With the Federal Court’s decision today to uphold the High Court guilty verdict after a four-year emotional roller coaster, some ghosts have been finally laid to rest.
As I write this, immediately after the verdict was announced, a light shower is falling where I am in Penang, as if cleansing the nation.
Across the nation, sighs of relief and vindication. Many can scarcely believe that Najib Razak, the smooth-talking scion of the Razak Hussein family, immaculately dressed in an Armani suit, is now heading to prison.
The first former Malaysian PM to go behind bars. Who would have believed it? As someone said, it is our South Korean moment.
Ghosts from the past
Whether you believe in ghosts or not, there are ‘Ghosts’ of Malaysia Past that have haunted the nation.
For a while, the renowned cartoonist Zunar would draw sketches of the spirit of the slain Mongolian woman Altantuya Shaariibuu hovering in the skies above Putrajaya.
Think of others who were murdered in mysterious circumstances for which there was no satisfactory closure – banker Hussain Ahmad Najadi, prosecutor Kevin Morais and going further back to the 1980s, bank internal auditor Jalil Ibrahim.
Their murders shocked the nation. Suspects were hauled up. But in most of these cases, there was a sense that there was more to the killings than met the eye.
That last person, Jalil, if he were alive today, would tell us that corruption in Malaysia has a long history. I first heard of large-scale corruption in this nation in the 1980s, when I overhead relatives in Petaling Jaya talking in hushed tones about the RM2.5bn BMF scandal in Hong Kong.
Auditor Jalil was despatched to Hong Kong in 1983 to investigate – only to be murdered when he was hot on the trail, his body dumped in a banana plantation.
Of course, corruption had existed in Malaysia even before. In the 1970s, former Selangor Menteri Besar Harun Idris was convicted of cheating a bank and sentenced to six years’ imprisonment. The sum involved? RM7.9m.
The amounts involved were piddling in comparison with today’s numbers. The BMF scandal shocked the nation as it was the first multi-billion ringgit corruption case. It is a measure of how far we have gone down the path towards a kleptocracy that the BMF’s RM2.5bn today would barely raise eyebrows.
Now we have at least RM20bn allegedly stolen from 1MDB. Another RM6bn paid so far for the procurement scandal for six littoral combat ships, which remain undelivered.
There’s probably a lot more. Think of the billions stashed away in offshore tax havens abroad and secret bank accounts abroad or laundered through property purchases abroad.
During Mahathir’s time, crony capitalism at the elite level flourished. Remember the controversial bailouts of well-connected banks and large companies during his time.
Then came the privatisation of public services to cronies, relatives and party supporters, and the rise of government-linked companies with less transparency.
It all began when Mahathir launched his Malaysia Incorporated policy in 1981. The idea was to get the public and private sectors to work together as a Malaysian Company. But the corporate mentality seeped in as well, invariably leading to Mahathir’s Thatcherite privatisation policy two years later.
The most controversial privatisation was that of Tenaga Nasional to independent power producers, which would reap massive profits at the former’s expense. This prompted strong resistance from Tenaga Nasional executive chairman Ani Arope, a hero in the eyes of many for standing his ground against what he saw were unfair terms for Tenaga.
The problem with Malaysia Inc – thinking of the country like a Company – is that the nation lost its ‘soul’ in the process. Success would now be measured in terms of ringgit and sen, the bottom line.
So instead of improving public services such as general hospitals and public schools, the focus turned to profit-motivated medical tourism, international schools for the upper middle class, and private hospitals for the well-heeled. Politicians and their families would patronise these institutions while ordinary folk had to put up with neglected public schools, overcrowded and understaffed general hospitals, and inefficient public transport.
Something else also happened.
The rise of mega-projects
It didn’t take long for Mahathir and those who followed him to indulge in mega-infrastructure projects from highways to airports to mega-dams.
A few of these projects were much needed, but the nagging suspicion was that other mega-projects were more to create big contracts for the corporate cronies rather than for the public interest. Check out the Bakun Dam saga, with more mega-dams in the pipeline – and how it was awarded to a crony company while the natives living in the area of the dam were displaced.
More and more political leaders, even at the state level, latched on to the idea of mega-projects, purportedly for the benefit of the people. Often, these were awarded to well-connected companies through negotiations or if there was a tender, how sure are we that everything was above board?
Why do politicians love their mega-projects, such as unsustainable or financially unfeasible airports, highways, mega-transport, massive land reclamation projects?
Because often there is little transparency over disbursements from public coffers, offering rich opportunities for ‘commissions’, hidden ‘profit sharing’, inflated costs, and (construction) ‘jobs for the boys’ (cronies).
Mahathir’s proteges learnt well
And then 1MDB exploded in our faces. Under the Najib administration, Malaysia finally achieved ‘world class’ status – the world’s most infamous kleptocracy. The entire world could see it.
