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Combating Corruption: The Malaysian Experience

Author(s): Y. Mansoor Marican


Source: Asian Survey, Vol. 19, No. 6 (Jun., 1979), pp. 597-610
Published by: University of California Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2643897
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COMBATING CORRUPTION:
THE MALAYSIAN EXPERIENCE

Y. Mansoor Marican*

IN THE RECENT ACADEMIC EMPHASIS on the subject of


corruption, most studies deal with definitional problems, types, causes,
and "functions." Several authors, using the vocabulary of lubrication
mechanics, have emphasized the positive contributions of corruption to
political and economic development. Support for this view, however,
is not widespread, among either academics or government leaders. A
Singapore leader described the authors of such studies as "the ideologists
of kleptocracy." Many Asian leaders have described corruption as "a
disease"-"a cancer" that would, unless checked, eventually destroy the
entire social fabric. The "prescription" has often involved the estab-
lishment of agencies or bureaus and the promulgation of relevant legis-
lation. This article analyzes such measures in Malaysia.
It is widely held that the level of corruption is lower in Malaysia
than in most other Southeast Asian states. In the index section of a
popular text on Southeast Asian governments and politics, there is only
one page reference to corruption in Malaysia, whereas there are three
or more such references for Indonesia, Thailand, Laos, the Philippines,
and South Vietnam.' A study of foreign-owned industries in Malaysia
reported that the relatively low level of corruption was contributory to
locating these industries here rather than in other Southeast Asian
states.
Within Malaysia, however, there is no dearth of allegations about

*The author wishes to thank the anonymous referee and Jim Scott of Yale Uni-
versity for their comments on an earlier draft.
1 George M. Kahin, Government and Politics of Southeast Asia (New York:
Cornell University Press, 1964). According to the Secretary-General of the Thai
government's anticorruption committee, over a third of the national budget finds
its way into the pockets of unscrupulous government officials each year. New Sunday
Times, May 28, 1978.

597

? 1979 by the Regents of the University of California


0004-4687/79/060597 + 14$00.50

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598 ASIAN SURVEY, Vol. XIX, No. 6, June 1979

corrupt practices, with opposition party politicians vocal in this regard.2


Characteristic of opposition statements in Parliament was the one made
by Malaysia's "Mr. Opposition," Dr. Tan Chee Khoon:

. . . there is corruption in high places, especially amongst politicians. A


number of Alliance politicians at all levels of representative government
have amassed lands, houses, bank balances, businesses, etc., during their
term of office . . . almost every day I receive letters alleging corruption

A few government leaders and judges have also publicly criticized cor-
rupt practices. Former Attorney-General Tan Sri Abdul Kadir criticized
corruption in "high places" on several occasions,4 while High Court
Judge Tan Sri Raja Azlan Shah spoke of "a frightening decay in the
integrity of some of our leaders" in his judgement address in the cor-
ruption trial of former Selangor Menteri Besar (chief minister), Datuk
Harun Idris.5 In election campaigns, however, corruption was never an
important issue at the national or subnational levels until 1974. But in
the 1974 general election in Kelantan, a loosely organized group of inde-
pendent candidates, Barisan Bebas (Independent Front) focused mainly
on the issue of corruption in their campaign to unseat the state govern-
ment.
The history of government efforts to combat corruption through
legal measures begins with the enactment of The Prevention of Corrup-
tion Ordinance in 1950. This ordinance replaced the anticorruption
laws of the former Federated Malay States, the State of Johore, and the
former Straits Settlements.6 Two years later, this ordinance was declared
inadequate to deal with many aspects of corruption and was amended
on September 11, 1952.7 After independence, more provisions were
added. The Prevention of Corruption Act, 1961, passed by Parliament
on October 18, 1961, broadened the definition of "gratification," in-
creased the maximum term of imprisonment from three to five years,
and brought members of legislative or public bodies within its scope.
In drafting this Act, the Parliament consulted the Singapore Prevention
of Corruption Ordinance (1960), the Ceylon Bribery Act (1954), and the
Hong Kong Prevention of Corruption Ordinance.8

