Malaysia’s mission impossible?

The Transparency International Corruption Perception Index says Malaysia ranks 54 out of 176 countries for corruption.


The interweaving of sex, money and power to dominate political opponents has dominated Malaysian politics for more than a decade, resulting in elections that are neither free nor fair. Shady cash transactions, sex videos of opposition politicians, free dinners, entertainment by international artistes – and all kinds of freebies – continue to dictate election campaigns and undermine public confidence in the election process in Malaysia.

Corruption is a key election issue for the 13th General Election, and it was among the top factors cited by voters for dissatisfaction with the government in the 12th General Elections in 2008.

The Transparency International Corruption Perception Index (CPI) measures the perceived level of public sector corruption in 176 countries. In 2012, Malaysian was ranked 54th globally. In the Government Defence Anti-Corruption Index analyses of 82 countries released in January 2013, Malaysia was placed in Band D – that is, “high risk”, along with Bangladesh, China and Rwanda.

Malaysia tops the list in the 2012 Bribe Payers Survey. Some 101 Malaysian companies that deal with the private and public sectors were polled for that index. And 50 percent of Malaysian companies surveyed said they failed to win a contract because a competitor had paid bribes.

Money and politics

The monetisation of politics remains a widespread phenomenon in Malaysia. Corruption in Malaysia took deep roots after political parties went aggressively into business during the rule of Mahathir Mohamad. It has seriously impacted democracy and the rights of voters to free and fair elections. Money contributes to the cancer of corruption.

“Money can disrupt the democratic principle of fair competition in elections and undermine proper political representation,” read a 2011 Transparency International-Malaysia (TI-M) report submitted to the prime minister. “Problems arise when organisations with private agendas provide large secret funds to political parties/candidates and expect something in return, compromising the quality of government.”

Among the reforms that have been proposed were a Political Parties Act, regulating money politics, restructuring the Election Commission to ensure its independence and reforms to the 1954 Election Offences Act. These reforms would have addressed the phenomenon of money politics in Malaysia.

It is a disappointment none of these reforms have been made before this election. The BN-led government lacked the political will to act on the allegations of grand corruption made against some BN leaders.

Under the Government Transformation Plan, TI-M had hoped that new laws would be introduced to regulate political financing to stop politicians from using their party’s name to solicit funds. Currently, there are no limits to the amount of donations political parties and candidates can receive from special interest groups. There is also no requirement for public disclosure of such contributions. Some of the donations are channelled directly to individual politicians instead of to their party.

To begin with, political leaders must submit themselves to scrutiny. Cabinet and state ministers should agree to a mandatory declaration of assets. Currently, there is no law stating a political leader should step down if and when they are investigated for allegations of corruption by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Agency. Sarawak Chief Minister Taib Mahmud, for example, continues to remain in power despite ongoing investigations into allegations of corruption against him.

Vote-buying is part of a whole chain of money politics that thrives, because politicians in power have easy access to funds which they can use to bribe voters.

On August 14, 2008, businessman Michael Chia was caught in Hong Kong with Singapore currency amounting to RM 40 million ($13.2 million) and was charged with money laundering and trafficking by the Hong Kong Independent Commission Against corruption (ICAC).

The money was reportedly earmarked for Sabah Chief Minister Musa Aman, and comprised funds being deposited into a Swiss Bank account containing $30 million, allegedly being held in trust for Musa by a lawyer. Nazri Aziz, a minister in the prime minister’s department, was also linked to the money, according to the opposition People’s Justice Party.

However, in his written reply, Nazri said the money was “not for the personal use of the chief minister”, but for Sabah’s  UMNO liaison body – and the MACC had found “no element of corruption”, which he claimed led Hong Kong’s ICAC to take no further action in the case.

Election problems

Prime Minister Najib Razak, who leads the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) has been giving out more cash “gifts” to offset rising living costs – the main concerns of a significant 40 per cent of the 13.3 million voters struggling with bread-and-butter issues. Najib has been promising voters that there will be more to come if the coalition maintains power.

Among the billions of ringgit worth of pre-election inducements were the second round of RM500 ($165) cash aid for each household, RM200 ($66) smartphone rebates for hundreds of thousands of youths, RM250 ($83) student book vouchers – and pay hikes for the country’s 230,000 policemen and soldiers who are seen as the vote bank for the ruling coalition.

The politicians themselves are bribed by the sponsors who fund their electoral campaigns – obviously in return for favours once they are elected. Who has been funding the nightly dinners for thousands of voters in the past few weeks?

The election commission only has limited powers to scrutinise election expenses. It needs to be restructured to be made truly independent of the ruling party and be given qualified personnel, such as forensic accountants to audit and verify the election expenses accounts submitted by representatives.

The Pakatan Rakyat (PR) opposition, which is seen to be a viable contender to take federal power for the first time, has also promised many goodies to voters.

Among them are free university education, cheaper utility bills, lower transport costs through cuts in car and petrol prices and highway tolls that formed the key proposals in PR’s manifesto.

An overall anti-corruption strategy is missing in the election manifestos both of ruling coalition Barisan National and Pakatan Rakyat, the opposition alliance.

Without a free media and a freedom of information act, and no controls over the monetisation of politics, this general election will not be free or fair.

Josie M Fernandez is the Secretary General of Transparency International Malaysia. She was founder president of ERA Consumers Malaysia and Regional Director, Asia-Pacific, Consumers International. An Asian Public Intellectual Fellow, she has also served as a consultant to the government and written numerous books on social investment, philanthropy and corruption.