Legalised corruption: A reflection on the meaning behind the seizure of Daim’s Ilham Tower

It is not necessarily the case that we will be able to prove that what they did was against the law, because they were the ones that wrote the law at the time.

Nehru Sathiamoorthy

There is a meaningful definition of corruption and a legal definition of corruption.

Meaningfully, you can consider someone corrupt if they choose to elevate something of a lesser value at the expense of something that is greater in value.

When you say an individual is spiritually corrupt, what it means is that that person has chosen to elevate their material well-being at the expense of their spiritual well-being. A thief, for example, can be said to be spiritually corrupt, because their thieving ways would weaken and silence their conscience although it will materially enrich them.

When you say a public official is corrupt, it means that the official has chosen to look after their personal self-interest or the self-interest of their family or relatives, by weakening the institution that they serve. A policeman who takes bribes, for example, is corrupt, because they are eroding the reputation of the force for the sake of enriching themselves.

This definition, however, is not the legal definition of corruption. I don’t know what the specifics of the legal definition are, but what I do know is that in our law, as in the law of other countries around the globe, there is a specific definition of corruption, and you have to prove that a person is specifically corrupt according to these definitions before you can act against them by law.

An example of what I would view as a corrupt activity in terms of meaning and principles, but not viewed as corruption by the definition of the law, is the action of 5 opposition MPs to support the Madani government while remaining in the opposition fold.

I consider this corrupt because the shameful action of the 5 MPs is debasing the parliament to enhance the survivability of the Madani government, which is tantamount to weakening that which is of higher value for the sake of something that is lower in value.

Although, in principle, I consider their action to be corrupt, by the letter of the law, what the 5 MPs did is not considered as corrupt, because of technical details, like the absence of money changing hands or because the MPs in question did not directly break the anti-hopping law.

One of the biggest problems with the old order, and what I mean by the old order is the reign of Mahathir and all those who embrace the values of Mahathirism, is that the old order has basically legalised corruption. What I mean by this is that in the Mahathir era, laws were made and enforced in such a way that it is possible for a small group of people to legally weaken the nation in order to strengthen their own personal wellbeing.

Laws are not necessarily principled or just. History is replete with laws that have been written to legalise unjust and unprincipled activities. Slavery, for example, was a legally approved activity in the past in many parts of the world. Colonialism, another practice that is universally condemned as unjust today, was perpetrated in the past with the full backing of the laws of the colonial powers. The apartheid system, which is categorically condemned as anti-humanity and evil today, was a legally approved concept in South Africa during the apartheid era. That these corrupt and evil practices existed within the aegis of the law just goes to show that to write a law, you don’t need to be just or principled. If you have enough legal powers, you can pretty much write any law that you want.

Because in the latter half of his reign, Mahathir and his inner circle held near absolute power, it will be difficult to prove that what Mahathir and his inner circle did to Malaysia is corrupt in legal terms, although meaningfully, it might be as clear as daylight that at least some of their activities are corrupt, simply because they were the ones that were writing the law at the time.

Having the power to write and interpret the law of the land for decades, they would have naturally written and interpreted the law in such a way, that though their activities weakened the nation to elevate the self-interest of their circle, their activities will likely be considered legal from the point of view of the law.

It is an open secret, for example, that the wealth of Mahathir’s children was not accumulated in the right way. None of Mahathir’s children, for example, have come up with any goods and services that are well received by the market. They have no great talent like being able to sing well or play football well. They did not inherit their great wealth from their ancestors either.

Mahathir might claim that his children made their immense wealth through their own merit, but common sense tells us that his children could have only made their wealth through wheeling and dealing, which they could only have only done because their father was not only the longest serving PM in the country, but also a part of an elite inner circle that was empowered to move the wealth of the nation or the organisation they belonged to in any manner that they deemed fit.

Despite that, I don’t think that MACC is going to be able to legally prove that people like Mahathir or Daim, a member of Mahathir’s inner circle, to be corrupt even if it is as clear as daylight that the vast amount of wealth that they possess could not have been obtained in a proper manner.

The very fact that Daim owns the RM 2.3 billion Ilham tower, which was seized by MACC last week, can only logically be explained by the concept of legalised corruption.