2 Hans H. Indorf, "Party System Adaptation to Political Development in Malay-


sia during the First Decade of Independence, 1957-1967" (Ph.D. Thesis, New York
University, 1969), pp. 469-470.
3 Ibid., p. 472.
4 New Straits Times, November 21, 1975.
6 New Straits Times, May 19, 1976. Datuk Harun was also the former leader of
UMNO's Youth Section. UMNO is the most important component in the coalition
that rules Malaysia.
6 See Federated Malay States Enactment No. 23 of 1938; Johore Enactment No. 14
of 1940; and Straits Settlements Ordinance No. 41 of 1937.
7 See Federation of Malaya, Proceedings of the Federal Legislative Council, 5th
Session (February 1952 to February 1953), p. 232; and Federation of Malaya, The
Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Ordinance, 1952; and Federation of Malaya,
Proceedings of the Federal Legislative Council, 5th session, September 11, 1952.
8 Malaysia, Parliamentary Debates, 3rd session, vol. 3 (October 1961 to January
1962), col. 1892.

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CORRUPTION IN MALAYSIA 599

The 1961 Act has been amended twice, in 1967 and 1971. The 1967
amendment increased the powers of the Public Prosecutor in regard to
the conduct of investigations, and placed legislators and members of
public bodies under a legal obligation to make a report of corruption
for a promise of gratification. The 1971 amendment rectified, among
other things, "a hitherto unnoticed flaw" concerning the definition of
"offence under the Act." These amendments, however, fell short of
opposition demands in Parliament, which included provisions to: (1)
ban "floor crossing" in the legislature because this is sometimes the
result of financial inducements; (2) prevent ministers and senior officials
from becoming directors in private companies for a period of three years
from the date of their resignation or retirement to bar them from using
their influence and connections for the company's benefit;9 (3) increase
the maximum penalty; (4) forfeit properties and funds that could not
be accounted for from a person's known sources of income; and (5) re-
quire Members of Parliament to declare their assets in a public register.
Though colonial and postindependence governments were agreed
that legal proceedings must remain the "spearhead" of the attack on
corruption, they perceived the need to supplement it with other mea-
sures. Based on the view that there will be no corruption if there are no
"givers," the High Commissioner of the Federation of Malay decided
in 1952 "to launch a publicity and education campaign designed to
bring home as clearly and as cogently as possible the evils that flow from
corruption."10 Though a Committee under the chairmanship of the
Deputy Chief Secretary was set up to conduct this campaign, no con-
crete steps appear to have been taken. In 1961 the government accepted
an opposition Member of Parliament's suggestion to announce that cor-
ruption is considered sinful in Islam, but nothing was done subse-
quently. In 1971 Tan Sri Abdul Kadir Yosof, then Attorney-General,
proposed that every Member of Parliament "should go to his constitu-
ency and give lectures on the subject of corruption.""1 To date, beyond
general exhortations, the government has not undertaken any systematic
measures that would make individuals less inclined towards corrupt
practices. Measures could be taken through several instruments of so-
cialization. For example, publicizing through the mass media the pro-
cedural steps involved and the criteria used in deciding on land appli-
cations is likely to result in a reduction in corruption in land offices.
The veil of secrecy that surrounds these matters often forces applicants
to resort to corruption as well in order to maximize their chances of
success and also protects the corrupt civil servant.
Publicity campaigns, especially in countries with poor communica-
tion networks and high illiteracy, can be expected to produce results

9 Malaysia, Parliamentary Debates, 3rd session, vol. 1, nos. 24-38 (1971), col. 3773
(fourteen Members of Parliament spoke on the amendment), col. 3820, and col. 1474.
10 Federation of Malaya, Proceedings of the Federal Legislative Council, 5th
session (February 1952 to February 1953), p. 231.
11 Malaysia, Parliamentary Debates, 3rd session, vol. 1, nos. 24-38 (1971), col.
3833.

