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The unfinished Malaysian corruption story

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I was honoured last month by the Australian Corporate Lawyers Association with an invitation to deliver the International Keynote Address at their 2010 Conference at the Sydney Hilton.

Three hundred corporate lawyers participated in the two-day conference, with some 400 attending the ACLA Awards Dinner. I was invited to perform a similar task last year by the association, but to my regret and utter shame, I was forced to cancel, at great cost to my Australian hosts, my appearance in Melbourne, their 2009 conference venue.

I found myself a reluctant patient at the Gleneagles Hospital in Kuala Lumpur, with a serious lung infection. The doctor pumped, yes, pumped enough antibiotics into my body to float a destroyer and maybe keep our two valiant submarines happily submerged forever.

It transpired that I had picked up a virus in the Netherlands while attending an ethics conference at the Amsterdam Free University. I was very surprised, to say the least, when I received a repeat invitation from ACLA very early this year. I asked the organisers, in jest, if they realised that they were taking a risk as the same thing might happen again.

Overcoming Corruption: A Regional Challenge was the title of my address. I assured them that there was really no need to feel concerned about the state of health of corruption in the region.

In Malaysia, in particular, in spite of a flurry of activity to put on display the full panoply of anti-corruption paraphernalia, it is all form and no substance, as with most things we see in this land of the Morning Glory. If they wanted my honest opinion, I would say without fear of violent contradiction that corruption in Malaysia was not only alive and well: it was in indecently robust good health. The latest TI Corruption Perceptions Index says it all.

I treated them to a amusing little anecdote about the then newly appointed President of the World Bank, James Wolfensohn, who at a meeting with senior colleagues, said that something had to be done to reduce corruption in borrowing countries in Asia, Africa and South America. He said that many saw the Bank as part of the problem of corruption. His advisers told him that he should not ever again mention “corruption” as this would upset the Bank’s many clients. The fact that they were all corrupt, and kleptomaniacs to a man, did not seem to matter.

The subject was a taboo in polite society. When Wolfensohn, feeling a little hot under the collar, asked what he should call it then, he was told, quite unabashedly, to refer to it as a ‘C’ word. The point of this true story is that we have all come a long way since and, in a perverse sort of way, so has corruption. Corruption never sleeps.

Malaysia is, ethically speaking, in dire straits. Mahathir founded his administration on corruption, lies and subterfuge. He lied to the nation about the many schemes that were blatantly dishonest. Worse, they were criminal, such as gambling with the EPF money, your money and mine, to corner the international tin market and later the country’s reserves to speculate on the currency market, pitting himself in the latter case against George Soros. The country lost billions. Mahathir succeeded in planting and nurturing a culture of impunity and disinformation that, even long after he left office, has continued to flourish. Of course, the man who cut his business teeth minding a stall at the Pekan Rabu in Alor Setar during the Japanese Occupation can explain all this away by saying that whatever he did, it was done in the national interest. We have heard it all before.

The lawyers represented, and advised, many large Australian companies. They knew their stuff, kept themselves abreast of the region’s economic, social and political developments. There was not an awful lot I could tell them that they did not know already about our appalling standards of public ethics, and the pervasive nature of corrupt practices that both define and circumscribe the way we conduct our business transactions both in and out of the corridors of power. They had heard about our many agencies that provide ample opportunities for the acquisition of personal wealth and abuse of power.

What amazed them, though, was the report about some of our frontline immigration officers stashing away millions of dollars of bribe money. Corrupt officials do not enforce the law, and this has led to easy access into the country of drug and human traffickers and other illegals. And our corruption has turned Malaysia into a conduit for human trafficking into Australia. When we add to this the corruption in the ruling elite, the police, the judiciary, the customs and other key institutions, we have a thoroughly ugly picture of a country fuelled and driven by ethically reprehensible behaviour. I warned the Australians that we welcome their investment, but it only fair to warn them that doing business in Malaysia required more than the usual due diligence because Malaysians were surprisingly adept at turning corruption into a low risk and high return business venture for themselves, “leaving you holding the baby.” The system tolerates and encourages it.

We have, as a nation, been truly sold down the “river of no return” by Mahathir, who now continues to set his version of the moral tone of this country. In what capacity I neither know nor care any more. Flood or pestilence, it is business as usual. In this country, we privatise and politicise everything, including corruption.

A lady in the audience asked if there was anything that could be done to take Malaysia back to the pre-Mahathir values. The short answer is yes, there is. It is possible by turfing out the present administration so that a thorough and complete review of policies and procedures could be put in train to ensure relevance, with mechanisms for checks and balances firmly put in place. All institutions will have to justify their existence and those that are no longer relevant will be closed down. Institutions that have been rendered dysfunctional will be strengthened. The deadwood and the corrupt will be encouraged to take early retirement and meritocracy will be the sole criterion used to determine suitability to lead.

I am absolutely convinced that transforming the administration is not only desirable, but absolutely essential if this country is to succeed in claiming its right to a seat at the top table, among the clean nations that will shape the future of the world. Change, and complete change, is the answer. Malaysians must decide the kind of future they want.

I am anti-national by Najib’s latest definition because I speak the truth in a foreign country about Malaysia’s unsavoury reputation for massive corruption. I suppose living off corruption as many of our leaders do with panache and impunity is part of being a true Malaysia.

MySinchew 2010-12-11


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