Our curse of corruption

Opinion  |  P Gunasegaram
Published:  |  Modified:

“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you superadd the tendency of the certainty of corruption by authority.”

- Lord Acton, historian

“The worst affected from corruption is the common man.”

- Kailash Kher, Indian playback singer

QUESTION TIME | The Oxford English Dictionary defines corruption as dishonest or fraudulent conduct by those in power, typically involving bribery. But in these days, one has to extend that to some forms of patronage - there is often a rather thin line between this and corruption, and to outright thievery and convoluted measures which amount to the same.

The same dictionary defines patronage as power to control appointments to office or the right to privileges. This is often used to distribute the largesse of the nation through contracts, procurements, allocations, etc, which will effectively become corruption without proper control, evaluation and accountability.

In the beginning there was hope when the various races put aside their differences to take our fate and destiny into our own hands and to mould the nation together in the image we wanted to, with the Malay bumiputeras leading the way politically, the Chinese providing entrepreneurial skill and Indians providing strength in the civil service and the labour input.

Even in those early days, it was fully realised that the Malays were the most disadvantaged community and that they needed some form of affirmative action through education and quotas and a mechanism to implement them. This special position was enshrined in the constitution and never questioned by anyone in the coalition Alliance, the forerunner of BN, which led the country to independence in 1957.

Such was the unity among the people behind Alliance that in the first free elections in 1955, the Alliance won 51 out of 52 parliamentary seats in the then Malaya, the only other seat going to the Pan Malayan Islamic Party, the forerunner of what is now PAS. A record 80% of voters supported the Alliance. But that power was not balanced by a sufficient system of controls and accountability, with the system being largely patriarchal in the belief that the political leaders knew what was best for the population.

That was a tremendous concentration of power within Alliance and even in those days, the two-thirds majority in parliament was freely used to amend the constitution basically to ensure that Alliance/Umno stayed in power by changing rural weightage and gerrymandering. Power was already beginning to corrupt.

Despite all that, the May 1969 election dealt a severe blow to Alliance’s domination of Malaysian politics when voters denied it a two-thirds majority for the first time in four elections. It also lost its majority of the popular vote for the first time. The riots of May 13, 1969 resulted in emergency rule, the ouster of Tunku Abdul Rahman as prime minister by Abdul Razak Hussein and his allies (which included an up-and-coming politician by the name of Dr Mahathir Mohamad who had lost his seat to PAS in 1969), and the formal introduction of the New Economic Policy or NEP.

Razak, current prime minister Najib’s father, wielded the big stick and beat into shape a coalition, Barisan Nasional or BN, which included two main victors in 1969, Gerakan and PAS, with only DAP being the major party which stayed out of the coalition. BN’s two-thirds majority in Parliament and popular vote had been restored.

Up to that point, while corruption and patronage were in existence already and led to the building up of a coterie of businessmen, mainly Chinese, who supported the Alliance wholeheartedly and made campaign contributions, it was not yet endemic in the system. That would happen after the NEP - the flawed practice of which led to substantial abuse of power.

A cowed, subdued population, gave BN over 60% of the vote and 88% of parliamentary seats in 1974 and a two-thirds majority in every election until 2008, making eight consecutive elections with the coveted two-thirds majority. In 2013, BN retained power, but not only did not regain two-thirds majority but lost the popular vote as well...

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