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600 ASIAN SURVEY, Vol. XIX, No. 6, June 1979

only in the long run. In the short run, the government must dem
strate its political will to reduce corruption by engaging in "house
cleaning" exercises. The history of such exercises in Malaya can be
traced from 1940. On April 1 of that year, E. D. Shearn, in a speech in
the Federal Council, charged that "bribery and corruption do flourish
;to an appalling extent in Government departments." The Mines De-
partment in particular had become the target of numerous corruption
allegations. On September 13, 1940, High Commissioner S. W. Jones
appointed a commission under E. D. Shearn's chairmanship to inquire,
among other things, into these allegations. The ten-man commission
found evidence of corruption and gross violations of established pro-
cedures among the officers. This inquiry not only led to legal proceed-
ings and disciplinary actions being taken against the officers concerned
but also helped to clear the name of some suspected officers. A "Minority
Report" of this commission observed that it was "more common for
those engaged in the mining industry voluntarily to offer presents or
bribes than for officers of the Mines Department to demand them."12
Twelve years later, on September 30, 1952, a nine-man commission
with a broader term of reference-to investigate, among other things,
"the incidence of corruption in the Government Services of the Federal
Government"-was appointed by the High Commissioner.13 The estab-
lishment of this commission had its roots in widespread allegation that
"such and such office is corrupt, that the public services were riddled
with corruption, that emergency measures [against the Communists]
were hindered by corruption and so on."''4 The commission's chairman
was E. N. Taylor, a person with vast administrative and legal experi-
ence, and it included the present Prime Minister of Malaysia, Datuk
Hussein Onn. Members of the commission visited various parts of
Malaya and held several hearings, examined government files and docu-
ments, and read about four thousand letters from members of the pub-
lic. The whole exercise took ten months. Though the report was com-
pleted in 1954, it was not published until 1955 because of "a series of
hitches."
With the exception of isolated cases, the commission found no evi-
dence of bribery and other forms of corruption. But it found clear

12 Federated Malay States, No. 12 of 1941, Report of a Commission of Enquiry


Appointed to enquire into the conduct and management of the Mines Department
and the performance of the duties entrusted to Officers of that Department serving
under the Government of the Federated Malay States or any State thereof and in
particular into any allegations that any Officer or Servant of the said Mines Depart-
ment has received bribes, illegal gratifications, secret commissions or other payments
or gifts made corruptly or improperly or has engaged in transactions for his private
[use] or has otherwise acted contrary to his duties as a Public officer of Government
(Kuala Lumpur: Federated Malay States Government Press, 1941), p. 56.
13 Federation of Malaya, Gazette Notification L. N. 558 in Supplement of October
1, 1952.
14 Federation of Malaya, Report of a Commission to enquire into matters affect-
ing the integrity of the Public Services (Kuala Lumpur: Government Printer, 1955),
p. 1.

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CORRUPTION IN MALAYSIA 601

evidence of abundant opportunities for corrupt behavior. It believed


that such opportunities were more likely to be taken in vulnerable de-
partments such as the police and the customs, which necessarily have
large numbers of the lower ranks in direct contact with the public. The
commission, on the whole, exonerated the civil service by concluding
that "the basis of our appointment was an exaggerated view of irrespon-
sible statements."15 It nevertheless went on to make 31 recommenda-
tions, the implementation of which, it argued, would reduce the oppor-
tunities for, and act as deterrent to, corrupt behavior. The government
did not take any immediate steps to implement these recommendations,
in part because by then government leaders were preoccupied with a
more important issue-merdeka (independence).
Though special anticorruption legislation was enacted in 1950, no
special department or agency was established to investigate corrupt
practices until after independence (1957). Until then, it was considered
part of the manifold functions of the Criminal Investigation Depart-
ment (CID) of the Police Force. Table 1 shows the number of corrup-

