion was finally turning more decisively against the pervasive mix of patronage and corruption that had long afflicted Philippine democracy. True, the region was still home to some of the countries were corruption remained pervasive and signs of progress were scant (such as Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar), but overall, the region-wide story seemed fairly positive—especially compared to Latin America where, aside from the usual bright spots (Chile, Uruguay, and to a somewhat lesser extent Costa Rica), there seemed to be precious little for anticorruption advocates to celebrate.

But now, in the summer of 2016, things look quite a bit different. In Southeast Asia, the optimism I felt two years ago has turned to worry bordering on despair, while in Latin America, things are actually starting to look up, at least in some countries. I don’t want to over-generalize: Every country’s situation is unique, and too complicated to reduce to a simple better/worse assessment. I’m also well aware that “regional trends” are often artificial constructs with limited usefulness for serious analysis. But still, I thought it might be worthwhile to step back and compare these two regions, and explain why I’m so depressed about Southeast Asia and so cautiously optimistic about Latin America at the moment.

I’ll start with the sources of my Southeast Asian pessimism, highlighting the jurisdictions that have me most worried: Continue reading

Malaysia’s Anticorruption Credibility Problem

The biggest anticorruption news last week was almost certainly the announcement by Malaysia’s new Attorney General clearing Prime Minister Najib Razak of any wrongdoing in connection to the approximately $781 million that mysteriously appeared in his personal bank account. Early reports suggested that the money might have been embezzled from a state investment fund called 1MDB – and the controversy over this matter caused substantial political upheaval (and ended up being a major focus of last year’s International Anti-Corruption Conference, which was held in Malaysia at the height of the scandal). But last week, Attorney General Mohamed Apandi Ali, following up on an earlier statement by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC), announced that the money was not in fact from 1MDB, but was instead a “political donation” from the Saudi royal family. Attorney General Apandi further stated that the money was given “without any consideration,” that Prime Minister Najib had not done anything unlawful, and that he’d returned $620 million of unused money to the Saudi royal family.

Is this true? Is it really the case that Prime Minister Najib did nothing wrong (or at least nothing illegal)? Of course, I have no idea (though Swiss investigators announced earlier this week that there is indeed evidence of massive misappropriation from 1MDB). I’m not privy to any of the evidence that the MACC and the AG investigated, and I’m at best a casual, intermittent outside observer of Malaysian politics. And it would be nice to live in a world in which, when the most senior justice official in a country, announces that allegations of corruption are unfounded, I could simply believe those assertions. After all, not all allegations of corruption are true. Yet in this case, my reaction to the AG’s announcement (even before I read the news about the ongoing Swiss investigations) was cynical disbelief. I may not ever know what actually happened in this case, but what I do know is that pretty much everything that’s happened since news of the scandal broke has shattered any faith that I may once have had that Malaysian institutions undertook a genuine, impartial, investigation of this matter. Indeed, the Malaysian government’s handling of this matter is a textbook example of how a system can damage its credibility, perhaps irreparably.

Just to recap some of the highlights: Continue reading