For Malaysia, the fight against corruption is also a fight for democracy

Cynthia Gabriel is founder of the Center to Combat Corruption and Cronyism (C4), an anti-corruption organization in Malaysia.

Malaysia’s anti-corruption commission has been making lots of headlines lately. Its agents have been carrying out high-profile arrests of government officials accused of bribery and influence-peddling. You’d think that Malaysians would be happy at the news.

But they aren’t — because it’s all too obvious that, however welcome this campaign, it’s just an attempt to divert attention from a far larger corruption scandal that has been rocking the country for the past five years.

I should know, because I’m one of the people — one of many — who were involved in bringing it to light.

In 2012, when I was serving as the executive director of one of Malaysia’s largest human rights organizations, my colleagues and I filed a legal complaint in France requesting an investigation into an alleged kickback scheme. According to news reports, Malaysian government officials had received $130 million for their part in the procurement of two submarines from a French company. (All of the officials implicated have denied these claims.) We took this unusual step when our efforts to get answers about the scandal ran into repeated bureaucratic and judicial hurdles in our home country.

Since we thought we had no legal standing in France, we were surprised when the French public prosecutors wrote to inform us that they had opened a case. As the investigation unfolded, we learned that it reached to the highest levels of the Malaysia government, as it involved close associates of the then-defense minister and current Prime Minister Najib Razak. One of them, Abdul Razak Baginda, has just been placed under formal investigation by French prosecutors for alleged kickbacks involving the deal. The investigation into the case is expected to end this year, potentially paving the way for a trial. (Both Najib and Razak have denied any wrongdoing.)

The authorities reacted to our revelations swiftly. Instead of investigating the complaint, they went after us, the whistleblowers. Local police officers dragged us in for questioning, attempted to raid our office and subjected us to other forms of harassment. The news on state-run TV in Malaysia showed our images every day, doing everything it could to turn public anger against us and other civil society activists. Police and investigators ratcheted up the pressure, desperate to silence us. As the lead campaigner and spokeswoman, I had to bear the brunt of the attacks.

It was an incredibly trying time, a challenging and fearful episode in my life. But it was clear there was no turning back. Having come so far already, we had no choice but to deal with the consequences and show that we were determined to find out the truth. So we carried on, despite the intense fear and tension endured by our families and friends.

At the same time, however, an outpouring of support from ordinary people gave me new strength to work for change, so that my country could begin to chart a more open and transparent course to the future.

Guided by this impulse, in 2013 I founded the Center to Combat Corruption and Cronyism (C4), of which I am today the executive director. I and my activist colleagues vowed to find new ways to protect whistleblowers, end impunity, advocate for stronger and independent institutions and demand justice and the rule of law.

The establishment of C4 could not have come at a more fitting time, as Malaysia soon found itself confronting another corruption scandal that gradually became one of the central political issues in the country. The 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) probe, although well known in Malaysia, gained worldwide attention on July 20, 2016, when the U.S. Justice Department filed civil forfeiture complaints seeking to recover more than $1 billion that had been allegedly laundered through American financial institutions from 1MDB, a Malaysian state investment fund. Several months ago, the Justice Department made moves to claim a second trove of assets related to the case. (For its part, the fund insists that it has never given money to the prime minister, and he has consistently denied taking money from 1MDB or any public funds.)

Although not named in the report that accompanied the Justice Department announcement, Najib is at the center of the 1MDB controversy. Calls for Najib to step down from his office have spread throughout the country over the past year. Even former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, once a close political ally, has demanded his resignation. In November, tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur to support efforts to clean up the country’s electoral system. Yet the political opposition, split by the detention of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, has been unable to mount a serious challenge to Najib’s increasingly authoritarian grip on power.

The corruption concerns go hand-in-hand with the government’s suppression of free speech, as shown by its use of the Sedition Act and other oppressive measures to harass and intimidate opposition political figures and civil society actors. Meanwhile, mismanagement and sagging revenue have forced the Malaysian government to enact unpopular policies, such as cutting back on long-standing subsidies for energy and food and imposing a new value-added tax.

With elections due as early as this fall, the Najib government will do its best to ride out the political storm. Meanwhile, Malaysian activists will continue to look for ways to protect whistleblowers, to end impunity, to advocate for stronger and independent institutions and to demand justice and the rule of law. Only in this way can we hope to build a truly democratic Malaysia.

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