tion cases investigated by the CID and the number of convictions


obtained for the period 1950 to 1957.
In 1958, the government invited Shah Nazir Alam, then Inspector-
General of Pakistan Special Police, to review the government's machine-
ry for combating corruption. Based on his recommendations, the gov-
ernment established a "Special Crime Branch" (SCB) within the CID,
and an Anti-Corruption Unit in the Prime Minister's department. They
investigated major corruption cases as well as allegations of corruption
received from members of the public. Table 2 shows the activities un-
dertaken by the SCB from 1959 to 1961.
Loopholes in the existing anticorruption legislation made it diffi-
cult for the SCB to prosecute many of the cases investigated. Though
some of the loopholes were identified by the Taylor Commission's Re-
port (1955), it was only in 1961 that they were plugged with the adop-
tion of the Prevention of Corruption Act. Other problems that affected
the SCB's performance were the lack of trained staff to investigate the
numerous allegations of corruption and difficulties encountered in co-
ordinating the SCB's activities with those of the Legal Department and
the Civil Service, which were responsible for prosecution, and research
and prevention, respectively. These problems as well as increased pub-
lic pressure for more vigorous efforts against corruption forced the gov-
ernment to reorganize its anticorruption machinery.
On October 1, 1967, the government formally integrated all aspects
of its anticorruption effort-investigation, prosecution, research, and
prevention-into a single body, known as the Anti-Corruption Agency
(ACA). The three main functions of the ACA were to investigate
and prosecute offenses under the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1961

15 Ibid., p. 60.

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CORRUPTION IN MALAYSIA 603

TABLE 2: Activities of the Special Crime Branch, 1959-1961

1959 1960 1961

Investigations conducted 254 999 764


Investigation papers or
Preliminary inquiry papers 69 214 100
Arrests 13 39 27
Prosecutions 13 33 31
Prosecutions pending 0 6 2

SOURCE: Malaysia, Oficial Year Book, 1963; and Federation of Malaya, Ogffcial Year Book, 1962,
p. 135.

(amended in 1967 and revised in 1971);16 to introduce prevention mea-


sures to curb corruption in government departments and statutory
bodies; and to investigate the conduct of civil servants who contravene
the Public Officers (Conduct and Discipline) Regulations. Table 3 pro-
vides a summary of ACA's activities from 1968 to 1972.

TABLE 3: Activities of the Anti-Corruption Agency, 1968-1972

1968 1969 1970 1971 1972

Complaints received
from the public 6,155 3,895 6,376 4,550 3,422

Cases investigated:
Full investigation 388 236 319 252 226
Preliminary enquiries 2,987 2,454 3,265 2,556 1,602

Total investigated 3,375 2,690 3,584 2,808 1,828

Arrests made:
Members ofthe public 157 99 115 151 131
Government servants 59 156 67 57 50

Disciplinary actions taken


against government servants 68 88 87 27 33

SOURCE: Malaysia Official Year Books, 1972 and 1974.

With the exception of 1969, there were more prosecutions against


members of the public than against civil servants. Offenses committed
by members of the public included giving bribes to civil servants, mak-
ing false declarations in documents with intention to defraud, giving
false information punishable under the Penal Code relating to those

16 "Under this Act, the Agency is empowered to investigate, arrest and prosecute
any person without exception. This includes Members of Parliament, State Assembly-
men, Public Servants and members of the public. It is also empowered to investigate
and examine any bank account book, share account or purchase account, expense
account or any other account or any safe deposit in any bank of any person suspected
of being corrupt. The Act further empowers the Agency to require any person to
furnish a sworn statement enumerating all moveable and immoveable properties
belonging to him or members of his family." Malaysia, Official Year Book 1972.

