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.
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
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
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
Is the fight against corruption in the developing world a key foreign policy priority for the British government? Or has the attention the Cameron government has been paying to this issue mostly just lip service? I’ve been mulling that question in light of two headlines that caught my eye in last week’s news:
- First, during his visit to Southeast Asia, Prime Minister Cameron has repeatedly pressed for more aggressive action against corruption, first giving a speech in Singapore in which he denounced the scourge of international corruption and unveiled new policy proposals to limit the flow of dirty money into the UK real estate and financial institutions, and then directly confronting Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia about the deepening corruption scandal in the Malaysian government (a fascinating and troubling story that deserves a separate post at some point).
- Second, back in London – apparently right around the same time that PM Cameron was delivering his stern remarks about the evils of corruption to his Southeast Asian audiences – UK Business Secretary Sajid Javid invited British industry representatives to submit comments on whether the 2010 UK Bribery Act (which prohibits UK firms from bribing foreign officials) is “a problem” that has had an adverse impact on British exports.
These near-simultaneous headlines make the Cameron government look at best inept, and at worst hypocritical, on its treatment of anticorruption as a foreign policy issue. What is the British government thinking? Continue reading