It is extremely unlikely that Daim was such a good businessman that he was already wealthy before he joined politics. When you are successful in a field, you won’t abandon it to do something else in another field. Shah Rukh Khan, Leo Messi, Taylor Swift or Warren Buffett, for example, will not abandon the field that they dominate, in order to involve themselves in some other field like politics, simply because they are extremely successful in their own respective field.

If Daim was so successful as a businessman that he was extraordinarily rich before he joined politics, he would not have joined politics in the first place. If he became rich only after he joined politics, even when he could no longer focus his attentions fully on his business activities and even when he had not come up with any new product or services that succeeded in the marketplace, it can only mean that he used his political connections and positions to move the wealth of the nation or the organisations he belonged to in a way that benefited him and his associates.

His actions, however, might not be legally wrong even if  we can argue that it is wrong in terms of principle.

By principle, it might be wrong for a white man to capture a free black man from Africa and turn him into a slave in America, but we know for a fact that what the white man did was within the ambit of the law of the times, because it is the white man that wrote the law of the times.

In the same way, even if it is wrong by principle for the elite inner circle that Daim and Mahathir is a part of to use their power and position to gain an extraordinary amount of wealth, it is not necessarily the case that we will be able to prove that what they did was against the law, because they were the ones that wrote the law at the time.

The reason that Mahathir and his inner circle had the absolute power to write and interpret the law, by the way, is because we empowered them to write and interpret the law, and the reason that we empowered them to do so, is because Mahathir and his inner circle promised to deliver us something we wanted, and we thought we could trust them to do right by us.

Singaporeans also trusted Lee Kuan Yew and his inner circle to do right by them, and Lee Kuan Yew also used the near absolute power that the Singaporeans had granted him to him to make all sorts of laws, including one that banned chewing gum in the city state, but Lee Kuan Yew owned up to his promise of turning Singapore into a developed nation and making Singaporeans one of the richest people in the world, without making himself or his family extraordinarily rich in the process, while Mahathir and his inner circle only delivered only a  fraction of what they promised, while making themselves extraordinarily rich in the process.

Mahathir and his inner circle might have failed to own up to the promise that they will  make Malaysia a developed nation, and they might have made themselves immensely rich despite failing to deliver what they promised, but considering that they did deliver things like the twin towers and Putrajaya, they will probably argue that they did not break their promises or betray the country because they did to an extent develop Malaysia, and what they took from the country in return for  their contributions, is a fair and proportionate amount that commensurates their contributions.

Once we give someone absolute power, so much so that they can write any law to legalise everything that they do, in the hopes that they will use the power that we give them to get us what we want,  we cannot take action against them later, even if we feel that  they had not owned up to their end of the bargain, because we will have to break our own laws in order punish them for their sins and shortcomings, and if we make it legal to break our own laws, we are basically signing up for a revolution, that will sever our ties to the past.

The problem with dealing with the excesses of Mahathirism is two-fold.

On one hand, we need to do something to exorcise the ghost of Mahathirism that is continuously haunting us.

If we do not exorcise ourselves of Mahathirism, we might never be able to return to our pre-mahathirism root, and once again become a people who believe that wealth is only rightfully accumulated by creating value in the market.  Instead, we will continue believing that all we have to do to become extraordinarily rich is by having “strong cables”, without needing to create anything of value in the process, and this sort of belief system, if left unchecked, will continue to lead us down the path of deterioration and ruin.

However, to rid ourselves completely off the excesses of Mahathirism, we might need to break our own laws in order to act against the remnants of Mahathirism that is still extant today, but once we break our own laws, we might sever our ties with the past to such an extent, that the Malaysia we will become after we do it might  no longer be the same country as the one that was  formed in 1957 and 1963.

So how do we ensure that the errors of our past do not continue to colour our future, without severing our ties to our past?

Herein lies the rub.

I don’t think there is any easy answer to this question.

To address this matter, we will have no choice but to rely on the wisdom and sagacity of Anwar and the Madani government.

Now that the Madani government has seized Daim’s Ilham tower, it looks like they have decided to take firm and concrete steps to exorcise us of the excesses of Mahathirism.

As to whether they will be able to redeem our country from the mistakes we made in the past without completely severing our ties to the past or starting a revolution, is something that we are going to  find out one way or another, in the near future.