An original aim of this column is to introduce and discuss some of the current happenings in other Southeast Asian countries, so as to serve as (hopefully) helpful lessons for the Philippines and perhaps yet other neighboring countries. I have attempted to do so in varying degrees over the past few months, and it is perhaps an opportune time to come back to my home country Malaysia again and, of all places, my home state of Sabah.
Well, you see, in Malaysia there was a government agency called the Anti-Corruption Agency, which was renamed the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) a few years back. I would presume that it has been working hard on its anti-corruption portfolio, but perception is always a funny thing, and sometimes perception becomes reality. In any case, and unfortunately, the Malaysian public in general has acquired a somewhat less than enthusiastic opinion of the MACC, perceiving it as “catching only the small fish but not the big ones,” and that it could do more to tackle those the public considered to be the “big fish” (those in important positions abusing their power to enrich themselves).
A case in point is perhaps that in recent months a number of internationally acclaimed newspapers such as The New York Times and Asian Wall Street Journal have almost continuously unearthed and reported on a series of unsettling international fund transfers related to a Malaysian pseudo-sovereign fund called One Malaysia Development Sdn. Bhd. (1MDB), involving even high political levels. These reports were largely appropriated by the US Department of Justice, which instituted civil proceedings (seemingly to skirt the higher burden of proof required in criminal proceedings) to seek to freeze those funds and assets (including real estate, film assets, art pieces, etc.) involving 1MDB that flowed through the US. The MACC was reputed to have been assiduously investigating related sets of 1MDB matters and was working closely with American authorities. But owing to political realities in Malaysia, the MACC was precluded from taking further actions. The Malaysian public is not blind to what is happening but they are hapless to take any action, at least for the moment.
Yet sometimes even “small fish” can be endowed with big appetite. Earlier last week, the MACC carried out what turned out to be a major operation in Sabah. Searching the houses and offices of the director and deputy director of the state water department, it found and seized what amounted to tens of millions of Malaysian ringgit (roughly one US dollar to four ringgit) in cash. It made fantastic news both within and outside Malaysia. Akin to film scenes, some of the cash were bundled up and stashed in cupboards and drawers beneath television sets in living rooms! When the colorful wads upon wads of cash were displayed on television screens across the nation, it was blistering to the eyes. And that was only the cash part. More money, reportedly running into almost half a billion ringgit, was discovered in both foreign and local bank accounts, and progressively have been frozen by authorities. Luxury cars and other precious items were seized too. These cases involving almost transparently ill-begotten gains also dragged in dozens of project contracting and consulting companies, which are now under investigation. Most of them have either beneficial or even blood relations with either or both of the senior officials concerned.
These were supposed to be the clear and present cases involving the largest amount of monetary values ever undertaken by the MACC. Those which were perhaps not considered “clear and present,” such as the IMDB series of disturbing fund transfers, though involving money many folds more than these amounts, were perhaps not taken into consideration in making the comparison above. And of course, the definition of “clear and present” here perhaps does not refer to the MACC storming into the act of a briber handing over cash to the bribed official, but more to the amount found at the bribed officials’ premises.
Although these cases do not involve me, but as a Sabahan, and having worked in the Malaysian government system before, I frankly still feel a degree of shamefulness and regrets. Just the other night, I struck up a conversation on these sensational cases with my wife, who has been working for many years in the construction industry. She said in quite a number of public meetings, she actually saw one of the suspects as a regular attendee. The suspect in question has always been quite reticent and unremarkable, appearing to be just another quiet and dutiful civil servant. And over the past week, as some journalists went to interview some of the suspects’ neighbors, the latter were almost unanimous in saying the suspects led a very low-key life in the neighborhood, and were not at all showy in their daily acts. This reminds me of the old saying that you shouldn’t judge a person by his appearance.
Nevertheless, having read the news on the seized items above and learned about these “quiet” observations, I am still bugged by what I consider to be a crucial question, which was not satisfactorily answered, if one were to put two and two together, so to say. Let’s try to pose and answer that question next time.