The unfinished Malaysian corruption story

By Tunku Abdul Aziz

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.

  1. #1 by Bigjoe on Tuesday, 14 December 2010 - 10:52 am

    You look at Malay culture and corruption is actually alien to them – they had little to be corrupted with. Islam became a bulwark for dishonesty for the common folk before they could be corrupted. Corruption was the perogative of the elites and it existed before Islam and pervasive even after Islam became the religion of Malaysia’s Malay.

    It is no surprise that Malays turn to PAS when it comes to anti-corruption not so only because Islam its their religion now but because it really did confine corruption to the elite.

    The key and the hardest part of getting rid of corruption remain the feudalism of Malay society. Rid of the feudalism and the fight against corruption is simply not that hard.

  2. #2 by kualim on Tuesday, 14 December 2010 - 10:53 am

    We know of such corruption. And we are more mad when we read such articles. You bet, we will never give our votes to the barisan.

  3. #3 by Godfather on Tuesday, 14 December 2010 - 11:03 am

    It’s called The Never Ending Story, and thank goodness with the internet, even the kampung folks know what is going on in this country. We are not taken in by the stupid “rakyat didahulukan” slogan or by the promises of “open tender”, which ends up being the complete opposite under the NR regime.

    I have said it many times before, and I will say it again. We need to go bankrupt before real action is taken. The Malays are a very forgiving lot and that mentality will change only when they realise their rambutan tree is dying because there is no fertilizer, no water….

  4. #4 by boh-liao on Tuesday, 14 December 2010 - 12:40 pm

    Ai say man, like dis cannot what
    AG very sore lah, Y you always get invited 2 give keynote addresses at international lawyer conferences, while he, d top lawyer in d nation, is not given dis honor
    Watch out man, AG loses face, he will ask immigration dept 2 suspend your passport
    Reason: U anti-national lah (Y? U admitted it mah, LOL)

  5. #5 by yhsiew on Tuesday, 14 December 2010 - 1:09 pm

    One of the characteristic features of a high-income developed country is low level of corruption. How can Malaysia be a high-income developed country in year 2020 and yet riddled with rampant corruption. The Prime Minister must find a solution to this problem.

  6. #6 by dagen on Tuesday, 14 December 2010 - 1:15 pm

    Only in this country members of the ruling party can openly argued in favour of continuing corruption. “We want our privileges” they cried with clear reference to their unique privilege to be corrupt.

  7. #7 by monsterball on Tuesday, 14 December 2010 - 1:31 pm

    Tunku Abdul Aziz is witty and it is a joy to read such a lively and comical speech.
    “I suppose living off corruption as many of our leaders do with panache and impunity is part of being a true Malaysia”……..hahahahahahahaha

  8. #8 by ENDANGERED HORNBILL on Tuesday, 14 December 2010 - 1:54 pm

    “Mahathir founded his administration on corruption, lies and subterfuge. He lied to the nation about the many schemes that were blatantly dishonest.”

    Tunku, if Malays were not corrupt by nature, then who began and spread this corrupt culture to the extent that it is now so endemic and institutionalised????!!!

    Did 1Mamak bring 1Acorn of Corruption to this country and caused the acorn to grow into this huge OAK tree of corruption?

    • #9 by rubini on Tuesday, 14 December 2010 - 9:10 pm

      Dear Endangered Hornbill,

      Corruption is culture introduced by Mahatir to remain in power. Corruption is not an practice of any particular race. Its the same in China, India, Russia where corruption is prevalent. Its the Government policies which dictates the kind of culture it creates. NEP is form of corruption, Subsidies are also a form of corruption.

      If u go to Singapore, Australia, Norway, Finland, Switzerland honesty is highly appreciated because its taught in schools. Check & Balances in Government, Parliament, Government Institution.

      Unfortunately, Malaysian must accept the government that they voted for. Change can only come when society realises corruption is terminal cancer which will eat into society. Ultimately Malaysians who are paying a high price for corruption.

      I salute Tunku Abdul Aziz because he speaks the truth no matter how painful it is. I doubt it gives him any pleasure to speak poorly of the present state of affair, yet the truth is truth.

