Arresting the slide in our public institutions (Part 1)

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The controversy surrounding the death of a young political assistant at the MACC office will now force Malaysians to look seriously into the decline in standing and credibility of our state institutions, and to ask how they can arrest the slide in performance and credibility of public institutions such as the anti-corruption commission, observes Farish Noor.


The term ‘Asubhabhavana’ is familiar with many historians of Buddhist theology by now, for it refers to a meditative mode of introspection that has become ritual practice over the centuries. In layman’s terms, Asubhabhavana refers to the simple process of self-reflection and mental back-tracking where one contemplates the manifold paths, steps and mis-steps that were taken to get us to where we are today; prompting the simple yet direct question: “Why have I become what I am today, and what were the mistakes that I made that continue to hurt me now?”

As it is with individual subjectivities, so is it with states, governments and institutions. For when we look at the process of historical development and decline of so many post-colonial societies, we also need to ask what were the steps and mis-steps that were taken to get them to their present state of degeneration and decline?

A case in point is the recent one in Malaysia, where a young political assistant from the DAP opposition party was found dead under the most suspicious of circumstances. The young man had been summoned by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) to its offices in order to answer some questions related to allegations of corrupt political practice. The next time anyone sees him, he is found lying dead on the rooftop of the building next door. Needless to say the fact that the young man may have died while under MACC custody begs the immediate and obvious questions: how did he die, and why? This is the burning question that has brought Malaysians of all walks of life, across the political divide, together. Already the same question is being asked even by the component parties of the BN ruling coalition, and prominent BN leaders have likewise called for an inquiry into what happened that day at the MACC office.

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Sadly, Malaysia’s convoluted politics has begun to twist the facts of the case. The death of the young man has been turned into a racial-ethnic issue, with the vernacular Malay press in particular arguing that those who question the official version of the story are actually working to undermine the Malaysian government and its related public institutions that are dominated by Malay Malaysians. But no amount of spin can alter the fact that the death of the young man was mysterious to say the least; and no amount of spin can alter the fact that Malaysians want to know the truth.

Firstly, it has to be noted that Malaysians have every right to complain about and to question the conduct of state institutions that are, after all, being paid for by Malaysian taxpayers themselves. To suggest otherwise would be to miss the point that state institutions are there to serve the needs of the citizenry and that it is the citizenry who have the right as stakeholders to ensure that the institutions of governance are run well. For if Malaysian citizens are not allowed to ask how institutions like the  MACC are run, then who is?

Which brings us to the second question: namely, who does run these institutions? In so many developing post-colonial societies, we have seen how the institutions of the state such as the police, army and judiciary are used and abused by entrenched political elites who continue to act and behave as if these institutions are part of their party-political apparatus. In the worst case scenario, as we have seen in countries like Indonesia (under Suharto) and the Philippines (under Marcos), the army and police were no more than extensions of the political apparatus of the dictators in power. In other countries across Africa and Asia, we have seen how anti-corruption agencies were used in the most biased and selective manner, to bring about the selective persecution of opposition politicians, activists and members of the public.

READ MORE:  Exorcising the Ghost of Corruption

In the long run, these casual and routine instances where the distinction between political elites and the institutions of state are blurred will do more damage to the latter than the former. One should not wish for a situation as was the case when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of Pakistan even had his own pseudo-state paramilitary apparatus, the Federal Security force, at his beck and call. In such instances, the state has all but dissolved itself and things can only degenerate further.

Which brings us to the theme of Asubhabhavana and the need for states to be self-reflective and for societies to ask how and why did the institutions of governance slide so far? The controversy surrounding the death of the young political assistant at the office of the MACC will now force Malaysians to look seriously into the decline in standing and credibility of our state institutions, and to ask how they can arrest the slide in performance and credibility of bodies such as the anti-corruption commission. To be sure, Malaysia – like all countries – needs an anti-corruption commission, but it has to be one that is credible, transparent and accountable to the people themselves, and not merely to political elites in power. Anything less will make a mockery of the process of governance and reduce us to the level of the proverbial banana republic, where state violence is normalised and the rule of law rendered irrelevant.

Malaysia is a country that now has 1,535 cases of death in custody as part of its developmental record. If that figure alone does not give us cause to pause and reflect on how far we have veered from the ideal set by the nation’s founding fathers, then nothing will.

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