Malaysia’s war on corruption is only halfway through
Thai politicians, eager to go back to the days when election results determined who ruled a country, have been very vocal on the “Malaysian example”. They do not tell the whole story, though.
First things first, Malaysia’s war on graft is anything but over. Secondly, after voters have done their job, it’s mainly up to the politicians themselves to complete the uphill task of weeding crooks from the system.
Voters can only make decisions on what is in front of them. No matter how romanticised the ballot boxes are, they do not have the absolute power to purify the political system. If two bad candidates contest, the best voters can do is pick the one who is less bad. What happens after the election cannot be controlled by voters, and the onus is on the people who get elected.
What has been happening in Thailand and Malaysia are both starkly different and stunningly similar. Corrupt administrators, populist policies, street protests and arch-rivals who were once close allies are what the two countries have in common. But while tanks rolled out in Thailand to dislodge questionable politicians, Malaysians voted them out of office.
This makes a lot of people point out that voters can get rid of corruption, too, and that such a power is even better than relying on military generals who are highly suspect in the graft department themselves. Whether that argument comes from idealised academics or, ironically, the politicians themselves, it does not sufficiently address the issue of another foundation of democracy: checks and balances.
Healthy democracy requires not only the fair and transparent exercise of popular power, but also a post-election system that puts away without fail anyone who is corrupt. Street protests in Malaysia over the past few years were evidence that the country’s checks and balances system may not have functioned properly. Voters did not take Najib Razak out of office because of information obtained through the conventional political system, but probably because of anger at the system’s failure to deal with him earlier.
In fact, Malaysia’s system almost led to a major political tragedy. Security forces used tear gas and water cannon on Malaysian protesters in 2012. That was before contentious elections in which the Umno-led coalition retained a parliamentary majority. Strong-handed treatments of political dissent were not unusual in Malaysian politics, even during the reign of Mahathir Mohamad, who triumphed in the recent election.
This is what proponents of the “Malaysian example” have to think really hard about. There must be something wrong in a system that allows or condones the use of force against people protesting against political corruption. That Najib came to power under a “democratic process” did not give him the rights to be corrupt and use force against people questioning his record.
He was duly punished by voters. However, voters flex their muscles on election days, and the rest of the time belong to the politicians, who can make it good or bad. A system favouring domination can only lead to nepotism and nepotism always weakens the will to fight corruption. It happened in both Thailand and Malaysia.
The man who kick-started Malaysia’s ambitious agenda to become fully developed in 2020 and the man who was overseeing the home stretch of that long-term scheme have clashed over the ballot boxes. The former has emerged victorious but the jury is still very much out as to when corruption will be truly defeated.