It may seem like an improvement, but Malaysia’s better ranking on the 2014 Corruption Perception Index (CPI) does not tell the whole story about the country’s problems with graft.
Anti-corruption activists said there were still deep weaknesses in the government’s machinery that allowed well-connected people to get away with things like bribery and siphoning off public funds.
At the same time, though action against corrupt public officials has increased, most of these are low-level civil servants. Most of the “sharks” still get away scot-free despite persistent reports of their scandals in the media.
What is worse, said Rafizi Ramli, who heads the National Oversight and Whistleblowers centre (NOW), without real reform, the government risks damaging the CPI’s credibility among the Malaysian public.
The ‘middle score’ trap
Although Malaysia improved its corruption perception score and ranking this year, the reality is that this score was about the same that it had 10 years ago.
In 2004, the country scored 5.0 or the equivalent of 50 out of 100 using the new scale. This year, it scored 52.
Malaysia’s score dropped from 4.5 or 45 in 2009 to its lowest, 43, in 2013. It came up again to 52 this year.
The scale goes from 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean).
In 2004, it ranked 39 out of 145 countries while this year it ranked 50 out of 175 countries.
The fact that Malaysia is still at the same score range was pointed out by none other than Ravindran Devagunam, a director who deals with fighting corruption in the government’s Performance and Delivery Unit (Pemandu).
“We cannot rest on our laurels. We are inching forward but in reality we are back to square one. We need to make a leap forward,” Ravindran said at the announcement of the 2014 CPI rankings yesterday.
Commenting on the 2014 CPI, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Paul Low said it showed that the government’s anti-graft measures were starting to bear fruit.
“Continuous improvement in law enforcement and sustainable institutional reform in administration towards better governance and accountability has been put in place in every ministry and agency.
“The fruits of these measures will be felt more in the months ahead in 2015,” said Low, who is in charge of integrity and good governance.
Rafizi believes the improvement in this year’s CPI was due to the MACC’s effective public engagement strategy where the commission went out to get more people to participate in the fight against graft.
“The MACC leadership really did go out to engage the public and to educate them on why it was important they also do their part. This is something to be commended,” said Rafizi, who is also Pandan MP.
This argument is similar to what Transparency International Malaysia (TI-M) president Datuk Akhbar Satar said of this year’s rankings.
That it is actually based on sentiments in surveys done in 2011 and 2012, shortly after the government created the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, a more powerful and independent anti-graft agency.
“When the MACC was created, there was a lot of goodwill and this led to a jump in Malaysia’s position in the CPI,” said Rafizi.
However, without any real reform, Malaysia would likely be trapped around the same score range without any improvement, he said.
Lack of reform breeds distrust
Real reform would mean substantial changes to how the government does business. Some of TI-M’s recommendations include practising open tenders for every government project and to publish every contract that was given including directly negotiated ones.
Another would be to establish a public registry of beneficial owners for all Malaysian companies so that politicians cannot hide behind business proxies.
At the same time, there needs to be a system to regulate political party financing to explain how they receive and spend money.
Except for beneficial owners registry, none of these recommendations are new, said TI-M's Akhbar. They have been put to the government time and again but with little take up.
The fact the government still maintains the Official Secrets Act, which is used to hide details of government contracts, is proof that it is not really committed to transparency, said anti-graft activist Cynthia Gabriel.
“On the other hand, it appears that when people blow the whistle (on scandals), they're the ones being attacked,” said Gabriel who heads the Centre to Combat Corruption & Cronyism (C4).
Gabriel also pointed to the fact that even if the MACC completed their probes, the final decision whether to haul offenders to court rests with the Attorney-General.
Without the above measures, said Rafizi, it is doubtful that Malaysia will ever go up in the index or get a rank of 30, which is something Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak himself is aiming for.
“Our going up the index is incremental and reflects how our improvements are superficial at best,” said Rafizi.
“Without real reform we risk making people cynical towards the CPI. Because if we go up the index, while whistleblowers still get persecuted and culprits get away, people might stop taking the index seriously.” – December 4, 2014.
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