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Saturday, March 10, 2007

The Reform Agenda

Where is Malaysia’s reform agenda going?

by Farish Noor

Is it 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 libelous 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 five million ringgit ($1.2 million) 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 )