Anticorruption reform in a setting of widespread corruption — The case of Malaysia

Top-down anticorruption reform measures in Malaysia are unlikely to be genuine as they undermine the basis of the ruling party’s access and control of patronage and power. This is compounded by the majority of Malaysians ambivalence towards patronage and corruption.

Top-down anticorruption reform measures in Malaysia are unlikely to be genuine as they undermine the basis of the ruling party’s access and control of patronage and power. This is compounded by the majority of Malaysians ambivalence towards patronage and corruption.

Transparency International warned that Malaysia is facing a major corruption crisis. It called on the Malaysian government to ensure independent investigation into corrupt allegations, and that prosecution and punishments are followed through, irrespective of who is implicated. Courageous words but misplaced.

Prime Minister Najib Razak had introduced a zero tolerance policy towards corruption since becoming premier in 2009. His administration has taken a plethora of initiatives to implement this policy.

Why is Transparency International surprised that levels of corruption has reached crisis point in Malaysia?

Melanie Manion’s “Corruption by Design – Building Clean Government in Mainland China and Hong Kong” provides one methodical way to analyze widespread corruption in Malaysia, and why reforms have failed. The excerpt of the book provides a nice synthesis of her framework:

…where corruption is already commonplace, the context in which officials and ordinary citizens make choices to transact corruptly (or not) is crucially different from that in which corrupt practices are uncommon. A central feature of this difference is the role of beliefs about the prevalence of corruption and the reliability of government as an enforcer of rules ostensibly constraining official venality (dishonesty). Anticorruption reform in a setting of widespread corruption is a problem not only of reducing corrupt payoffs but also of changing broadly shared expectations of venality (dishonesty).

Corruption is widespread in Malaysia. In a discussion, Datuk Paul Low Seng Kuan – the minister in the Prime Minister’s Department in charge of governance and integrity, and Ravindran Devagunam, Performance Management and Delivery Unit’s (PEMANDU) anti-corruption director, captures succinctly the fact and the reasons why corruption is widespread in Malaysia.

Datuk Paul Low: If you have a Government that is in power for a long time, there tends to be a situation where it takes things for granted. If they have all the powers where people will not question them, then it is likely that abuse will occur. Therefore, we deteriorated in our fight against corruption. The best way is to have a check and balance. Not only in a system by itself, but also politically, where it should have a counter-balance with different views and debates on issues.

Ravindran: Corruption in this country has become an accepted norm. We have corruption in schools, kids have basically said it’s okay to take or give. It has become pervasive and society has become accepting of it.

Manion identifies the crucial first step on why Hong Kong was successful in its anti-corruption reform despite corruption being widespread.

The crucial first step was the creation of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), an anti-corruption agency independent of the police force and civil service, accountable solely to the Governor, with its commissioner appointed by and reporting directly to the Governor. In creating the ICAC, the Governor signaled his recognition of the public confidence problem posed by an anti-corruption agency based in the police force, the government department perceived as the most corrupt in the territory. This argument is what Blair-Kerr characterized as the “political and psychological” rationale for an independent agency. The structural change was aimed not only at better enforcement but also at producing a shift in public perceptions, to challenge the prevalent view about government complacency.

Reforms in Malaysia fail because the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) is not independent. It is a department under the Prime Minister’s Department from which it receives funding for its operations. The position and tenure of the Commissioner is not secured under the Federal Constitution.

More critically, the crucial first step – of making the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission truly independent – is not possible in Malaysia for two structural reason: (i) the political economy of Barisan Nasional and (ii) the general attitude of the majority of Malaysians towards patronage and corruption.

Barisan Nasional is a patronage machine. The line between patronage and corruption is grey. Former Prime Minister Tun Mahathir has alleged that Najib Razak had ‘bribed’ all the parliamentary members of UMNO. Was the ‘bribe’ patronage or corruption?

Prime Minister Najib Razak himself reminded his UMNO supporters that the RM2.6 billion ($700 million) was forthem. It is not surprising that the cabinet and Barisan Nasional leaders remain steadfastly behind him.

Beyond these quips, there is consensus in the political science field on the nature of Barisan Nasional as a patronage machine. Publications by acclaimed academics such as Nicholas J. White’s, “British Business in Post-Colonial Malaysia, 1957-70: Neo-colonialism or Disengagement” and “The Beginnings of Crony Capitalism: Business, Politics and Economic Development in Malaysia, c.1955-1970”; E.T. Gomez and Jomo K.S., “Malaysia’s Political Economy: Politics, Patronage and Profits”; Barry Wain’s, “Malaysian Maverick: Mahathir Mohamad in Turbulent Times”; but also the works of other eminent academics such as William Case, Harold Crouch, Thomas Pepinsky, Meredith Weiss, Bridget Welsh and countless others has demonstrated the centrality of patronage politics in Malaysia.

1MDB is simply an evolution of an entrenched system. The number of corruption scandals involving Barisan Nasional has grown in frequency and scale. That Malaysians had continued to vote [only in 2013 did the ruling party lose its majority] in the majority for Barisan Nasional is a testimony that patronage and corruption is accepted in Malaysia.

The fiasco surrounding the 1MDB also demonstrates why Barisan Nasional cannot initiate and implement anti-corruption reforms. It undermines the basis of Barisan Nasional’s access and control of patronage and power.

Genuine top-down anticorruption reform is unlikely to occur in Malaysia. Barisan Nasional will not reform until the attitude of the majority of Malaysians towards patronage and corruption change. Until then widespread corruption is a reality of Malaysian life.

This article first appeared in Forbes.