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604 ASIAN SURVEY, Vol. XIX, No. 6, June 1979

cases brought to court, producing toddy illegally, extortion, impersona-


tion, smuggling, and having in possession drugs and stolen goods.
The ACA was not established by an Act of Parliament, but by a
purely administrative act. Like its predecessor, the SCB, it was located
in the Home Affairs Ministry; unlike the SCB, it had no regional officers.
The regional setup was abolished in 1968 and a branch was established
in each state (except in Perlis, the smallest) with direct contact with
the ACA's head office in Kuala Lumpur.
The ACA's first Director-General, Harun Hashim, succeeded in
establishing public confidence in the ACA in a short period of time
through regular press conferences that were extensively reported in all
English and vernacluar newspapers. In these conferences he revealed the
numbers of people arrested and prosecuted during the previous month
and the value of goods seized, and included such claims that the gov-
ernment spent several thousands of dollars for "non-existent" adult
education classes. Such disclosures contributed to the public's willing-
ness to extend cooperation to the ACA. In its first year of operation,
the ACA received 6,155 complaints from the public. Harun's disclo-
sures, however, began to cause concern in government circles. Possibly
fearing that they would affect the government's image, the Prime Min-
ister decreed that future press statements could be made only with the
approval of the Ministry.
The Prime Minister's decree added to the suspicion that had been
building up among ACA's critics concerning its freedom of action.
Subsequently, they attributed ACA's alleged ineffectiveness to its status
as a government department and many demanded that it be converted
into an autonomous body. The "best way" to make the ACA free from
"all extraneous and political pressures," according to Democratic Action
Party (DAP) Chairman Dr. Chen Mah Hin, was to make it "answerable
directly either to the Judiciary or to Parliament.""' To make the ACA
"really independent," according to PAS President Datuk Mohamed
Asri, it must be appointed by the King or the Council of Rulers and its
director should have the same status as a judge.18 Among other sug-
gestions by politicians to make the ACA more effective was the setting
up of a "watchdog" committee in every state, composed of the head of
the ACA in the state, government and opposition party members, and
members of the public (appointed by a judge, sultan, or governor). It
was also suggested that this committee should be sworn to secrecy and
be chaired by an opposition party member.19
In June 1967 Abdul Rahman Yaakub, then Minister for Justice,
reported to Parliament that the government had "agreed in principle"
to convert the ACA into an independent body: "The Government, in
fact, has been considering this for a long time; . . . we have engaged

17 Malaysia, Parliamentary Debates, 3rd session, vol. 1, nos. 24-38 (1971), col.
3812.
18 Ibid., col. 3816.
19 Ibid., cols. 3818 and 3819.

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CORRUPTION IN MALAYSIA 605

someone from Pakistan to advise us on this point." The government


also established a cabinet subcommittee under the chairmanship of
Tun Dr. Ismail, then Home Affairs Minister, "to review and make rec-
ommendations on the reorganization of the ACA." This committee, in
turn, appointed a working committee. Based on the recommendations
of these committees, the government decided to amend the Prevention
of Corruption Act (discussed earlier), increase the ACA's staff size by
200%, eventually detach the ACA from the Police Force, and review
again the workings of the ACA before late 1969.20
The ACA's inability to function effectively stemmed in part from
the nature of its personnel. Having no powers to recruit its staff, the
ACA depended on seconded officers, mostly from the Police Force, to
carry out its activities, but they lacked training and were ill prepared
to carry out their new tasks. Second, the uncertainty inherent in second-
ment made them worry about their postings when their assignment to
the ACA expired. Third, their secondment status allegedly made them
reluctant to investigate corrupt practices in departments where they
might be posted in the future. Fourth, some of the seconded officers
allegedly were not selected on the basis of special aptitudes for the
ACA's tasks, but because their departments were eager to have them
transferred for various reasons.
Mounting pressure from opposition party members, government
backbenchers, and members of the public forced the government to un-
dertake a comprehensive review of the workings of the ACA. A working
paper containing proposals for a major reorganization of the govern-
ment's anticorruption machinery was approved by the cabinet in May
1973. Two months later, the government obtained Parliament's ap-
proval to replace the ACA with a new body, the National Bureau of
Investigation (NBI). During the debate on the bill to establish the NBI,
a government backbencher (Haji Ahmad Arshad) urged that "the word
'corruption' should be retained in the name of the new bureau. Some
people," he said, "thought that the bureau would not be responsible for
wiping out corruption."21 According to an NBI official, "the old name
was considered unsuitable from a public relations perspective. It gave
the impression that the country is riddled with corruption when it is
only about three to four percent."22
The NBI, formally established on August 30, 1973, differs from the
ACA in several respects. First, unlike the ACA, the NBI was established
by an Act of Parliament. Second, although the NBI, like the ACA, had
seconded officers, it also had powers to recruit (through the mechanism
of the Public Services Commission) its own staff. Third, the Director-
General of the NBI is appointed by the King on the advice of the Prime
Minister and holds office for such period as may be specified in the in-

