This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on September 12, 2022 - September 18, 2022
Social media platforms have changed the way we communicate. Sending messages has become much easier, so much so that sharing wishes for national celebrations has become a preoccupation.
The recent 65th Merdeka Day was one occasion when my WhatsApp chat groups were filled with messages of hope about where Malaysia should be headed as a nation. As citizens, we wish Malaysia well.
One message that caught my attention came from a friend who asked, what is the meaning of our independence from our British colonial masters if we still cannot overcome the scourge of corruption? How can there be freedom in a nation where corruption is rife? Widespread corruption is, after all, a sign of a failing state.
It’s too bold a statement, perhaps, in judgement of the state of affairs in Malaysia. As masters of our own destiny, we have achieved a lot. But judging from the high-profile court cases, guilty verdicts, and convictions of a former prime minister and his wife, corruption, malfeasance in office and the abuse of power are taking place very much at the centre of power itself — it is not something that is occurring by the side.
High Court judge Mohamed Zaini Mazlan sounded this warning in his recent 116-page judgment on the Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor graft case: “Corruption has reached almost every level of society. It must be curtailed before it becomes a pandemic. If corruption is left unbridled, our society will come to accept it as a way of life or business.”
Corporate figure Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah, in a Merdeka Day advertorial placed in local newspapers, reminded fellow Malaysians that there is “a perception that corruption has now become endemic in this country and unless we seriously root out corruption, we are in trouble”.
“Like how cancer attacks a body from within, corruption is a disease that can destroy a country and society from the inside out. Allowing corruption to go unchecked is like injecting poison into a body.”
The reminders do not stop here. In the last couple of years, at least in mosques in Selangor, Muslims have been reminded of the danger posed by corruption by the imam during his sermon at the end of the weekly Friday prayers.
“Jauhilah kami dari perbuatan rasuah dan salahguna kuasa kerana ini adalah suatu pengkhianatan kepada amanah yang diberikan,” the imam would say, praying that fellow Muslims would distance themselves from acts of corruption and abuse of power, for in it lies the betrayal of trust bestowed by the people.
Islam not only despises but abhors corruption. Zafar Iqbal and Mervyn Lewis in their (2002) work, The Islamic Attack on Corruption, noted that “there is zero tolerance for bribery in Islam, and Islam rejects any idea that bribery serves as ‘the grease that oils the economic wheels’”.
The topic of corruption is mentioned in 47 verses of the Quran, which in summary clearly state that God forbids corruption, does not love corrupt people, and has heavy punishment awaiting them on the Day of Judgment if they do not stop their corrupt behaviour and repent.
Also, in a hadith from Abdullah bin Amr Ranhuma, the Prophet (Peace be upon him) said: “The curse of Allah is upon the one who offers a bribe and the one who takes it.”
When corruption has become a staple topic and cause for advice in a Friday congregation, then the situation in the country must be serious.
Let’s not kid ourselves that corruption is not a problem in Malaysia. Whether it is at a pandemic, endemic or systemic stage, we must not allow it to become the scourge of the nation.
And let us not dwell on the illogical defensive argument that corruption is worse in Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam to justify that the situation in the country is not alarming.
Cheah said battling corruption will require not only strong laws that are implemented without fear or favour but also a change in mindset and culture among Malaysians.
He noted that the recent decisions by the courts on corruption cases — including the high-profile ones involving politicians and those in high office, if I may add — have sparked hope. Further, the judiciary’s upholding of its institutional integrity is a huge step forward in this war against corruption.
As ruling politicians are key to law and order and the fight against corruption, there is no other way but for them to take the lead. For this to happen, however, there must be a strong check and balance mechanism.
The 1Malaysia Development Bhd financial scandal of mega proportions happened because there was no effective check and balance even at the highest office in the country. Within the cabinet, many ministers, including even the brightest professionals among them, chose to ignore the red flags, obviously because of their fear of the near absolute power that the prime minister wielded.
Now that we have the confidence that there is a separation of powers between the judiciary and the executive in Putrajaya, the next task is to take the right steps to govern the country’s politics in a more transparent manner.
The passing of the anti-hopping law is key to this quest of making politicians more responsible as it stops them from using their position of power to induce political entrapment. Those who switch political parties, causing elected governments to fall and are then rewarded with ministerial posts, are as corrupt as those who abuse their power for financial gains.
As politicians are at the centre of many ongoing court cases against graft, involving the procurement of questionable sources of money deemed as political donations, the Political Financing Bill must be passed to check corruption and put an end to the dominance of money politics in the country.
The proposal to limit the tenure of the prime minister to a maximum of two election terms must be pursued to ensure that the power of the incumbent is not entrenched. In addition, making the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission answerable to parliament instead of the executive — the prime minister and the cabinet — and giving it prosecution powers will strengthen the mechanism to fight corruption.
We also have the National Anti-Corruption Plan (2019-2023) in place but it has lost its momentum with the government changing three times in the last four years. The plan’s objective is to “break the corruption chain” and underscores the government’s commitment to achieving the aspiration of making Malaysia known for her integrity and not corruption.
The plan covers the scope of the problem well and has identified six priority areas that are vulnerable to corruption — political governance, public sector administration, public procurement, corporate governance, law enforcement and legal/judicial affairs.
The plan outlines six core strategies: Strengthen political integrity and accountability; ensure the effectiveness of public service delivery; increase the efficiency and transparency of public procurement; enhance the credibility of the legal and judicial system; institutionalise the credibility of law enforcement agencies; and inculcate good governance in the corporate entity.
We must fast-track the plan and not leave it on the shelf as an intention that is not executed.
As a foundation to fight corruption, education must play a crucial role too. Inculcating good values and understanding that corruption is a bane to the nation’s development is something that must be drilled into students throughout their academic life.
To win the war, the fight against corruption is a jihad that we must embed in our culture.
Azam Aris is editor emeritus at The Edge
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