Democracy against kleptocracy

Malaysians who have voted for a new government also hope that they will have the freedom to speak openly about corruption and kleptocracy. (Reuters pic)

By Syed Farid Alatas

Malaysians have finally developed a level of political maturity that led to us taking our destiny into our own hands. After putting up with years of maladministration, rising crime rates, deteriorating ethnic and religious ties, increasing inflation and unemployment, and the ridicule of living under an alleged kleptocratic regime, we changed our government on May 9, 2018.

It is likely that the 1MDB scandal played an important role in turning people against the Barisan Nasional (BN) government. Ever since reports in The Wall Street Journal and Sarawak Report on 1MDB alleged massive corruption involving the upper echelons of the political and corporate elite of Malaysia, the term kleptocracy gained much political currency among activists and critics of the BN regime.

Some asked whether or not Malaysia was a kleptocracy. Many others were certain that the Malaysian state had already reached that stage.

The term is derived from the Greek words “klepto” (thief) and “cracy” (rule). It refers to a government dominated by those who use their office to seek personal financial gain, power and status at the expense of the governed.

The experience of many countries has been that the impact of kleptocratic rulers and officials on peoples’ lives is devastating. Kleptocrats rule with unscrupulousness and a shameless hypocrisy, and distort development planning and policies. Such rulers do not seem to have any interest in the rights, opinions or sentiments of the people they govern. Under their watch, a country would undergo large-scale resource depletion and experience a loss of talented human resources. In order to clamp down on dissent, kleptocrats would severely restrict peoples’ freedom of expression in order to silence their critics.

At a forum entitled “Eradicating Grand Corruption: How Successful Have We Been?” organised by the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) and hosted by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) on Nov 26, 2012, I suggested that Malaysia might descend into kleptocratic rule if steps were not taken to minimise the level of corruption in the country.

In Malaysia, corruption is not a random or occasional occurrence but tends to be systemic. In many countries, kleptocrats are usually not merely mid-level officials who extort money or receive bribes as a means to make ends meet, but high-ranking officials and top-level politicians who engage in corrupt acts to do business and accumulate wealth.

Even before the outbreak of the 1MDB case, the question for Malaysians had been: are we a country in which corruption is the dominant means of doing business and can be referred to as the fifth factor of production? Is corruption so pervasive that it is a dominant means of doing business? If that were the case, we would be a kleptocracy.

To the extent that kleptocratic rule develops and expands, whatever genuine democratic forces there are will recede into the background. For this reason, it is to be considered a great victory that Malaysians have voted for what we hope will be a better, more just and corruption-free government in order that our well-being and freedom can be safeguarded. The kind of democracy that is based on good governance and accountability to the people is antithetical to the interests of kleptocrats.

A crucial feature of democracy is a free media. A free media in turn is a vital means of combatting corruption and preventing or restricting the emergence and growth of a kleptocratic state. Excessive media control, on the other hand, is a symptom of authoritarianism. The gradual imposition of high-handed governmental controls over the media takes place as rulers feel more and more insecure and vulnerable as a result of their misdeeds being publicised and debated by academics, activists and the population in general.

In 2015, the home ministry under the BN government suspended the publishing permit of The Edge Weekly and The Edge Financial Daily for three months starting from July 27, 2015. The reason given by the home ministry was that the reports of the two publications on 1MDB were “prejudicial or likely to be prejudicial to public order, security or likely to alarm public opinion or likely to be prejudicial to public and national interest”. This is a claim that no intelligent Malaysian would accept. On the contrary, it is corrupt leaders that pose a danger to public order and security.

Kleptocrats impose restrictions and controls over the media in order to shield themselves from criticism, minimise public information and debate about their misadventures, and eventually prevent voters from acting against them at the polls. It is obvious that the freer people are to obtain information, analyse government decisions and actions, and criticise the perpetrators of illegal and despicable acts, the stronger those people become vis a vis their government. Is that not how things should be? After all, elected politicians are civil servants, there to serve the rakyat. It is this kind of rakyat power that would enable ordinary citizens to hold their government accountable for what it does.

In fact, there is evidence from cross-country research to show that “a free press is bad news for corruption”. In a study published in 2003, Aymo Brunetti and Beatrice Weber showed that having free media was positively correlated with better governance (“A Free Press is Bad News for Corruption”, Journal of Public Economics, 87). This is because press freedom allows more information to be available to people which in turn enables citizens to exert more pressure on their governments.

Research has shown that it is corruption that results in instability. Sarah Chayes, in her book entitled “Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security” (WW Norton & Co, 2015), investigates how kleptocratic governance results in civil unrest and even provokes violent extremism.

To the extent that a free media results in pressure on the government to clean up or at least minimise the incidence of corruption, it can be said that freedom of the press, far from being prejudicial to public interest, is necessary for the stability of the nation.

The probability that kleptocracy would be publicly debated and kleptocrats investigated, exposed and prosecuted, is higher in a country with a free press than in one with a controlled and irresponsible press.

Now that we have a new government, we hope that we will have the freedom to speak openly about corruption and kleptocracy. We also hope that the rule of law will prevail. Those in power should not go on a witch hunt to take revenge against the members of the former government. But stern action must be taken against those who blatantly and shamelessly violated not only our laws but also our standards of decent behaviour and the trust that we put in our government.

Malaysians have voted. The majority voted wisely. Now we want a strong state that can establish and maintain public order and run an efficient administration. But we do not want a dangerous state, one with disproportionate power so that its intervention results in rule by thieves.

Syed Farid Alatas is professor of Sociology at the National University of Singapore.

The views expressed by the writer are not necessarily those of FMT.