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Saturday, August 29, 2015

Donategate: where everyone has a price – Gopal Sreenevasan

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There was a programme on the history channel recently, on Nazi Germany.  It showed Adolf Hitler launching the battleship, Bismarck. The camera turned on the crowd witnessing this and captured them delivering the Nazi salute. What stuck in the memory was the look of utter and passionate devotion in the crowd as they did so. These looks surely could not have been for Nazi policy: no policy evokes passion. It was their devotion to Hitler the man and they were his cult.
The Malaysian prime minister cannot of course be compared to that. He has neither the vim nor vigour and certainly not the character to arouse such emotions in his subjects. It seems however that he is able to do so in his new Cabinet, parliamentary and divisional colleagues. They now speak of and gaze at him with ever increasing adoration.
In any circumstance, this would be both nauseating and dangerous. The adoration or adulation of persons in power, has dire consequences even in the most robust of democracies, so inimical is it to the principle that those in power need to hear the unvarnished truth, from those closest to them. 
However Malaysia is past those better times. Our economic outlook is not so much bearish as it is bombed, and democracy and governance have accepted Darth Vader’s invitation and gone from grey to firmly in the dark side. When Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad tells you that democracy in Malaysia is dead, you had better be scared, very scared indeed.
Yet that is where we are. Events over the last month or so have left such a pall over right-thinking Malaysians that immigration counters for citizens returning home should carry a sign saying “Abandon hope all ye who enter here”.  
More than a month ago, reports from credible publications emerged, pointing to the fact that the prime minister had had RM2.6 billion paid into his personal account in Malaysia. Just think of that – RM2.6 billion – it is a figure ordinary people cannot fathom, perhaps enough to buy an island in the Caribbean with change left over for a couple of drinks with straw umbrellas in them.
Then his wife was reported to have had cold hard cash deposited into one of her accounts amounting to RM2 million. This latter story has of course been forgotten in all that has come to pass. As it was no doubt meant to.
In any community where there is an expectation of honesty, only two responses can surely have been expected and both within minutes of that disclosure. The first is an outright denial that either of the accounts belonged to the prime minister or his wife or that those sums of monies never entered those accounts. Failing that, resignation would surely have to follow before the hour was out.
We are clearly not a community with an expectation of honesty. Some, at least to a degree, are.
When news emerged that the Speaker of the House of Representatives in Australia, Miss Bronwyn Bishop had ridden a helicopter to Geelong and charged taxpayers A$5,000 for the pleasure, she had to resign, not because what she had done was outside the rules but because it was unthinkable that a public servant could presume to be so privileged.
Similarly, the premier of New South Wales Barry O’ Farell had to resign in 2014 for having accepted a bottle of wine worth A$500. He failed to make a declaration, as he was obliged to by the rules. Both sums are trifles compared to the Columbian cartel-like deposits in our prime minister’s accounts.
But that is perhaps an unfair comparison. What strikes closer to home for sordid likeness, is the recent resignation of the deputy leader of the House of Lords in the UK, Lord Sewell who was also in charge of the ethics of its members.  
In an amusing counterpoint he was filmed snorting cocaine through GBP20 notes, which notes are now worth more than the drug in Malaysia, given today’s exchange rate. He snorted it off the breasts of two sex workers while drinking whisky and complaining that his companions were not Asian. Because, it seems Asians are the best in that business.  He too resigned.
Against this sort of backdrop (and many other examples worldwide), the fact of billions sloshing around our prime minister’s accounts must surely have called for at the very least a full and detailed explanation as to why and how these funds ended up with him. Absent that, and it is absent, the public cannot be faulted for putting two and two together and making 2.6 billion. 
The sums work in this way. First, 1MDB is indebted in the billions of ringgit and there are reports from credible publications that some of these billions were taken from 1MDB and found their way into accounts controlled by individuals connected to the prime minister. Second, the prime minister has billions in his personal account. These are the facts. Ergo, the money in his account came from 1MDB. 
Without a precise and clear explanation from the prime minister himself, he cannot fault anyone from coming to this conclusion. John Adams, the second president of the United States said famously that facts are stubborn things, though he might well have also added that the absence of facts lead to even more stubborn conclusions.
Instead of a precise, clear and importantly immediate explanation from the prime minister, we were treated weeks later to a tale, not from him but from the minster in charge of propaganda that the money came from donors. A Middle-Eastern donor to be precise, the very region where 1MDB had, reportedly entered into its most questionable dealings. 
To date we have been given not a single detail more, other than that the monies were to fight the Jews and DAP and in thanks for a battle against a then barely existent Isis. The reason that no further details would be forthcoming is apparently because there is no legal requirement to do so. That the public have the expectation of honesty and transparency has no bearing of course.
The purge of Cabinet colleagues, civil servants and the attorney-general that followed had all the hallmarks of Dr Mahathir himself: ruthless and driven by self preservation. For what many underestimated in the prime minister was that he was not fighting for his political life, rather he was fighting for his physical liberty. 
Heads may have rolled and the prime minister may feel the blanket of security with his new appointees, but the message that has been put across to the country is that when he was under investigation, he used the power of his office to emasculate and then eviscerate the process of law. By doing so, he has told all Malaysians that he and his wife are it.
But that is not the most tragic aspect of this drama, for it has always been so written. He who has all the power will use all of it to survive.  No, the most morally bankrupt upshot of this sordid affair, with billions sloshing about across international boundaries, is the response of the adulating crowd around the prime minister and their daily defence of him and his receipt of this money.
Not one among the leaders of Umno or Barisan Nasional has called for what every rational person expects: public accountability, not because it is legally required but because it is a result of the expectation of honesty that all Malaysians are entitled to.
Instead, as details leak that members of parliament have received payments from the prime minister personally, the prime minister announced that the “allocation” (a vague word for a dubious payment) for all Barisan National MPs, which increased from RM1 million to the current RM5 million under him, would be increased even further. 
With the 2.6 billion dollar man conducting a campaign of such fiscal charm, not one man or woman in that coalition has had the nerve or fibre to stand up and ask for what is right. That is the ultimate tragedy: that our country is for sale. Dr Mahathir was wrong when he said of the prime minister that “he has stolen the government”. He hasn’t. He has bought and paid for it. 
After all it was the prime minister was said to Dr Mahathir that “cash is king”. He is now putting that to the proof, while the man who destroyed every institution capable of standing up to such governmental skullduggery complains of the death of democracy from the sidelines.  The irony couldn’t be more pungent, but most Malaysians do not care.  They care that this country has been brought to its knees by such men.  And they would wish a plague upon both their houses and the readiest opportunity to be shot of them both.
Gopal Sreenevasan reads The Malaysian Insider.

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