20 Malaysia, Parliamentary Debates, 2nd session, vol. 4, no. 1 (June 1967 to


August 1967), cols. 1508 and 1509.
21 New Straits Times, July 18, 1973.
22 Interview with NBI officer, October 1973.

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606 ASIAN SURVEY, Vol. XIX, No. 6, June 1979

strument of appointment. He has all the powers of a Deputy Public


Prosecutor and of a police officer and a customs officer (the Director-
General of the ACA had not been apointed by the King and had fewer
powers). Fourth, NBI officers have powers to arrest (the ACA officers did
not have such powers; arrests were made by police officers). Fourth, NBI
officers are given "incentive allowances" for successful investigations.
The absence of such allowances allegedly lowered the motivation of
ACA officers. Table 4 provides a summary of the activities of the NBI

TABLE 4: Activities of the NBI, 1973-1975

1973a 1974 1975

Complaints received
from the public 3,413 3,380 4,541
Cases investigated:
Full investigation 205 196 273
Preliminary enquiries 1,271 567 848

Total cases investigated 1,476 763 1,121

Arrests made:
Members of the public 132 99 122
Government servants 61 72 91

Total arrests made 193 171 213

Disciplinary actions taken


against government servants 18 30 23

SOURCE: Malaysia Official Year Book, 1976.


aIncludes figures of the ACA. The NBI replaced the ACA in August. 1973.

during the first three years of its operation.


A criticism frequently made about the NBI (and also the ACA) is
that it arrested mostly the "small fish" (lower level officials who received
small bribes), and left the "big fish" (syndicates, big businessmen, and
influential politicians involved in large-scale corruption) relatively
free to continue their illegal operations. Tan Sri Abdul Kadir, then
Attorney-General, defended the NBI for arresting the former: "Some
of the 'small fish' might be swallowing a dollar or two an hour but the
total sum could be substantial over a long period."23 A consequence of
the corrupt practices of the "small fish," according to Tan Sri Ibrahim
Salleh (former NBI Director-General), is that the government's image
"is damaged in the eyes of a large number of people, especially kampung
(village) people and town workers who can ill-afford to pay even a few
dollars. In most cases, a few dollars represents a day's earning or a
month's pocket money for their school going children. Many kampung
people go to government departments with only a few dollars in their

