Where is Malaysia’s Reform Agenda going?

Where is Malaysia’s Reform Agenda going?

By Farish A. Noor

It is not often that the Malaysian police force asks for assistance from the
country’s blogging community – those who spend their time jotting down their
thoughts and opinions on the internet. Until recently ‘bloggers’ as they are
called were deemed at best a pest, and at worse even a threat to national
security. In fact at present some of Malaysia’s most noted and well-known
bloggers have been called to court instead, accused of posting libellous
postings that were seen as damaging to influential figures in the country.

Yet today the Malaysian police force has called on the country’s blogging
community to help them with investigations related to a senior politician
who it is said to have accepted around 5 million Ringgit (1.2 million
Dollars) in bribes, to help release prisoners from jail through the
Emergency Ordinance Act (EOA) of the country. Three former prisoners have
been identified – and it is said that all three have close links to violent
gangs involved in violent crimes as well as prostitution syndicates in the
country. What, one might ask, is going on in Malaysia?

The news has caught Malaysians by surprise, and it was announced by Mohamad
Shukri Abdul, Director of Investigations of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption
Agency (ACA) that the ACA is currently investigating the claim that a senior
politician in the Malaysian government has been bought, and has used his
power to release prisoners from jail, albeit for a hefty price. What has
spurred the investigation, however, was the revelation of detailed
information relating to the alleged bribes on two independent websites
operating in the country. The country’s Deputy Internal Security Minister
Datuk Johari Baharom has publicly denied any wrongdoing, though the
investigations have now gone public.

It would appear that 2006 and 2007 have been the years of scandals for the
Badawi administration in Malaysia. With the ACA bearing down on senior
government figures, another scandal has erupted with Director-General of the
Anti-Corruption Bureau Zulkipli Mat Nor being accused of corruption himself.
What makes matters worse is the fact that the allegations against Zulkipli
Mat Nor have come from the retired director of the ACA, Muhammad Ramli
Manan, no less. While speculation runs rife and the pundits take to the
streets with this juicy gossip, the Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has
ruled out any suggestion of a possible future cover-up and insists that all
these accusations will be taken seriously and duly investigated.

Thus far the Malaysian police force has been quick to act: The Director of
the Criminal Investigation Department Christopher Wan has begun his
investigations, getting the CID to look into the matter. Though the Deputy
Internal Security Minister has said that he welcomes the investigation on
him and has nothing to hide, the entire affair has added yet another stain
on the reputation of the Badawi administration.

Prime Minister Badawi came to power with an overwhelming public mandate
because of his reform agenda and the fact that many Malaysians believed he
was sincere. He promised to clean up the corridors of power in the country,
end the spate of corporate bail-outs and look closely at the dubious links
between the state and the private sector, ruling political parties and crony
businesses in Malaysia. Yet that does not mean that Malaysians believed
anything could be done as Malaysia’s corruption scandals go back to the
1970s and thus far few major cases have been visibly and successfully
settled in court. While foreign investors may factor into account local
corruption as a hazard of investment, in the end it is the public’s
perception that counts for Badawi as his image has taken several major blows
over the past three years. Many Malaysians still believe in his sincerity,
but have begun to doubt his effectiveness as a leader and a man of action.

Here it should be noted that a politician’s promises are only as good as the
institutions that serve him; and in the case of Malaysia it seems that there
is a lot of institutional inertia and invested interest to pay lip service
to talk of reform, without actually taking any politically risky and painful
measures to correct the problem.

What doubly embarrasses the Malaysian government, however, was the fact that
the allegations first materialised on the internet. Being a country with
excessively high degrees of control on the state media, Malaysians have
taken to cyberspace for alternative sources of information instead. While
much of what is posted on personal blogs may be humdrum trivia having more
to do with diets, fashion and relationship problems, there exist several
noteworthy blogs that have turned themselves into reliable sources of
information. What is more this information is often correct – thanks to the
numerous ‘leaks’ coming from within the government itself.

The Malaysian public may be jaded by now by promises of institutional
reform, anti-corruption campaigns and transparency. After all, there remain
long, drawn-out corruption cases related to major corporate figures like
Eric Chia (former head of Perwaja Steel, Malaysia’s steel-making giant of
the 1980s) that have plodded along in the courts at a snail’s pace.

But what is clear today is that the internet is proving to be the one space
where disgruntled and frustrated Malaysians, tired of empty promises and
lack of concrete results, have turned to information for collective action
and lobbying. How will the Malaysian state cope under these new pressures?
So far the government’s reaction has been to lambaste and demonise bloggers
as a group of miscreants and subversives bent on damaging the country’s
reputation. But as the latest scandals have shown, the real miscreants have
been none other that the politicians and senior government figures of the
country themselves…


Dr. Farish A Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and human rights
activist, and one of the founders of the http://www.othermalaysia.org research