Malaysia upends its malaise on corruption

Rising demand for clean governance results in the first Malaysian leader to be convicted of corruption and a wider embrace of equal justice for all.

Police stand guard outside the Kuala Lumpur High Court in Malaysia July 28.

Just three years ago, fewer than half of people in Malaysia said it is socially acceptable to report corruption, according to a poll. This dismal view was reinforced by the fact that about a quarter of Malaysians regularly paid bribes for basic public services.

My, how attitudes have shifted in the Southeast Asian nation of 32 million.

On Tuesday, former Prime Minister Najib Razak became the first Malaysian leader to be convicted of corruption. He faces 12 years in prison for looting a government fund known as 1Malaysia Development Berhad while in office from 2009 to 2018. In fact, the 1MDB scandal so angered voters in 2018 that they kicked out both Mr. Najib and his ruling party, the United Malays National Organization. The party had governed the country for 61 years since independence from Britain.

After the historic first transfer of power two years ago, Malaysia’s new leaders started remarkable reforms, driven by the public’s rising demands for clean governance. They created an anti-corruption agency and set a five-year goal to raise the integrity of civil servants and elected officials. (The latter, for example, must publicly declare their personal assets.) More than 1,230 people were arrested on corruption charges. One particular goal was bolstered by Tuesday’s court ruling: ensuring the accountability and credibility of judges and prosecutors.

By the end of last year, Malaysia’s ranking in a global corruption index greatly improved after five years of deterioration. If the anti-corruption reforms stick in the country’s often messy politics, Malaysia could quickly achieve the status of a developed country with an advanced economy. Foreign investors would have more confidence in the legal system’s ability to root out financial crime.

After Mr. Najib’s conviction, the lead prosecutor in the case said the ruling serves “as a precedent for all in public office that no one is above the law.” That notion of equality has been a long time coming in Malaysia. The country still openly discriminates against its ethnic and religious minorities in granting access to government benefits. Such favoritism for the majority Malay people must eventually end.

In the meantime, the people and their new leaders have shown how an embrace of equal justice under the law can begin to shred a corrupt past.

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