Malaysia’s Year of Dashed Hopes
The unexpected Pakatan Harapan victory in Malaysia’s last general election inspired the hope of a new era, with some equating Pakatan’s victory as equivalent in significance to Merdeka, the day of independence from colonial rule in 1957. Pakatan campaigned on reform and the eradication of corruption, with former Prime Minister Najib Razak’s scandal-ridden Barisan Nasional government a symbol of all that was wrong with the country.
Within six months in power by the government, now led by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, however, questions began to emerge about Pakatan’s commitment to reform. Over the past six months, that disappointment has morphed into outright anger as the recent results in the Tanjung Plai constituency indicated, with the Pakatan coalition candidate losing by the biggest margin ever recorded in a Malaysian by-election.
Members of the Pakatan government were nonetheless upbeat on how they fight corruption, pointing to Najib’s trial for complicity in the US$4.8 billion collapse of the state-backed 1Malaysia Development Bhd. Investment fund and the appointment of activist and politician Latheefa Beebi Koya as Chief Commissioner of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC).
Recently a deputy minister Hannah Yeoh even tweeted “Despite all the criticism and complaints we hear about the new government, no one can deny that the government today fights corruption more seriously.”
Very soon after Mahathir Mohamed formed his new cabinet, however, signs had begun to appear that principle would give way to convenience. Lim Guan Eng, the secretary-general of the Democratic Action Party, a crucial leg in the now-ruling coalition, was appointed finance minister with corruption charges hanging over him in relation to the purchase of a bungalow in Penang and land re-zoning still outstanding. The prosecution, controlled by the attorney general, dropped the charges against Lim, leading to the withdrawal of the case. The media, still honeymooning with the new government, portrayed the action as an acquittal, although it was really just a dismissal.
The dismissal of charges against Lim was met with only meek criticism at the time, with most commentators taking a wait-and-see approach before coming out to condemn the government for political manipulation of the court system, for which Pakatan regularly criticized the previous government.
During the election campaign, it was firmly promised that a Pakatan government would not make political appointments to government agencies or government-linked companies (GLCs). However, soon after taking the reins of government, Rina Harun, the minister for rural and regional development and a member of Mahathir’s newly-constituted Parti Bersatu Pribumi Malaysia appointed politicians from her party to the boards of GLCs under her ministry’s control. This was the first show that Pakatan, just like the ousted United Malays National Organization, would continue to play patronage politics.
Earlier this year, Mahathir’s son Mirzan was appointed as an independent director of GETS Global Bhd., a holding company with interests in transportation, which led to an almost doubling of the price for the company’s shares overnight. Soon after the federal election, it was reported that a subsidiary company of Opcom Holdings Bhd, of which one of Mahathir’s sons is CEO and major shareholder, was given an RM 11 million contract by Telekom Malaysia (TM).
Education Minister Maszlee Malik appointed himself president of the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM), another breach of Pakatan promises before the election not to make political appointments. Although there had been precedent for the education minister to hold that post in previous governments, Pakatan had promised to stop the practice.
Maszlee, previously a lecturer at the university, terminated the chairpersons of five public universities on taking office on the basis they were political appointees from the last government, creating great controversy. The appointment was one of the early events that brought attention to Pakatan backtracking on election promises, and raised questions over Maszlee’s personal ability to hold the position of education minister. With a series of continued bungles, Maszlee has now become the Pakatan government’s most unpopular minister.
However, corruption issues related to Maszlee didn’t stop there. Asia Sentinel reported on November 1 that he had abruptly sacked Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) board chairperson Syed Razlan, who was undertaking a corruption investigation at UPM at the time. Maszlee has yet made no public comment about the sacking or the outcome of corruption investigation.
More disturbing, a report made by the Kuala Lumpur Chronicle on social media, which was confirmed by sources close to the education ministry claimed that Maszlee deferred a tender decision related to food, safety and hygiene across 10,000 schools nationwide, jeopardizing the supply of food, cleaning products and security within schools. The official reason was that some companies that submitted tenders provided false bank statements. Inside sources say Maszlee is trying to maneuver the tender towards other parties. The effect of the stall in granting this RM3 billion (US$721,000) tender is that schools will be without contractors on January 1, and the Ministry of Finance has asked schools to make do until the tender is resolved. Maszlee has made no statements clarifying this issue.
Maszlee is not the only senior minister with questions hanging over him. Economic affairs minister Mohamed Azmin Ali, a rising power in the ruling coalition and a Mahathir favorite, was summoned to court by YHA Travel and Tours (M) Sdn. Bhd. for unpaid travel bills amounting to more than RM329,000 over a six-month period. Although housing and local government minister Zuraida Kamaruddin claimed that this was a just an oversight by Azmin, the Sarawak Report noted that much of these travel expenses relate to his family, raising questions over how Azmin could afford to pay such a bill on a salary of RM60,000 per month, and assets totaling RM1.7 million.
These actions are a disturbing indication that transparency and being seen to be clean are not important principles for this government. Credence now must be given to the statement Bersatu Vice President and former election commission chairman Abdul Rashid Abdul Rahman made at the end of 2018 stating that tenders and contracts should be granted to Bersatu party division chiefs to assist them prepare for elections.
The MACC is already investigating claims that an aide to the Defense Minister Mohamed Sabu received RM80,000 in payments from parties to discharge his bankruptcy. Another member of the government, the political secretary of Works Minister Baru Bian is alleged to have abused his position by promising contracts to PKR members, and the political secretary of the Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Minister was remanded for allegedly receiving a luxury watch as a bribe.
The word around political circles is that the MACC is desperately short of investigative staff to look into the huge increase in the growing number of public sector corruption allegations. MACC Chief Commissioner Koya is trying to place integrity officers directly in all ministries, agencies, and state government offices. However, the MACC has to be invited by each organization, which is not happening at the pace she was hoping for.
Since taking government, the Pakatan reform agenda has been sent to the backburner amidst rhetorical racial diversions. Now slowing unwinding is the reality that the government is not the clean administration it promised. Insiders have told Asia Sentinel that many ministers realize that they will only be in power for a short time. A number, the sources say, have lost hope in their own dream and face the realty that they will need to plan for a life post government and even outside of parliament.
The signs are there. The talk is around town of corruption in the form of abuse of power, tender manipulation, awarding of contracts and suborning of bribery, expected to increase and become public knowledge over the course of the next year.