23 New Straits Times, November 21, 1975.

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CORRUPTION IN MALAYSIA 607

pockets for their bus fare home and it hurts them very much to be de-
prived of that money when they seek help and consideration from the
officials concerned."24
Several critics of the NBI have attributed its alleged failure to
arrest the "big fish" to its lack of independence. They allege that the
NBI, as a government department, has to obtain clearance from the
Minister before initiating action and that clearance is not easily given
because most "big fish" are very influential people and closely linked
to the government. This allegation has been vehemently denied by gov-
ernment leaders on several occasions. The Attorney-General assured
Parliament that he has "directed that the NBI be allowed to carry out
its duties without restrictions from me or any party."25 This assurance
failed to appease opposition Members of Parliament, especially those
from the DAP, who continue to demand an independent status for the
NBI.
Government leaders have attributed the difficulty in bringing the
"big fish" to book partly to the latter's use of sophisticated methods. In
an effort to ensure that the NBI "is not overtaken by the crooks,"26 the
NBI had periodically provided training to its officers on the latest de-
velopments in the field of corruption investigation. The training ses-
sions are conducted in the Police Colleges and in the National Institute
of Public Administration (popularly known by its Malay acronym,
INTAN-Instituit Tadbiran Awam Negara). The NBI also plans to
send some of its officers to the U.S., Britain, and the Philippines t
methods used there.
NBI's activities have been hampered partly by staff shortages. When
the NMI was formed, ACA officers had to make a choice between return-
ing to their parent departments or joining the NBI. The majority chose
the latter. While this spared the NBI the problem of "starting from
scratch," the number of serving officers was still grossly inadequate to
investigate thoroughly the complaints received from the public, which
were increasing each year. The present staff size of the NBI is 371, but
recruitment plans have been formulated to increase the staff to about
640.
In late 1975 the NBI became the target of "a smear campaign" in
the form of anonymous letters that were widely circulated. These let-
ters cast doubt on the sincerity of the NBI in combating corruption in
general and on the integrity of its Director-General in particular. Ac-
cording to the Attorney-General, "corrupt intellectuals" were respon-
sible for this campaign; he did not mention any names. Sensitive to the
possible damage this campaign might have done, a government back-
bencher suggested in Parliament that a committee of representatives of
all parties be set up "to regain people's confidence in the NBI."27 This

24 New Sunday Times, October 5, 1975.


25 New Straits Times, August 14, 1973.
26 Ibid., December 22, 1975.
27 Ibid., November 20, 1975.

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608 ASIAN SURVEY, Vol. -XIX, No. 6, June 1979

suggestion was not acted upon by the government. Even if it had been,
it is unlikely that such a committee would have had any significant
impact.
Impressionistically it appears that the Malaysian public has placed
its hopes for a reduction in the level of corruption, especially in high
places, more on the leadership of Prime Minister Datuk Hussein Onn
and less on the activities of a particular department. In his address to
the youth and women's sections during the UMNO General Assembly
in 1974, Datuk Hussein Onn, then Deputy Prime Minister, spoke at
length on the government's determination to deal with the corrupt, re-
gardless of whether they are "mousedeer or dragons." Since assuming
the prime ministership, he has succeeded in projecting himself as an
honest leader determined to establish a clean government. His firmness
in the face of strong pressures, especially from UMNO's youth section,
to "rehabilitate" Datuk Harun Idris, who was convicted on several
charges of corruption, reinforced confidence in his leadership among
significant sections of the public.28 This contrasts sharply with the ear-
lier Tengku Abdul Rahman-led government's decision to use public
funds to pay the legal fees (M$88,323) incurred by the then Education
Minister, Abdul Rahman Talib, who failed "to prove his innocence"
in a corruption case.29

Concluding Remarks

This article began by noting that the level of corruption is believed


to be lower in iMialaysia than in most other Southeast Asian states. As-
suming that, in fact, is true, what factors could possibly explain it?
Milne and Mauzy have attributed it partly to the "comparatively good
civil service pay, made possible by the relatively high national income
per head. The salaries of top civil servants are particularly high, be-
cause they were based on those of the British they replaced.'30 A second
factor could be the difference in the nature of the transition from colo-
nial rule to independence. In the case of lMIalaya, there was less disrup-