  9. #10 by danieltkb on Tuesday, 14 December 2010 - 2:00 pm

    the issue is more than corruption, in the whole world, there will be some or some will be more.
    the real issue is during M time, he had turn the nation into what he had planned. He want the bumi to control and hold certain % of its “right”, and he had to manipulate to fulfull his obj. As long as the “manipulation” is one sided, it need to be aline to the equilibrium. And its fruits of issue after issues, in this nation of mix race. I believe what had been done during his power, is today fruits of his labour. So the blame is in his time of power ruling the nation, and the continue of his power with the same party will definately more harm and cancel. to get this heal, and the rakyat in peace need a specialist doctor and a turn of power control, only than will the next generation enjoy of the real peace and harmony will tame couruption, eventually, with a good moral, understanding and faith, nobody will interested in couruption anymore, only then, the nation will be blessed !
    if not we will enjoy issue after problems after hate and end in war of human being !

  10. #11 by danieltkb on Tuesday, 14 December 2010 - 2:03 pm

    cancel ==> cancer

  11. #12 by Loh on Tuesday, 14 December 2010 - 3:53 pm

    ///Mahathir founded his administration on corruption, lies and subterfuge.
    A lady in the audience asked if there was anything that could be done to take Malaysia back to the pre-Mahathir values.///–Tunku Abdul Aziz

    Mamakthir also has thick skin in claiming that he had 100% Malay blood when nobody could be sure of that in his veins. He later said that he had only two spoonfuls of Pakistani blood. Yet he founded Ketuanan Melayu. To be more exact it is Ketuanan Mamak. Years ago Mamaks went to separate mosque. Now people go to Mamak mosque, including the national mosque.

    The lady’s question shows that the whole world knew that Mamakthir causes Malaysia to be in dire straits. How one person can destroy a country when he was not even born in a Ruler’s family. As a Mamak of pendatang descendant, he could embarrass the Rulers and yet he got away with impunity. Had his supporters no choice then? That shows the power of corruption, and the power of the corrupt to rule by law

  12. #13 by boh-liao on Tuesday, 14 December 2010 - 4:24 pm

    MMK yelled: Botoi, botoi! With coconut n bottle in his hands

  13. #14 by Dipoh Bous on Tuesday, 14 December 2010 - 4:43 pm

    It’s always amazing to have the opportunity to read a piece of Tunku’s writing (mind?).

    That EPF and national’s treasury plunder : shouldn’t MM be hauled up for investigation by macc ?

  14. #15 by AhPek on Tuesday, 14 December 2010 - 6:16 pm

    The UMNOPUTRAS in fighting to uphold and maintain special Malay privileges (which in fact is never in The Constitution) are in fact clamouring to fight and maintain their rights to pilfer to enrich themselves.The right to plunder is camouflaged under the guise of ‘special Malay privileges’!This can only happen in a country where all the civil institutions have been made subservient to the ruling elites in a more than half a century of unbroken rule.
    No country can be managed well with transparency by any one party over half a century without descending into corruption and mismanagement by the governing party.UMNO is no different!

  15. #16 by Loh on Tuesday, 14 December 2010 - 7:04 pm

    ///Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Nazri Aziz today dismissed concerns raised by Lim Kit Siang (DAP-Ipoh Timor) over a retired senior police officer’s open letter containing explosive claims about the ‘black eye’ incident involving Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.done to take Malaysia back to the pre-Mahathir values.///–Malaysiakini

    So only the government can have concern about any issue it chooses. The action of the Attorney General if found to be true as written by Mat Zain, would render most of the 26 million citizens to be unsafe. The country cannot trust the Attorney General to ensure rule by law over rule of law. Nazri have no justification to dismiss the concern expressed by any citizen in the country. The question was raised by an elected representative, and in parliament. Yet UMNO minister was arrogant to dismiss it. It might have been out of fear for taking the required action; UMNO chose to project the image of arrogance over taking appropriate actions. Minister of UMNO sometimes does act out of duress.

    Anwar has been charged in court for consensual sex. Najib said that the government had to act so that the interest of one person was protected. Najib chose to protect the interest of one person over the interest of 26 million, otherwise he should have ordered the probe on IGP, can Malaysians trust him to make rational decisions as Prime Minister?

  16. #17 by boh-liao on Wednesday, 15 December 2010 - 9:05 am

    Once a BN guy, will always b 1 n well rewarded 2 continue 2 suck d nation dry
    KTK n many UmnoB kakis well rewarded even though they lost in d last GE
    Now exMIC chief also well rewarded
    Never ending parasitism 4 all ethnic grps well connected with UmnoB
    Corruption knows no border n skin color

  17. #18 by boh-liao on Wednesday, 15 December 2010 - 9:10 am

    Alah mak, even Syariah Court judge found guilty of 7 corruption charges
    U jiak, I jiak, everybody jiak mah, jolly n happy

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