Commentary: Anti-corruption sweep exposes a disturbing truth in Malaysia

Before taking over as Malaysian Prime Minister in November last year, Anwar Ibrahim often told his closest advisors that reforms to regulate political funding would be a priority. But it appears taming widespread corruption in government and politics must take precedence.

(CNA) – Recent charges brought against former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin and several leaders of his Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) party over governance breaches in a COVID-19 stimulus programme that was introduced in November 2020 to jumpstart the economy show that state capture remains a huge problem and little has been learnt from the debacle surrounding 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

Muhyiddin has been slapped with seven separate charges that involved the abuse of power, mounting to RM237.5 million (US$53 million), and money laundering, totalling RM195 million.

The corruption and money laundering charges revolve around alleged bribes Muhyiddin and his colleagues received from companies awarded contracts under the Jana Wibawa programme that were credited into the party’s bank accounts. The Bersatu bank accounts, frozen by the government last month, showed balances of more than RM300 million, much of it amassed during the party’s leadership of government for 17 months beginning March 2020.

The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC), the lead agency in the graft clampdown, has already arrested several persons of interest, alleged to be involved not only in the payment of kickbacks but also in trying to shut down government investigations.

Already, one MACC official was arrested on suspicions that he was being courted with financial inducements to cover up ongoing probes into people close to Muhyiddin.



The widening anti-corruption net in recent weeks has exposed a disturbing truth in Malaysia. Money, politics and business have long intermingled at a huge cost to the economy, but just how widespread it has become means serious reform will be needed.

A central plank for the government under Mahathir Mohamad that came to power in mid-1981 was Malaysia’s ambitious privatisation policy. While privatisation was generally in line with economic policy thinking at that time, it had been criticised as promoting corruption, where companies aligned to the ruling government coalition were awarded the rights to manage state assets or to develop, implement and manage new public works projects and services under long and lucrative concession periods.

By the time Najib Razak took over as prime minister in late March 2009 from Mahathir’s successor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, the Malaysian economy had become heavily politicised, leading to serious inefficiencies.

Contract awards, such as the construction of the mass rail systems, railway networks and toll road concessions were often considered to be inflated to extract political premiums. Previously privatised companies were also re-nationalised, such as national carrier Malaysia Airlines in 2014.

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