- The Interdisciplinary Corruption Research Network (ICRN) website
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In 2018, Malaysia surmounted the biggest test of its democracy since gaining independence from Britain in 1963—the first democratic transfer of power in the country’s history. That change in leadership occurred in the wake of the 1MDB scandal—one of the largest kleptocracy schemes ever uncovered—which implicated former Prime Minister Najib Razak. The repudiation of Najib and his party, UNMO, in the 2018 election was seen by many as a hopeful sign that the Malaysian people were no longer willing to tolerate the systemic corruption that had long been seen as business as usual. To be sure, the leader of the victorious coalition in the 2018 election—nonagenarian Mahathir Mohamed, who had previously served as Prime Minister from 1983 to 2001—was an unlikely champion of anticorruption and good governance reform. Yet in 2018, Mahathir’s victory was cause for hope that there would finally be genuine systemic reform.
Within two years, that hope had all but vanished. Prime Minister Mahathir was forced to resign in the middle of his first term in office and was replaced by UMNO politician Muhyiddin Yassin, who had served as Deputy Prime Minister under Najib. What went wrong? In an earlier post, I explored how a free press and multi-party government may have contributed to the failure of Mahathir’s coalition. But that is not the whole story. Those democratic institutions were susceptible to manipulation because of the deeply embedded ethnic and religious divisions that have been a defining feature of Malaysian politics since independence. By exacerbating racial and religious tensions, UMNO managed to convince key voting blocs that the biggest threat they faced was not corrupt politicians, but rather their neighbors who look and pray differently. In short, the reformist coalition ultimately failed because the Malaysian populace lost sight of their common enemy: the corrupt system of governance robbing them all.
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.
The largest, most important anticorruption conference of the year is underway this week in the United Arab Emirates. Formally known as the eighth session of the Conference of States Parties to the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, the 186 nations that have ratified UNCAC are convening to examine how they can strengthen the fight against corruption. They have not said why they chose to meet in the UAE, a collection of seven tiny, wealthy monarchies. Perhaps it is because the Emirates’ location on the eastern end of the Arabian Peninsula makes it an easy place to reach from anywhere on the globe. Or perhaps it is because of its top-notch conference facilities and first-rate restaurants and hotels.
Or perhaps something more subtle is at work.
It’s no secret that the UAE and the governments of its seven federated emirates, especially Abu Dhabi and Dubai, have repeatedly flouted their UNCAC obligations. In researching The Despot’s Guide to Wealth Management, author Jason Sharman was told by staff from the World Bank/UNODC Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative, the IMF, and the governments of Switzerland and the United States that “the UAE and particularly Dubai . . . were the leading haven for international corruption funds,” a conclusion Susan Hawley confirmed on this blog, writing that an “increasing numbers of corrupt money trails lead” to the UAE. Mozambique’s Prosecutor General reports that the UAE has stonewalled her request for help in prosecuting the accused in the “hidden debt” scandal, and evidence presented in the recently concluded U.S. trial of one of the accused revealed numerous violations of its anticorruption laws that the UAE has ignored.
Perhaps the other 185 parties to UNCAC hope that holding the meeting in the UAE will persuade its government to finally meet the nation’s obligations as an UNCAC party. Five indicators of whether their stratagem is succeeding: Continue reading
Twenty eighteen produced many fine analyses of corruption and how to fight it. The five books pictured above, four by journalists and one by a former Nigerian Finance Minister, are among the best. Combing in-depth reporting with thoughtful analyses, all merit a place on corruption fighters’ book shelf. Continue reading
Since at least 2016, complaints about “fake news” have become increasingly common all over the world. But “fake news” refers to two separate phenomena. In some cases, “fake news” means stories that are actually untrue (not just distorted, but fabricated, and deliberately disguised to make it appear that they come from a legitimate media outlet rather than a propagandist or troll). Shanil posted about the dangers that this sort of fake news poses to anticorruption efforts last December. But politicians, notably President Trump, have appropriated the “fake news” label and applied it to any coverage that they deem unfavorable or unfair, even when the news comes from a legitimate media outlet and there is no credible argument that the story is a deliberate fabrication.
The conflation of these two kinds of “fake news” is dangerous, not least because concerns about the former may provide politicians with a pretext for suppressing the latter. Case in point: in April, Malaysia enacted a new law—the Anti-Fake News Bill—that purports to criminalize fake news. The purpose of the new law, which gives the government has the power to prosecute those who create or spread “fake news” with jail terms of up to six years and fines up to about $123,000, seems to be giving the government more authority and discretion to stamp out unflattering news. Other Southeast Asian countries such as Singapore and the Philippines are considering similar measures.
While the anticorruption community should fight against corrupt actors using fake news to spread false stories, it should also resist efforts of governments to misuse the “fake news” label as a pretext for more extensive regulation of legitimate media and free speech. Censorship laws like Malaysia’s reduce transparency and scrutiny, and ultimately hurt anticorruption efforts by entrenching corrupt, illiberal governments.
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.
Almost exactly one year ago, the day after the U.S. presidential election, I published a deeply pessimistic post about the likely future of U.S. anticorruption policy under a Trump presidency. As I acknowledged at the time, “the consequences of a Trump presidency are potentially so dire for such a broad range of issues–from health care to climate change to national security to immigration to the preservation of the fundamental ideals of the United States as an open and tolerant constitutional democracy–that even thinking about the implications of a Trump presidency for something as narrow and specific as anticorruption policy seems almost comically trivial.” That statement is, alas, still true. But what about the impact on anticorruption specifically? In my post last year, I made a bunch of predictions about the likely impact of a Trump presidency on corruption, anticorruption, and related issues. What did I get right and where did I go wrong?
This may seem a bit self-indulgent, but I think it’s often useful to go back and assess one’s own forecasts, not only in the interests of accountability and self-criticism, but also because examining where we got things right and, more importantly, where we went wrong can help us do a better job in the future. Of course, one difficulty in assessing my own predictions is that many of them concerned longer-term effects that we can’t really assess after one year (really 9+ months). And in some cases the predictions concern things that it’s hard to assess objectively. But it’s still a useful exercise. So, here goes: Continue reading
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
Afghanistan NGO leader Khalil Parsa, Angolan journalist Rafael Marques de Morais, Guatemalan judge Claudia Escobar, Malaysian civil society activist Cynthia Gabriel, and Ukrainian investigative journalist Denys Bihus will share the 2017 Democracy Award for their work promoting democracy in their countries. Bestowed annually by the National Endowment for Democracy, the U.S. democracy promotion agency, the ceremony will be held June 7 at the U.S. Capitol. Republican House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan and the House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi will both speak.
This year’s award is significant for three reasons. In the wake of concerns Trump Administration rhetoric has raised about America’s commitment to human rights and democracy, Speaker Ryan and Leader Pelosi’s participation is a reminder that a strong, bipartisan consensus on these basic, universal values remains deeply embedded in U.S. political culture. Second is the recognition by the National Endowment, perhaps the world’s leading advocate of democracy, that the fight against corruption is an essential element in building a democratic state. Finally, the award is one more sign that those fighting corruption at home are not alone, that the international community supports them and stands with them.
More on the ceremony, biographies of each recipient, and the National Endowment’s democracy promotion work here.