How they get away with it
Former Attorney General Tommy Thomas in his recent book, “My Story: Justice in the Wilderness,” suggested that big-time corruption in the Malaysian polity sprang up during the Tun Abdul Razak era – 1970-1976 – that a secret or covert space in government appeared, out of sight of any scrutiny.
This is real power, where greed and self-interests reign, over national interests. It is a milieu that has hobbled the country for more than a year with at least four factions struggling for power and a weak prime minister attempting to hold off his opponents through political patronage and other subterfuges to keep them at bay.
There is a good deal of truth in the theory that a deep culture of secrecy and non-accountability exists in Malaysia’s government and administration that gets in the way of honest government. It is more complicated than that, with a vast web of relationships between a powerful civil service, a political class more involved in ruling than governing, a web of laws that discourage reform groups and journalists, and a permissive culture that looks away in exchange for perks at election time rather than ending the careers of blemished politicians.
Those within the political or civil administration discovered committing corrupt acts are most often shifted quietly to other departments, or even promoted. There is no Freedom of information (FOI) framework, leaving administrative decisions to never reach public knowledge. Many contracts are awarded without transparent due process through tender processes, with major contracts with massive public interest considerations like toll way concession agreements hidden under the cover of the Official Secrets Act (OSA).
Corruption starts at the bottom, from distorted stationary, cleaning, and vehicle maintenance contracts in government departments, making its way up through land deals undertaken by state agencies like State Economic Development Corporations, to the misallocation of public funds to bogus and white-elephant projects where politicians and their associates benefit. Some reach public knowledge like the National Feedlot Scandal, known colloquially as Cowgate, in which a powerful political leader, Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, United Malays National Organization minister for women, family and community was accused of diverting a portion of RM250 million from a halal cattle feeding project to pay for condominiums, vacations and a Mercedes. She survived the crisis and Rafizi Ramli, the opposition figure who exposed it, was sentenced to 18 months in jail – suspended – for violating the Bank Secrecy Act.
As with Cowgate, most such scandals remain hidden behind the façade of power and government. While 1Malaysia Development Bhd melted down in the biggest financial scandal in Malaysian history, with US$4.5 billion lost to mismanagement and corruption, the meltdown was largely detected by international press and the US justice department. Most will never be discovered, investigated, or prosecuted. Any activists or journalists who may be curious will be warned away via the Official Secrets Act. The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission is not an independent body, relying on the Public Prosecutor to give permission for any court proceedings against alleged wrongdoers.
The most sinister power of Malaysian leaders is thus the ability to avoid public scrutiny and hide behind the machinery of government administration, encouraged by the country’s focus on government administration through executive decision-making, rather than via legislative means. The thousands of decisions made daily are never known, never questioned. There is almost no accountability.
The threat of closure, lawsuit or arrest means there is little real investigative journalism occurring within local new media — with exceptions for courageous publications like Malaysiakini and others – exacerbated by harsh institutional approach to potential inside whistle-blowers. There is a culture of fear about disclosing corruption, and also a great hesitancy on the part of police and other law enforcement agencies to investigate people considered VVIPs. Malaysiakini has faced numerous court actions, libel threats, contempt citations and other actions from the government.
Beyond that, far too many rural voters, whose electoral power stems from malapportionment, see corrupt politicians as Robin Hoods who steal from the public purse and give something back to them at election time. This leaves open possibilities for Malaysian leaders to continue committing corrupt acts without much fear of being discovered and held accountable.
Beyond that, the notion that Malaysian political leaders enjoy almost absolute power is an illusion, most recently demonstrated when a request by the current Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin for emergency rule last October from the Yang Di Pertuan Agong was summarily rejected. Although the Covid crisis was the stated reason, the request was widely interpreted by critics as a means to stave off an opposition try to unseat his shaky coalition.
The parliament is relatively unimportant in the functioning and even the existence of government. Most tussles for power have primarily been played with the king or state sultan/raja playing the kingmaker, rather than any test of numbers on the floor of the federal or state parliaments. The federal and respective state constitutions provide the constitutional monarch with some discretion to select as prime minister or chief minister, as the case may be, a person he believes will command the confidence of the majority of house members within the parliament.
Federal and particularly state legislatures have very short sitting periods, and practice little in the way of scrutiny over executive government actions. This, on the whole, allows executives within the Malaysian parliamentary context to rely much more on governance through executive decision making, rather than the legislative process. The location of the federal parliament within the confines of Kuala Lumpur, rather than the centre of administrative government in Putra Jaya is symbolic of the secondary importance of parliament within the government decision making framework.
State royal households appear to play a much greater role of scrutiny over state executives than parliaments. Most sultans hold weekly meetings with their chief ministers and subject them to questioning over issues of governance and administration. Sultans have even moved to rid state administrations of chief ministers who displease them, as was seen with the resignation of Johor Chief Minister Osman Sapian in April 2019. Sultans have also blocked the appointment of governing party nominated candidates, as with the Perlis Raja’s refusal to appoint Shahidan Kassim chief minister in 2008, or the Selangor sultan’s blocking Wan Azizah Ismail, the wife of Anwar Ibrahim, from becoming the state’s chief minister in 2014.
