After a long time, Former Prime Minister, Najib Razak, finally appeared in the High Court in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia last April 3, 2019, to face trial in one of the many cases against him. Hundreds of millions of dollars were drained from the public deposits from the government investment firm, 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB); these were deposited in the former leader’s personal account. His court appearance was considered historic by the people fighting against corruption in Malaysia for years now.
The 61-year power clasp of Najib’s Barisan Nasional coalition ended as it suffered a shocking election defeat. This followed Najib’s arrest in June after police collected $273m cash and goods, plus more than $10m worth of luxury bags alone. Amidst this news, few loyal supporters believe that these were all gifts as what Najib claimed.
While his April trial involved a minor 1MDB subsidiary, hearings relating to the main cases are set to begin this August. Najib’s scandal made him the poster boy representing corruption in Malaysia.
Graft is deeply rotted in Malaysian society. This means that the rot goes beyond the former prime minister. According to Transparency International’s yearly corruption index, out of 180 countries, Malaysia ranked 61st. Compared to Southeast Asian average, this news is somewhat better. However, Singapore and Hong Kong with the same quasi-democratic systems and development level are far above.
The bribing culture of Malaysia stayed for years now. Basic services such as hospitals, schools, and courts require under-the-table dealings to access. Large-scale political corruption has been an enduring dilemma of the society. Transparency International 2014 survey reported that citizens considered political parties as the most crooked bodies in the country, followed by the police authorities and public servants.
The 1MDB scandal might have shocked the world, but, for Malaysians, this just added to the long list of political indignities like MARA, FELDA, Tabuang Haji, and others.
Najib’s last years in the position allowed him to deflect any accountability. He also influenced the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC), eradicated the attorney general, and made up intrigues about foreign interference. The enfeebled judiciary and police left the investigation to the civil society.
In 2012, the former executive director of Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM), Cynthia Gabriel, filed a legal complaint in France. The French authorities, in turn, conducted an investigation which divulged a scheme that reached the Malaysian government’s uppermost levels. To carry on the mission, she and other partners established the Center to Combat Corruption and Cronyism (C4) in 2014. C4 is an autonomous non-profit policy advocacy organization against corruption.
Gabriel, together with other activists and journalists, has faced harassment, criminal cases, and other mistreatments because of what she fought for. Amidst the high cost, the activists are hopeful for the new government named Pakatan Harapan (PH, “Alliance of Hope”) which took office in 2018. PH promised to make Malaysia graft-fee by 2023.
Few notable undertakings such as the pursuit of Najib, the launch of National Anti-Corruption Plan, and establishment of committees for state official investigation were made. But, total progress has been sluggish as implementation delays and inactions were observed.
Eradicating corruption does not happen overnight. PH government must strengthen the MACC, ensure the implementation of the National Anti-Corruption Plan, and revoke laws like the Official Secrets Act of 1972.
Rumors on the stalling of Najib’s case to buy time until another government serves have been around. Najib has also released a music video with him portraying as the man of the citizens and victim.
Corruption in Malaysia runs deep. But, the enduring efforts of public society organizations enabled the exposure of corruption up to the highest leader. It is now in the hands of the PH government to continue cementing the progress.