International Policy Digest

World Economic Forum
World News /02 May 2019
05.02.19

Mahathir’s Super Plan – Corruption in Malaysia

During his 22-year tenure, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad had plagued his country with corruption and cronyism – a disease Malaysians have been trying to cure unsuccessfully due to governmental abuse of power. Last year Mahathir returned to serve as PM, after Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and Najib Razak, who manned the post in the interim preserved and even expanded the corruption plaguing the country. Upon his return to politics, Mahathir declared he would rid Malaysia of its corrupt government, economy, and institutions. However, Mahathir never fulfilled such promises which resulted in depreciation of his public support. Mahathir still abuses his powers to direct wealth and influence to the hands of his family members by controlling the media, the judiciary, and most of the economy via government-linked companies (GLCs). Empirically, it seems Mahathir’s return signals future increase in corruption rather than the opposite. Hoping that the man who infected Malaysia with corruption will help cure it, is wishful thinking.

Corruption in Malaysia is so widespread it had become a part of the national identity. In 2017, Transparency International conducted surveys and polls to portray how intrinsic corruption is in Malaysia. 60% of Malaysians felt that corruption had worsened in recent years and perceived the government was doing poorly in fighting corruption. When accessing basic services such as public schools, public hospitals, ID or voter’s card issuing, utilities, police and event courts, 23% of Malaysians said they paid a bribe. Malaysian Bar president Datuk Abdul Fareed Abdul Gafoor said in a statement, “The rot of corruption must be stamped out. Acts of public corruption are a violation of public trust, and deprive citizens of State resources that should be used for public benefit instead of being pocketed for personal gain.” The top challenges Transparency International found in Malaysia were political and campaign financing, “revolving doors,” and access to information. Corruption is so common in Malaysia that Malaysians learn to live with it, paying bribes when needed, rather than abolishing it.

Corruption in the judicial system/executive influence over the judiciary

One of the most corrupt spheres in Malaysia is the judiciary, which is controlled by the Prime Minister who directs court decisions to promote his own agendas. Mahathir retains final say in all judges and Attorney General appointments or promotions – by replacing Najib’s appointed committee members in the JAC (Judicial Appointments Commission) ahead of schedule. With his own loyalists, he is capable of exerting influence on the Judiciary, as evidenced by the Malaysian Bar’s ongoing outcry regarding his nominations which sometimes overlook obvious choices for promotion. Mahathir further tightened this grip by nominating his own Attorney General. Mahathir built the judiciary with his associates, and he controls court decisions as they might affect himself or his interests.

Instead of being a separate and independent branch, the Malaysian judiciary is interlinked with the executive branch (led by the Prime Minister). Consequently, rather than facilitating checks and balances, the judiciary serves as an extension of the Executive. Malaysian blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin posted “it is said the only way to get to the top of the judiciary is to be crooked. If not, you will end up like a number of highly qualified and principled judges who suffered because they were too Shariah-Compliant and not UMNO-Compliant enough.” Kamarudin points to the fact that, despite basing the judiciary on Islamic Sharia law, Malaysia promotes judges that comply with the ruling political party. Court of Appeal judge, Hamid Sultan Abu Backer described “judicial rowdyism” earlier this year, as “certain members of the judiciary have been aiding private parties and politicians to defraud the government of public funds.” In an affidavit, Hamid described this worked by “nominees of politicians getting into contracts with the government, but once the government pulled out, the private parties would take the government to court to claim compensation. The private parties created contracts with the government to defraud public funds and the apex court was perceived to be sympathetic to them,” said Hamid. “I will give an example. The government will enter into a contract with a political nominee with no intention of honoring it. Subsequently, the government will terminate the contract and the nominee will sue the government for breach of contract. The government may record a consent judgment accepting liability and agreeing to assess damages. This modus operandi was to deprive the exchequer by false claims.” Risking his own career, Hamid blew the whistle on the corrupted symbiosis between the judiciary and executive branches, a system Mahathir cleverly constructed. It is surprising that this is the same Mahathir who got elected by promising to eradicate corruption.

One of the actions Mahathir took to mitigate said corruption was the establishment of specialized corruption courts, dealing specifically with corruption cases that backlog the system – a decision by the Special Cabinet Committee on Anti-Corruption (JKKMAR). The Malaysian National Centre for Governance, Integrity and Anti-Corruption (GIACC) under the Prime Minister’s Department explained that JKMMAR had agreed to study the formation of special corruption courts at the High Court and Court of Appeal, as such a proposal would involve the restructuring of courts. Chief Justice Tan Sri Richard Malanjum said: “one solemn declaration we make here is to uphold the rule of law and our zero tolerance [for] any form of corruption and judicial interference whether internal or external, political or otherwise, in the execution of our judicial duties.” While these statements are supposed to alleviate the public’s mistrust in the judiciary, it is obvious to Malaysians that these are just clever maneuvers to renovate the existing judiciary to a system that continues to deliver Mahathir’s wishes while appeasing the public by hiding corruption.

