The Anti-Corruption Charade Now Evolves Around Rafidah Aziz

THE PRIME MINISTER, DATO' SERI Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, kicked off his slipping into office with a promise to go after the corrupt, however high and close to the levers of power, but after two high profile arrests, both Tan Sris, and a handful of civil servants, the campaign grinds to a spluttering stop. The de facto justice minister, Dato' Seri Rais Yatim, announced, out of the blue, that 18 "big fish" are under investigation, not all would be brought to trial if only because the cases against them cannot be sustained in a court of law. This shifted attention from the anti-corruption drive to who could be amongst the dozen and a half men and women. That was not a long time coming. Two cabinet ministers, Datin Rafidah Aziz and Dato' Seri Nazri Aziz, denied they were, with Datin Rafidah promising to sue Opposition leaders if they dared target her. Several of them invited her to sue them. How she could succeed in her defamation beats me, even if the Malaysian courts have a well-earned reputation for expedience against the weight of the law. The Anti-Corruption Agency had investigated her (Kertas Sisasatan BPR Terhadap Rafidah Aziz), as numerous cabinet ministers, including seven National Front (BN) party leaders, but no further action was taken because the Prime Minister of the day, in this instance, Tun Mahathir Mohamed, would not allow prosecution to proceed. That is then taken as proof that those investigated are as pure as driven snow.

Pak Lah's intent was good and clear. But he jumped into it a little too early, without considering the impact. If he meant it, there was no need for a campaign. All he had to do was to tell the ACA to carry on regardless, and let the arrests and trials be proof of what he had in mind. Now he knows he cannot move forward without alienating whom he could ill afford to. His cabinet is nervous of its reach, especially if long buried investigations get a new lease of life, and want him to slow down. He has to, with general election due shortly, and he cannot afford to distance him from the power brokers in UMNO, who are there, let us not crib about it, because they have unlimited funds running often in the billions of ringgit which I can assure you they did not acquire thriftily savings from their official salaries. The shortest route to a fortune in Malaysia is not in business, although some have, is to be senior BN worthies or be their relatives. The ACA asked one BN leader to submit his list of assets he said was US$120 million but which miraculously expanded to US$200 million after he met its officials twice. Another's then 27-year-old son had assets worth RM1.2 billion.

This would continue so long as the anti-corruption laws are defanged to make it all but impossible for the ACA to prosecute even if they had rock solid evidence to convict. If Pak Lah means what he says, the ACA must be strengthened to what it was in the beginning, when it was on the accused to prove he did not live beyond his means. Under this provision, it removed two UMNO mentris besar. The law was hastily amended to exclude that in future, and weakened periodically as the degree of corruption went up leaps and bounds. Today, it is a matter of strict proof, which is all but impossible for anyone who squeals is invariable in trouble too: under Malaysian law, those who give and accept bribes are equally liable. Over the years, the anti-corruption laws was a useful tool for the prime minister to keep his flock in line. He did not hesitate to use it when it did: that was why the then Selangor mentri besar, Dato' Harun Idris, was convicted in the 1970s, and the deputy prime minister, Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim, two decades on. Although in the latter case, evidence had to be manufactured, the court rules made a mockery of, and rules of fair play consigned to the winds.

Pak Lah and Dato' Seri Rais have enough work on their hands if they are serious about ridding corruption. Numerous police reports have been lodged. Opposition politicians have gone to jail for revealing the contents of official inquiries on corruption. Yet these reports are in limbo. It need not be. Dato' Seri Anwar filed reports against Datin Rafidah in 1999, backing it up with official records, an offence under the Official Secrets Act. If his reports are false, he should have been charged. If not, Datin Rafidah should have been charged. None of it has happened. Which means the truth is more than the innocence Datin Rafidah proclaims about her corrupt practices. I speak with no prior information or knowledge, only logical deduction. What surprises is the total silence about it. However you look at it, one party in this is not telling the truth, and the consequences for either party is severe. Yet nothing is done about it. Why? You get the impression corruption is encouraged amongst the high and mighy, the presumption being that he who is where he is has the people's absolute interests at heart, and would such a paragon of Malaysia ever be so crass as to be corrupt. God forbid! No! the cabinet minister says as he projects a wealth beyond greed in his official and private dealings. One cabinet minister recently gave his daughter a birthday present of a Mercedes Benz sports car worth a mere RM1.2 million. Another's daughter changed her cars - from a Ferrari to a Lambhorghini to a Porsche to other exotic makes - during her student days in London, replacing them after a few months of use. Another's daughter came up with the RM1 million bail after her father was charged with corruption. One has 17 cars in his garage worth RM6 million and more; his son drives a Lambhorghini, which costs a third of what father's collection is worth.

Corruption is now an issue in the general election, which if current indications are right, would be in the third week of March. When Datin Rafidah threw her challenge, she gave the Opposition an issue, which they promptly seized. For one thing, that right to sue is given every citizen. She said she would sue if she is slandered. But it is for the courts, not her, to decide if she is. But when she threatened, without any action, she acted to divert attention from her. Instead, it focussed on her. If she wants to shut the Opposition up during the electoral campaign, she has to sue. But as her UMNO colleague in Trengganu found, she might not get the injunction she wants to stop the talk about her. The judge dismissed that, and he has applied to the Court of Appeal "on a certificate of urgency". How he would get an early hearing is beyond me, given the court's backlog and when more serious curtailment of freedom fights for attention. Whatever she does, she is henceforth defensive. The Opposition has made plans for a public ceremah to discuss her corrupt practices, like giving her son-in-law preferential shares before a share is listed, APs to import motor cars worth once RM1.5 million a month for free, and other goodies so the mother-in-law is sure her daughter is well looked after. This is where the contradiction lies: Datin Rafidah looks at corruption very narrowly while the Opposition looks at not individual cases but of a general trend. The problem here is one of definition.

This is not an issue that would go away. Opposition ceremahs are well attended in the Malay heartland. Crowds of 30,000 are not uncommon. On 11 February 2004, about 20,000 turned up in Kota Sarang Semut, a small obscure village in Kedah, for the PAS-Keadilan joint manifesto for the state. A few days later, rather more than this number gathered in Penang for another opposition gathering focussed on mascot, Dato' Seri Anwar. But if you read the mainstream newspapers, and news agency reports of it, you would think it was failure: only 2,000 attended. But PAS could draw a crowd of 2,000 in a jiffy for no reason than the unfamiliar PAS flag flies in sold UMNO territory. This points to another problem BN and UMNO faces: their reluctance and refusal to work the ground. Pak Lah is caught in a conundrum here. He assiduously works the ground, especially in his Kepala Batas constituency. Few of his BN MPs do so. The BN power brokers hold him to ransom if for no reason than that they hold the aces and Pak Lah cannot act as he must. Which is a pity.

[This is my column in the latest issue of Seruan Keadilan, and out today, 23 February 2004]

M.G.G. Pillai - 23.02.2004

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