March 27 (Bloomberg) -- Malaysia’s government is using public humiliation in its war on graft as Prime Minister Najib Razak seeks to show voters that he’s getting tough on corruption ahead of an election that may be held within weeks.
An online gallery shows the names and photographs of more than 1,000 convicted offenders, including former Selangor state Chief Minister Mohamad Khir Toyo, who was sentenced to a year in jail in 2011.
Najib, 59, is trying to bolster his graft-fighting credentials to counter criticism from the opposition that companies from power producers to toll-road operators have unfairly benefited from their ties to a government that has ruled Malaysia since independence from Britain in 1957.
“The opposition will use corruption and financial irregularities in government spending to try and help win the election,” Ibrahim Suffian, a political analyst at Merdeka Center for Opinion Research, said by phone on March 15. “They will present a picture of pervasive corruption in government, including trying to link Najib himself.”
Najib’s National Front coalition is fighting to hold onto power after winning the 2008 election by its narrowest margin in more than five decades. The premier must dissolve parliament by April 28, and the Election Commission is required to hold a vote within 60 days.
Almost half of the people surveyed in a Merdeka Center poll published last month said fighting graft is a more pressing issue for the government than taming inflation or boosting foreign investment. The survey of 1,021 voters was conducted from Jan. 23 to Feb. 6 on the country’s peninsula and had a margin of error of 3.07 percent.
The prime minister’s approval rating slid to 61 percent in early February, the lowest level in 17 months, according to the same survey. Support among ethnic Chinese voters, who make up about a quarter of Malaysia’s 29 million people, held at 34 percent for a second month, the lowest since May 2009.
While Malaysia moved to 54th from 60th place among 176 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index last year, it was ranked last for bribery among 30 countries surveyed. About 3,000 executives from 30 countries were asked whether they’d lost a contract in the past year because competitors had paid a bribe. In Malaysia, 50 percent said yes, the Berlin-based advocacy group said.
“Malaysia is a country where you need to grease palms to win contracts,” James Chin, professor of political science at the Malaysian campus of Australia’s Monash University, said by phone March 15. “People take it as a part of life.”
Graft and excessive government spending waste about 20 billion ringgit ($6.5 billion) a year, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim said in a March 8 interview.
Anwar, a former finance minister who served nine years in jail on corruption and sodomy charges that he claims were politically motivated, said government contracts for toll-roads and power generation may be renegotiated if found to be flawed should the opposition alliance wins power.
The government has made progress in its efforts to curb graft, said D. Ravindran, the head of the anti-corruption program at the state Performance Management and Delivery Unit, which is known as Pemandu.
Before Najib became prime minister in 2009, corruption cases took about 8.5 years to complete, including appeals, according to data supplied by the Department of Public Prosecutions and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission. The target this year is to complete 70 percent of cases within one year, according to the Chief Registrar’s Office of the Federal Government Court.
“The prime minister went out to the world and said yes there is corruption and I’m going to fix it,” Ravindran said on March 15. “The backlog was immense.”
The highest-profile corruption cases include ongoing ones involving two former transport ministers, Chan Kong Choy and Ling Liong Sik, who were charged in the past three years with cheating following cost overruns at a free-trade zone development, and Khir Toyo, the former state minister. All three have said they are innocent.
Government contracts are now published online and companies that bid for projects are asked to sign integrity pacts. Closed-circuit TV cameras have been installed at major customs and immigration centers, and officials in key jobs are rotated to reduce the potential for graft.
A Whistleblower Protection Act was passed in 2010, with civil servants offered as much as 500 ringgit for reporting corrupt acts that lead to prosecutions. To date, 98 people have been offered protection, according to data provided by Pemandu.
Najib “believes that corruption at any level is a blot on Malaysia’s reputation,” a government spokesman said in an e-mailed statement to Bloomberg News. “A failure to eradicate it will harm our democratic and economic progress.”
Publishing details of offenders online has a “deterrence effect,” said Abu Kassim Mohamed, head of the MACC, adding that the site is monitored by immigration officials in China and Singapore and used by the U.S. to assess visa applications.
The MACC’s reputation was harmed in 2009 when an opposition political aide fell from a 14th-floor window at its Kuala Lumpur offices after being questioned as a witness in the alleged misuse of public funds. A royal commission of inquiry found that the man was driven to commit suicide by “aggressive” interrogation. A customs officer investigated separately two years later was found dead in the same building minutes after being left alone in a room.
MACC has since installed CCTVs and window grills at many of its offices, Abu Kassim said.
The commission recommended allowing MACC to issue notices to public officeholders seen as living beyond their means, and to impose a cooling-off period for retiring civil servants before they can work for private companies.
“The issue of governance is key,” said Anwar, who was deputy prime minister in the ruling alliance and now leads the opposition coalition. “If you start by having an effective procurement system, I can tell you we would save billions. I know from my experience as finance minister.”
Anwar, 65, was sacked in September 1998 and sentenced to nine years in jail for sodomy and misusing his position to interfere with police investigations of his sexual conduct. He was released in 2004 after Malaysia’s highest court overturned his conviction for sex with another man.
In government, the coalition would tackle “leakages,” corruption and excessive spending to help narrow the budget deficit by two percentage points in the first year, he said.
“By making corruption an issue, they will win more seats,” Wan Saiful Wan Jan, chief executive officer of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, said Feb. 14.
The opposition debated implementing an amnesty for some past corrupt misdeeds, before excluding it from its manifesto because of concern it may send the wrong signal to voters.
“It’s not written off,” Rafizi Ramli, strategic director at Anwar’s People’s Justice Party, said by phone on March 15. “It’s something to be decided after the election, once we get into government.”
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