Trial by media and Mahathir’s control over the media

Not only via the judiciary, but Mahathir also conducts judicial processes through his complete control of Malaysian media. Publications about the 1MDB scandal were based on materials collected by the Mahathir clan which are being continuously leaked to The Edge. In turn, The Edge runs a campaign to cement the alleged guilt of Najib in the public eye, by diverting the open conversation in the media from relevant facts, influencing the judiciary indirectly. By controlling the content that The Edge – one of the most circulated platforms – publishes, Mahathir conducts public judgments. Void of judiciary processes, these judgments are practically verdicts only. Having a fast track to Malaysian homes enables Mahathir to label individuals as guilty according to his own whims and interests. When Mahathir wants to detain someone, all he has to do is tell The Edge to print a cover story blaming said person of a crime. The rest will be carried by the Malaysian populace. Public opinion has more destructive potential than bureaucracies.

Fake news and Disinformation Campaign used to win elections

As media outlets in Malaysia are almost entirely governmentally owned, its wide influence is wielded by Mahathir to create disinformation campaigns which capitalize on the natural division between ethnic and religious group in Malaysia – predominantly in rural and Islamic regions. Influencing these key regions is what secured Mahathir’s premiership and what continues to fuel his dominance over key electoral groups. In practice, Mahathir uses his authority over the media to influence the ways in which Malaysians understand the realities in their country. Mahathir chooses the images and ideas that Malaysians consume in their homes. This way, not only can Mahathir affect how Malaysians vote, but also who they think is an enemy of the state, who is the hero, what are moral values according to the Islam, and what is just.

Selective persecution of individuals in 1MDB

With the executive-judiciary system that Mahathir constructed, the Malaysian Prime Minister can pick and choose targets for incarceration and trials. Mahathir has regulated persecution by installing a GA who adheres to his instructions. UMNO leaders and members that came to arrangements with Mahathir will not be prosecuted in the 1MDB case, as corruption charges against multiple political functionaries are being hoarded but not prosecuted, to be used as leverage for political maneuvering. Suspects in the 1MDB scandal – the biggest corruption scandal in Malaysian history – do not place their bets on the trial. Instead, they try their luck with the one calling the shots – Prime Minister Mahathir.

The closer an individual is to Mahathir, the easier it would be to prosper economically. Mahathir spreads his love and influence around his close circle of family and friends. The MM clan gained extraordinary income due to their father’s influence by securing GLCs tenders, by receiving better financing, gov’t bailouts and more. At a press conference, MCA (Malaysian Chinese Association) publicity bureau deputy chief Mike Chong Yew Chuan cited a few examples including the award of RM11.16mil contract to Mahathir’s son Tan Sri Mokhzani Mahathir’s firm Opcom Holdings Bhd by Telekom Malaysia Bhd (TM), and the appointment of Petron Malaysia Refining & Marketing Bhd as one of the fuel suppliers for government vehicles on Aug 3 last year. The awards stirred criticism, stemming from the connection of Petron to Dr. Mahathir’s son, Mirzan Mahathir, who is a director of Petron Corp. Chong also said “Pakatan Harapan’s manifesto clearly stated that only those with capabilities and professionals who are free from political influences would be appointed as directors of government-linked companies. “But some of the appointments contradict with the manifesto,” he said, citing the appointment of Dr. Mahathir as Khazanah Nasional’s chairman and Economic Affairs Minister Datuk Seri Azmin Ali as a director. Mahathir cannot accumulate all of the wealth in his own pocket. Instead, he places shares of companies, directorships, and contracts in the hands of his associates, creating a powerful clan that amasses the fruits of Malaysian productivity in their own circle.

Mahathir’s nepotism and cronyism brought a lot of criticism from political counterparts, citing these as the reasons the public is starting to lose faith in Mahathir. The leader of the multi-racial, center-left Malaysian political party advocating social democracy and secularism, social justice, progressivism, and multi-racialism – Democratic Action Party (DAP) Dr. Boo Cheng Hau said, “Pakatan under the present Prime Minister has seen the old Barisan and UMNO ways creeping into its culture and policies…Cronyism creeps in a more sophisticated form into Pakatan and the powers-that-be.” In April this year, PH lost the by-election in Rantau, a Malaysian state constituency in Negeri Sembilan. PKR leader P. Ganapathy claimed nepotism and cronyism within the government and unfulfilled promises were the reasons why Pakatan Harapan (PH) failed to win the Rantau seat. “It must be admitted that PH’s failure to fulfill election promises, addressing economy and living cost issues, infighting among component parties and cronyism, nepotism of a Cabinet minister with problematic family politics became the factor for people’s rejection.” he wrote. Ganapathy openly describes Mahathir’s corruption as a reason for the loss in public support. His corruption is so known that it is not even the topic. Criticism in Malaysia about Mahathir’s corruption is not about the existence of said corruption, but about the ways in which Mahathir uses corruption to advance his own wealth and influence.

Malaysians have grown so weary of corruption that they do not show signs of hope corruption will ever be eradicated from Malaysia. Malaysia today has become a multinational corporation that employs worthy Malaysians in order to increase the profits of those managing the business. Mahathir established this factory and its mechanisms. He retired from management, thinking he and his family could prosper on dividends, but it was not enough, and he returned to power. He promised to change things. He promised to better the lives of working Malaysians, regardless of their ethnicity or religion. Nevertheless, all Mahathir did since returning to power was to restructure his old mechanisms to adhere to his current needs. Malaysians realized this, but there is no hope for change. Mahathir will remain PM, and Malaysians will continue slaving so that Mahathir’s family can prosper. Everything in Malaysia is going according to Mahathir’s directions.