For those of us who have spent years on the front lines of the fight against corruption in Malaysia, last month marked an historic first. Former Prime Minister Najib Razak finally faced trial in one of the dozens of cases against him. Najib has been accused of syphoning off hundreds of millions of dollars of public funds from the 1MDB sovereign wealth fund into his own personal accounts.
Once Malaysia’s most powerful man, Najib was arrested in June last year after his Barisan Nasional coalition suffered a shock election defeat, ending its 61-year grip on power. Police raids on his family homes seized more than $273m in cash and goods, including luxury handbags that alone were worth more than $10m. Few but Najib’s most ardent supporters believe his claims that these were “gifts”. The trial that started in April relates to a relatively minor 1MDB subsidiary, while hearings in the main case are set to start in August.
The scandal has made Najib the poster boy for corruption in Malaysia. While this is well-deserved, it is also important to understand that the rot goes far deeper than one man. Graft is deep-rooted in our society. This year, Malaysia ranked 61st out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s annual corruption index. While this is slightly better than the Southeast Asian average, it is far below regional neighbours like Singapore and Hong Kong with similar levels of development and quasi-democratic systems.
For years, many Malaysians have grown used to paying bribes to get things done. Accessing basic services – like schools, hospitals and even courts – often requires a sweetener. But large-scale graft has always been a permanent feature of the political sphere. A 2014 survey conducted by Transparency International indicated that people saw political parties as the most corrupt bodies in Malaysia, closely followed by the police and the civil servants.
The 1MDB scandal might have made international headlines, but for Malaysians the list of similar scandals runs long: MARA, FELDA, Tabung Haji, to name just a few. These are all government-linked bodies that have been accused of corrupt practices and, for Malaysians, their acronyms symbolise the excesses of the state and the abuse of public trust and funds.
During Najib’s final years in power, he was increasingly busy trying to fend off any form of accountability. He removed the attorney general, manipulated the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC), and spouted conspiracy theories about foreign interference. With a weakened and ineffective police and judiciary, it was up to was civil society to investigate and keep up the pressure.
In 2012, when I was the executive director of Malaysia’s largest human rights organisation SUARAM, my colleagues and I filed a legal complaint in France into an alleged kickback scheme to the tune of $130m. To our surprise, French authorities launched an investigation, revealing a plot that reached the highest levels of the Malaysian government. To continue this work, we founded the Center to Combat Corruption and Cronyism (C4) in 2014, which documents and advocates against corruption and protects whistleblowers.
For us and many other civil society activists, this work came at a high personal cost. I myself was harassed for my role in uncovering government graft. I faced bogus criminal charges in 2013, while state-run TV aired mine and my colleagues’ images every night, accusing us of outrageous plots against the government. Other journalists and activists have faced similar mistreatment.
No wonder, then, that us activists had high hopes for the new Pakatan Harapan (PH, the “Alliance of Hope”) government that took office last year. The PH campaigned on promises to clean up Malaysia with the ambitious goal of making the county graft-free by 2023.
So far, it is fair to say that the government’s track record is mixed at best. There have been some notable accomplishments, including the very public pursuit of the charges against Najib. The government has also launched a National Anti-Corruption Plan and established committees to investigate other state officials.
But overall progress has been slow, as the first year of PH’s rule has been marked by delays in implementing its reform agenda, U-turns on the need to withdraw repressive legislation, and inaction on tackling the root causes of corruption. Promises have not been translated into reality and too often the government has shirked away from confrontation when challenged by the old political elites.
Upending decades of authoritarian rule will not happen overnight, let alone in a year. But if the PH government does not want to go down in history as having failed its voters, there are immediate steps it must take. It should strengthen the MACC so that it is genuinely independent and has the power not just to investigate but also to prosecute corrupt officials.
It must ensure that the new National Anti-Corruption Plan launched in 2019 is thoroughly implemented and not just left as a paper promise. Crucially, the government must also repeal draconian laws – such as the Official Secrets Act of 1972 – which have been used to shield officials from scrutiny and punish activists.
Decisive action to lay a solid foundation for the fight against corruption is critical. There are persistent rumours that Najib’s legal team is stalling the cases against him to buy time until a new (and supposedly friendlier) government takes office.
The former prime minister has launched a charm offensive in recent months – even releasing a cringe-worthy music video – to portray himself as a victim and a man of the people.
Corruption runs deep in Malaysia, but heroic efforts by civil society groups have managed to expose those in charge, all the way up to the former prime minister. The Pakatan Harapan government now has an opportunity to cement the progress made – one it must not miss.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.