The Najib administration took what had begun under the Mahathir administration to a whole new stratospheric level.
Now it’s the littoral combat ships scandal. Ho-hum, are you really surprised?
What is it that motivates politicians? Power? Money? But then aren’t they paid salaries and pensions that most of us can only dream of? Why isn’t that enough? Why do they need all the appointments to debt-burdened government-linked companies for more cash and perks? Because the money is never enough?
To paraphrase a passage from the scriptures, no politician can serve both the People and Money. You either serve the People or you serve Money.
Surely, not all politicians are greedy and ‘money-faced’ – but there seem to be too few of them round. Perhaps our elected representatives are a reflection of us the voters. If we have a high tolerance level for corruption, invariably we will get MPs and ministers who reflect society’s warped value system.
The problem is that even the small number of honest politicians have to deal with the temptations that come their way once they are in office. Are they willing to stay away from conflict-of-interest situations? Or do they succumb to lobbyists’ and developers’ carrots and “you help me, I help you”?
I once had a chat with someone who was involved in starting an anti-corruption agency, which became one of the most respected in the world.
He told me the key to reducing corruption was to reduce opportunities for corruption and remove sources of temptation. This could be done by using IT to rotate enforcement personnel randomly and by ensuring a proper division of duties, so that no single person accumulates powers and falls prey to temptation.
Apart from all this, we need strong institutional checks and balances. Thankfully, the judiciary stood firm and came through for the people when it was needed most.
Enough damage has been done to Malaysia and its international image. It is time to reject corrupt leaders and to elect representatives that put the people’s interests – not corporate profits – first.
The people must do their part. We must wake up and reclaim our nation. We must support an independent judiciary and castigate politicians who use race and religion to divert attention from their plunder of our immense natural wealth. With those resources, no one should be poor or in need in Malaysia.
We must focus on the real issues outlined in the People’ Agenda, a five-point demand for candidates in the general election to address the real issues affecting the people. Climate change is already wreaking havoc. Relative poverty based on household surveys stands at 16% – and could be a lot higher. What about all the hidden households, remote dwellers, migrants and refugees whose incomes fall below the poverty line income?
What next for Malaysia?
For one thing, Najib’s drummed-up “Malu apa, Bossku” (What’s there to be ashamed of, boss) craze will probably peter out in the days to come, once their hero is out of sight.
That is, apart from diehard ‘Bossku’ supporters who are unable to see the real Najib for who he is. It is time for those enamoured by Najib to realise the colossal damage he and his coterie have wreaked upon the nation.
Other folk, having seen one of the most powerful persons in Malaysia despatched to prison, will be in no mood to see any corrupt politicians escape justice.
Some of these corrupt politicians, fat after feeding from the trough of public funds, are still roaming around freely. They should be quivering in their pants now. Najib himself has more cases to contend with.
Everyone guilty of corruption must face the music and serve their sentence, no matter their rank in society. Let there be no double standards and let there be no escape from justice.
Finally, a tribute to all those who stood up for justice. The many ordinary Malaysians who voted for change in 2018. The Bersih 4 protesters who called for Najib’s resignation. The brave judges in our courts, led by Chief Justice Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat, who stood up for judicial independence. Prosecutors V Sithambaram and team who pursued this doggedly to the end. The lawyers who marched for justice. The civil society groups and whistleblowers like Rafizi Ramli who battled corruption. Peaceful ordinary people, including student activists, who came out to protest against mismanagement and corruption. Cartoonists like Zunar and artist Fahmi Reza who added to the pressure.
The irony is that it was Sarawak Report’s Clare Rewcastle Brown and the team at The Edge, as well as journalists Tom Wright and Bradley Hope, who looked up other sources – rather than well-paid leading audit firms relying on their client’s cooked books and financial records – who unravelled the truth about 1MDB and related cases.
Spare a thought for the many, many political and civil society activists and ordinary people who were arrested, hauled up and served time under the Mahathir and Najib administrations for speaking out against abuses of power. All their efforts were not in vain.
The light shower that began as I wrote this has ended now – the air seems cleaner, the stench of corruption that bit less. The Federal Court verdict is a cathartic moment for Malaysia. Many are pinching themselves – surely it must be a dream?
But the journey does not end at Kajang or Sungai Buloh Prison. Ordinary people in Malaysia must not let up. We must keep up the pressure to cleanse the nation and rid it of all corruption.
The next stop is actually the general election, as well as all the other ongoing corruption cases. It is time for genuine change and for the corrupt to finally face the music.
Let’s persist in the quest for institutional reforms to strengthen checks and balances, enhance the separation of powers, restore local council elections and revamp the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission.
If that happens, the Ghosts of Malaysia Past can finally be laid to rest. For now though, we can observe our coming Malaysia Day with an enormous load off our backs.Anil Netto
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
23 August 2022