By: John Berthelsen

Right in the middle of what looks to be the biggest political and economic scandal in Malaysia’s history, the International Anti-Corruption Conference and Transparency International will hold their 16th bi-annual anti-corruption conclave in the country’s political capital of Putrajaya September 2-4 – with Malaysia both host and a likely target.

The event is billed as “the world premier forum that brings together heads of state, civil society, the private sector and more to tackle the increasingly sophisticated challenges posed by corruption.”

The conference was originally scheduled for Tunisia, but because of a scheduling problem over parliamentary polls it was moved to Malaysia with the cooperation of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission. This makes it all the more uncomfortable, since the MACC’s chief, Abu Kassim Mohamed, was hurriedly sent on vacation in July as the MACC appeared to be closing in on Prime Minister Najib Razak over suspicious transfers of US$681 million into his personal AmBank Account in 2013. The money was transferred back out a few weeks later into an account in Singapore that has now been closed.

The MACC’s probe has seemingly gone quiet with the boss out and other investigators facing police questioning over alleged leaks to the press. Abu Kassim may not even be at the event he is hosting. He reported to a hospital for a back operation and is scheduled to be on leave until October. He has said he would continue the probe of Najib’s finances if and when he comes back.

They know it’s a mess

To the IACC’s credit, it displays a summary of the scandal prominently on its website and acknowledges that it will arrive in the midst of a scandal. “The IACC is indeed still on despite the controversy,” one potential registrant was told by email. “We see the event as an ideal opportunity to explore ongoing issues in Malaysian and beyond.” Having held previous gatherings in Brazil, Peru and South Africa the IACC is presumably used to engaging with countries where corruption is a live issue.

Given press controls and the United Malays National Organization’s lock on media and state power, Malaysia will be a challenge. With so many top officials having been sacked or sidelined by Najib as he defends his position, the country currently looks like a text-book case for how to stonewall a corruption scandal.

Abu Kassim is only one of a large number of officials who have been sacked, bribed, promoted to other positions or otherwise defused to slow investigations into the money transfer or the indebtedness of the troubled 1Malaysia Development Bhd. state development fund. They include Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin; a rival for power; Attorney General Abdul Gani Patail, who was  reportedly preparing to indict Najib; and several others.

‘Ending impunity’

According to a press release from the IACC, the conference is being held “following close collaboration with the Malaysian government and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission,” which are both hosting the event. The conference theme remains “Ending Impunity: People, Integrity, Action.” The anti-graft organization said, “We are delighted to be able take the event to a key country in the fight against corruption in Asia.”

Najib, under fire as never before, was expected to speak at the event. It is unknown if he will still be there. Abu Kassim is also slated to speak. Among the other listed speakers are Aruna Roy, the Indian social activist and freedom of information campaigner; Simon Peh, commissioner of the Independent Commission Against Corruption in Hong Kong; and Daniel Kaufmann, president of the Natural Resource Governance Institute and former director of the World Bank Institute, where he pioneered techniques to measure corruption. The full list is on the IACC website.

The opposition Democratic Action Party parliamentary leader Lim Kit Siang, on his blog, demanded that the conference be cancelled, asking “What type of an example of ‘Ending Impunity: People. Integrity. Action’ can Malaysia present to the world and some 800 international participants who will attend and be engaged in plenary debates and workshops on ending impunity for corruption? Or is Malaysia to present a live example as to how difficult or even impossible it is in a country like ours to end impunity for corruption, unless there is a total change of government?”

Beware domestic media

Lim has a point. Given the control the government exerts over the mainstream media in all its forms, one can easily imagine Najib’s administration pulling out all the stops to show domestic viewers and readers that the world has arrived in Malaysia to praise his anti-corruption efforts. An email from Asia Sentinel to the IACC hadn’t been answered as of this posting.

As the conference date has come closer, the IACC website has been crammed with stories on the Malaysian corruption scandal, noting, for instance, on August 3 that Najib had sacked all of the officials connected with the investigation. The IACC laid out a road map for the country, saying Malaysia “needs strong and independent authorities;” and that “press freedoms must be guaranteed and respected;” and that “serious action is needed on cross-border corruption.”

It added that the anti-corruption conference, which involves credible anti-corruption NGOs and officials from across the world, would be on hand to tackle the issues.

If the conference indeed provides a forum that the Malaysian authorities took seriously, the Plenary Agenda offers a possible guide to Malaysian corruption. Plenary I deals with ending impunity. Plenary II deals with fighting corruption in development and investment beyond 2015. Plenary III deals with “keeping business clean and stopping illicit financial flows.” Plenary IV deals with “investigating and exposing the truth.”