28 "Rehabilitation" of Datuk Harun Idris eventually came to mean a royal


pardon. He failed to get this and is currently serving his jail sentence.
29 The case arose out of a charge by an opposition party leader, D. R. Seenivas-
agam, that the minister had received "money and other favours." The accused
initiated a libel suit, which he lost in the High Court, and, therefore, by implication
was found guilty of corruption. Eventually Abdul Rahman Talib resigned from the
cabinet "but not without the Prime Minister's assurance that he had continued
confidence in him. While this action was an expression of commendable loyalty, it
also indirectly repudicated the judicial decision and downgraded the legal system.
The Minister of Justice defended the government's decision to pay the legal fees by
explaining that Abdul Rahman Talib was not found guilty because he was the
plaintiff suing for libel, albeit unsuccessfully." Indorf, "Party System Adaptation,"
pp. 471472.
30 Robert S. Milne and Diane K. Mauzy, Politics and Government in Malaysia
(Singapore and Vancouver: Federal Publications and University of British Columbia
Press, 1978), p. 275.

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CORRUPTION IN MALAYSIA 609

tion of a fairly strong, honest bureaucratic framework at the time of


independence as compared with the nearly total disruption in Burma
and Indonesia. In the latter countries, the condition of relative "norm-
lessness" that followed might have contributed to a comparatively
higher level of corruption. A third factor could be that Malaysia has
had a bureaucratic tradition that is closer to the Weberian model. This
may explain why countries (such as the Philippines and Thailand),
which experienced little disruption at independence, still have a rela-
tively higher level of corruption. The Philippines inherited the U.S.
free-wheeling administration and politics while Thailand has main-
tained a tradition of unquestioned authority and discretion typical of
traditional states. A fourth factor could be the presence of a relatively
well-formed, large, professional, educated class; a relatively independent
judiciary; and a relatively free press. All these features distinguish
Malaysia from much of Southeast Asia. A fifth factor could be that
Malaysia has always had a political opposition. Although it is small in
size, the presence of outstanding personalities (such as the Seenivasagam
brothers, Dr. Tan Chee Khoon, Ustaz Zulkilee Mohamed, Devan Nair,
and Lim Kit Siang) in this camp had more than made up for the small-
ness in size. Political repression in many Southeast Asian countries has
prevented the opposition from articulating publicly the issue of corrup-
tion. Thus the comparatively higher level of corruption in these coun-
tries may be related to the fact that governments in these countries have
not been, to use a cliche, "kept on their toes" by the opposition. It must
be emphasized that the above factors are largely speculations since com-
parative empirical research is lacking at present.
Within Malaysia, public debate on the issue of corruption has in-
creased during the last few years. This may be linked to the tough laws
that prevent public discussion of the real "stuff" of Malaysian politics.
These may have forced opposition politicians and others to concentrate
on administrative shortcomings and the issue of corruption in their
campaigns. On the other hand, the increase in the public debate may
also reflect an actual increase in the incidence of bribery, kickbacks,
payoffs, and other corrupt practices in the country. According to Tun
Tan Siew Sin (chairman of Sime Darby Holdings Ltd., and former
Finance Minister), "there is corruption in Malaysia and I feel it is
growing."3' In the general elections held in July 1978, the issue of cor-
ruption figured prominently in the electoral debate. Aliran, a Penang-
based social reform movement, called on election candidates to declare
their assets and liabilities in a form suitable for public inspection and
to update the information each year. In its campaigns, the Husein
Onn-led National Front (a ten-party coalition) pledged, among other
things, "a clean government" if elected. The Malaysian voters have
given the NF a big mandate; the NF now has a two-thirds majority in

31 Quoted in Barry Wain, "Malaysia: Campaigning Against Corruption," The


Asian Wall Street Journal, 2:212 (June 30, 1978), p. 4.

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610 ASIAN SURVEY, Vol. XIX, No. 6, June 1979

Parliament and controls all state governments. Can the NE keep its
pledge? "The Malaysian public is now waiting for action," remarked
one observer.

Y. MANSOOR MARICAN is a member of the teaching staff in Political Science and


Public Administration in the School of Comparative Social Sciences, Science Univer-
sity, Penang, Malaysia.

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