Sultans have also overruled state executive decisions, such as the Johor Sultan, who reversed an order to ban electronic cigarettes and vaping outlets in Johor in 2015. The influence of the monarchy over executive government is strong, as Muhyiddin found. Anwar Ibrahim, after his release from prison in 2018 spent his first week of freedom making goodwill visits to the royal households, knowing they are vital as kingmakers.
As Malaysian political parties and politicians themselves rarely think in policy terms, policymaking and implementation have been primarily left to a powerful civil service, most recently in UMNO’s thrall, that set out in the wake of the 2018 Pakatan Harapan victory in national elections to thwart coalition decisions. The prime minister and executive primarily rely upon the civil service to develop and implement policy. Some ministers and their deputies over the years have not been familiar with issues of concern within their own portfolios, allowing senior civil servants to fill the vacuum.
Given that the civil service is primarily made up of Malays, diversity of reflective community thinking within the service is narrow. In addition, strong power-distance relationships between directors of departmental units and staff hinders frank and open discussion about issues. This stifles creativity and innovation in policy development and problem solving within the service.
To the disgraced former Prime Minister Najib Razak’s credit, he perceived the problem, instituting the government transformation program, led by Idrus Jala. Consultants were brought in to guide the civil service into adopting modern management practices. However, critics of the program saw the process as taking the opportunity to channel large consulting fees towards political cronies.
A strong predisposition towards the idea of protecting the “Malay Agenda” within the civil service skews policy towards positive discrimination towards what is perceived as Malay interests. The so-called Pakatan Harapan reform government ran up against great resistance from the civil service with any policy initiatives that were perceived to go against the Malay agenda. Former deputy foreign minister Saifuddin Abdullah labelled this resistance as a “deep state” at work which led to the sabotage of the then government’s plan to ratify the Rome Statute.
A senior state civil servant from Kedah told Asia Sentinel that sabotaging or derailing chief ministerial directions was common by heads of state departments. Department heads would cunningly ignore directives from the chief minister’s office, knowing that on many issues there would never be any follow up. Another civil servant tactic was to put bureaucracy in the way or make up ‘red tape’ issues to stall and delay implementation. On some occasions, bureaucrats have sabotaged chief ministerial directives, knowing the Sultan disapproves of the particular directive.
The art of sabotage of chief ministerial directives is often so cunningly hidden that bureaucrats use the phrase “hit and hide” to describe their actions. Sabotage actions are so well hidden, political leaders can’t find where resistance to their directions is coming from.
A leader’s personal charisma and ability to induce collaboration among members of government, civil servants, and agencies is extremely important to the extent of power they are able to exercise and assert. Malaysian power-distance ranking is far higher than any other country in the world. According to this index, Malaysians are willing to almost unquestionably accept power and authority. This usually accords any prime or state chief minister an enormous platform of power that is totally daunting to any who would dare question it.
Government leaders too often practice a management style of rule through fear. Political party rules are often flaunted to expel any individuals and groups who oppose the leadership. The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) has been partial and selective in whom they pursue for investigation and prosecution.
Najib Razak, knowing he couldn’t trust the Special Branch, set up his own internal security organization within the Prime Minister’s Department to rival them. Formal mainstream media is used to project an aura of power and strength of leaders to the public. The PMO hosts a large army of trolls to pass out propaganda and attack opponents through social media.
The prime attack tactic against opponents, political and otherwise, is to seek to destroy their public reputations, weaken and eventually wrest their power. Mahathir used the media to portray his successor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi as a weak and ineffectual, asleep on the job, to force him to step down in favor of Najib Razak in 2009. Najib was continually attacked by Mahathir as extremely corrupt leader, which he was, and which played a major role in his election defeat in 2018, resulting in a Mahathir-led Pakatan Harapan government taking power.
It’s the scope and depth of political leaders’ personal relationships with other politicians, civil servants, police, members of the defence forces, royal families, and members of the judiciary, that provide them with power. For most of Malaysia’s political leaders this takes many years, if not a career.
The country has a strong culture of comradery through schools they attended, club memberships and organizations they belong to. However, this relationship paradigm has changed over the last decade. Where once membership of the Lake or Royal Selangor Golf Clubs was so important, this has mostly disappeared. The new paradigm of comradery is now membership of, or sympathy towards organizations like IKRAM. One of Muhyiddin’s key stakeholders in his government is the Perlis mufti, popularly known as Dr Maza, where former federal territories mufti Zulkifli Mohamad Al-Bakri, appointed as an independent minister within the PMO is seen by many as his proxy.
Originally published in the Asia Sentinel