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Thursday, May 30, 2013

Drastic measures needed to tackle corruption: Can Najib & BN do it? OF COURSE NOT!

Drastic measures needed to tackle corruption: Can Najib & BN do it? OF COURSE NOT!
On May 6, Malaysia re-elected its ruling coalition government, the National Front, to another five-year term after vociferous campaigning and debate on the issue of corruption. This three-part series looks at whether the election’s attention on corruption will produce results. The first part illustrates the economic impact of corruption. The second part describes the discussion of corruption during the election. The final installment, below, analyzes the election results and the likelihood of any major impact on the patterns of corruption in Malaysia.
Barisan Nasional (BN) headed by Prime Minister Najib Razak won Malaysia’s 13th general election. Eighty-five percent of the country’s 13.3 million voters came out to participate. Although the party won the election by gaining 133 out of 222 seats in parliament, BN managed to win only 47 percent of the popular vote. This was the worst result ever for BN, which has ruled since independence from Britain in 1957. BN’s leadership undoubtedly took note of this weak showing.
Despite opposition gains, the elections were criticized by many as unfair and illegally manipulated. Just days after the election, a rally was held in Kuala Lumpur, where opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim took the stand in leading the party’s supporters. A staggering 40,000 people turned out to support Ibrahim and opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat (PR). At the rally, Ibrahim criticized BN and the corrupt government. More importantly, he demonstrated that PR will remain a dominant force in Malaysian politics despite its electoral loss.
The most positive result of this election was the rising use of social media, which allowed for easy dispersion of information. Many reporters started calling this election a “social media election.” For instance, the number of people tweeting about politics in Malaysia has grown from 2,400 people in 2010 to 450,000 users three years later. We personally noticed that many Malaysian friends took to Facebook to voice their opinions about the election, share YouTube parodies, etc.
This is an exciting development for Malaysia. Social media expedites awareness of problems that require a government fix (especially if the problem originates with the government itself) and mobilizes groups that want to take action. The force of social media to propel grassroots activism and pester unresponsive governments is well-appreciated from its impact in places like China and the Arab world. Hopefully, this force will encourage transparency in Malaysia, making corruption more difficult for public officials.
No political parties should be allowed to own or influence media outlets
To move further in the direction of transparency, the government should consider taking away party ownership of selective media enterprises. Although media coverage of corruption scandals has increased over the years, the government maintains influence on the content of public TV and radio outlets as well as through links to some of Malaysia’s largest privately held media groups, such as Media Prima. This influence has not benefited the quality of reporting. Malaysia’s Press Freedom Index ranking fell dramatically last year to 145 out of 189, with the index publishers, Reporters without Borders, citing “access to information … becoming more and more limited.
No political parties should be allowed to own or influence media outlets. The media must be as independent as possible to allow for unbiased and transparent coverage of political news. The public deserves to know not just what top government officials have done right, but also what they have done wrong, so they can keep their leaders accountable for their actions.
The direction of Malaysia’s anti-corruption agenda will be determined by how BN responds to its newly felt electoral vulnerability. Will it understand that pandering to special interests, money politics and crony capitalism are no longer a viable strategy? Change is not easy in old hierarchical institutions like BN, and it has relied on corruption to raise funds and satisfy supporters for several generations. But if BN returns to business as usual, it will risk attack from an opposition that appears resurgent, backed by a more mobilized and fed up public.
As elaborated in the first part of this series, corruption harms the investment climate, distorts the allocation of resources and hampers the implementation of important government programs. Yet despite this drag, Malaysia remains one of the most vibrant economies in Asia. To motivate itself to implement a major change towards clean behavior, BN should focus on reaping the rewards of a successful economy. In order to facilitate long-term inclusive growth, the government should promote policies that will be applied fairly and transparently to all.
Najib has to follow through on promises but can he?
So what can BN do in its new term to change course? Najib has already pulled back some affirmative action policies favoring Bumiputeras, the native Malay population (approximately half of the total population in Malaysia). Najib’s actions are generally viewed positively by analysts who believe that these policies are at the root of Malaysian corruption. Removing race-based policies is the first step in bringing the country together. However, it is unlikely that Najib will completely abolish these policies, as he still needs to appeal to his Malay supporters, which make up the base of BN.
Najib needs to follow through on the promises he made during his election campaigns, but unfortunately his comments on fighting corruption lacked specifics. Najib needs to lay out detailed steps on how he wishes the government to change and enforce these changes effectively. For instance, a more transparent, meritocratic system for selecting project managers should be implemented to avoid appointment based on family or political ties.
On the other hand, Malaysia’s anti-corruption organizations, such as the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) and Public Complaints Bureau, also need to work on implementing effective reforms. The MACC has been criticized for lending too much focus on small cases and has been ineffective in tackling larger, high profile cases. Proper treatment of high profile cases could maximize the impact anti-corruption organizations have on the government.
The Malaysian electorate is poised to place a great deal more pressure on its new government. While it remains to be seen whether the government will respond as hoped, its people are pushing for radical change. Malaysia needs leaders who are willing to take drastic measures to tackle corruption. Let’s see if they’ve elected one.
Olivia Low is a Rice University rising senior who this spring completed the Baker Institute’s first-ever undergraduate course on public policy. Russell Green is the Will Clayton Fellow in International Economics at the Baker Institute.
Houston Chronicle

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