Perceptions matter and the corruption problem is real

Our leaders blithely ignored the report again, like the proverbial ostrich burying its head in the sand. In total, Malaysia has been in the zone for the last five years. It appears that no one has taken the findings as seriously as they deserved.

(FMT) – Whenever an international watchdog or global organisation has praise for Malaysia, our leaders thump their chests and use the glowing tributes often in their speeches or when defending their mode of governance.

We have been named as being among the best countries in the world for doing business, the cheapest for expatriates and students to live in, among other accolades. When we were named the 12th best nation in 2020 in which to do business, the ministers celebrated.

They never for once questioned the credibility of the organisation doing the survey. Neither did they say it was a mere perception.

And when Unesco declares some parts of our country as heritage sites, we rejoice and use them widely in our advertisements to attract tourists to Malaysia.

But when Malaysia finds itself at the wrong end of any table, the same leaders take umbrage and in some cases, bury their heads in the sand and try to appear oblivious to the reality around them.

The most recent case was when the United States released its annual Trafficking in Persons report last week. After being in the Tier 2 watchlist from 2018 to 2020, Malaysia dropped to the lowest rung of Tier 3 last year, and remained there in this year’s findings too.

The report said despite having taken some positive actions in some areas, Malaysia does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so.

Well, this is definitely not based on perceptions as we know how we have been treating our migrants. The world saw that, and as a result, certain sanctions have been enforced.

But there was this damning statement in the report which is indeed worrying. It said: “Anti-trafficking investigations declined, and the government did not prosecute or convict government officials allegedly complicit in trafficking crimes.”

Despite this, there was nary a statement from any of our leaders on this report.

The TIP report for 2022 covers government efforts undertaken from April 1, 2021 to March 31, this year. We have seen the serious implications of these reports in the form of the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) barring some of our imports into the country. CBP does its own investigations besides relying heavily on the TIP report.

Many of our products from factories that had contributed to the Tier 3 status are banned from entering the US market. As of now, six of our major companies are still in the CBP’s Withhold Release Orders and Findings list.

Our leaders blithely ignored the report again, like the proverbial ostrich burying its head in the sand. In total, Malaysia has been in the zone for the last five years. It appears that no one has taken the findings as seriously as they deserved.

Of course some of the ministers argued that the US is imposing its brand of human rights values and formulas on countries in this region. But hey, how come others in this region, including our neighbours, are not being hauled up as badly as we are?

Last week, Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission chief Azam Baki attempted to play down Malaysia’s lowly position in Transparency International’s 2021 Corruption Perception Index released in January.

He said “we should pay little heed” to our 62nd position out of 180 countries. His reason – it does not necessarily reflect the actual level of corruption but merely measures the perceptions of corruption in the public sector in different countries and it wasn’t factual nor based on evidence.

Well, perceptions matter because they are mainly formed by the actions or omissions of the enforcement bodies in the countries. These actions are followed closely by the global media and now the social media and the internet. Relevant NGOs also provide reports on actions taken by the authorities against corruption.

Look at our media reports, there never goes a week without a major arrest or two involving huge corrupt practices. Look at the corruption trials of many of our political leaders over the last three years, they are massive with a few already convicted but are still on appeal at the higher courts.

If the 1MDB scandal did us in at TI’s annual findings several years ago, we have not been spared the infamy yet as new cases linked to it keep surfacing around the world every now and then. And if this is not enough, we see the raids by the MACC and police happening so very often involving big names.

The most recent one was the Socso Covid-19 wage subsidy scheme introduced to help pay the poor workers suffering from the effects of the pandemic. The MACC arrested 45 people who allegedly siphoned hundreds of millions of ringgit. Examples such as this are plenty and they are not perceptions I’m afraid, they are real.

The taxpayers have to worry about the RM32 billion still outstanding in 1MDB loans, as well as all the other billions of ringgit lost in government leakages. All so very tangible. We have seen them in the past and are still seeing them happen, unabated at times.

So if the MACC is going to downplay the CPI as nothing much but only something drawn from perception, I am afraid it is going to do more damage to our global image. Instead of being honest and owning up and taking serious steps to overcome the setbacks, the MACC chief chose to look the other way.

In Sri Lanka, political leaders for the last 10 years kept ignoring the many human rights reports and corruption claims involving the all-powerful Rajapaksa family which was ruling with an iron fist. Absolute power corrupted them absolutely until the leaders thought they were invincible. We know what happened to the island state.

I know Malaysia is very far from suffering Sri Lanka’s fate but whatever happened was because of the leaders burying their heads in the sand, refusing to see the reality on the ground or blithely ignoring global warnings and reports.

Look at Malaysia’s country report in the CIA website and you can see what it says of us. The TIP findings are used widely. This organisation bases its reports on the global surveys and other findings. I am sure investors have a look at these reports too, during their due diligence on where to put their money.

We ignore global surveys and country reports at our own peril because the world takes them seriously. And we know, and the world too, that we have a serious corruption issue at hand that needs to be addressed.