JULY 25 — The recent reports in the Wall Street Journal and Sarawak Report alleging massive corruption involving the upper echelons of the political and corporate elite of Malaysia have once again raised the question of whether or not Malaysia is a kleptocracy. The term is derived from the words ‘klepto’ — (thief) and — cracy’ (rule) and 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 impact of kleptocratic rulers and officials on a country is devastating. They rule with unscrupulousness and hypocrisy, and distort development planning and policy. 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. Kleptocratic rule also has dire consequences for the freedom of expression in a country.
A vital means of combatting corruption and preventing the emergence of a kleptocratic state is the maintenance of a free press. Although it is true that the irresponsible exercise of the freedom of the press and freedom of expression in general can be harmful to the stability and security of a country, the muzzling of voices of conscience pose a greater danger. Excessive media control 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.
The 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 a 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 à 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 they do.
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 for more information to be available to people which in turn enables citizens to exert more pressure on their governments.
Some days ago, the Malaysian Home Ministry suspended the publishing permit ofThe Edge Weekly and The Edge Financial Daily for three months starting from July 27, 2015. The reason given by the Home Ministry is 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 is likely to be prejudicial to public and national interest”. This is a claim that few thinking Malaysians would accept. Most Malaysians would also agree that the real danger to the nation is corruption. Furthermore, most people in Malaysia who support free reporting and public discourse on corruption would not condone the spread of rumours to destabilise our country. Those who do act in this irresponsible manner should be dealt with by the law. But, the media should not be gagged. This is because the media have a vital role to play in preventing instability.
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 (W.W. 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 pressures 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.
In Islam, as in all the great religious traditions that make up Malaysia, there is the universal value of attachment to the truth. It is regarded as sinful to provide false information, particularly about events that one has personally witnessed. Equally sinful is the withholding of the truth. The Qur’an frequently exhorts humans to avoid concealing testimony and refrain from confounding the truth by lacing it with falsehood. If it cannot be proven that The Edge reported falsehoods and violated journalistic norms or broke the law, the suspension is against both the standards of universal values as well as Islamic tradition.
Islam is the religion of state in Malaysia. Therefore, Malaysians expect the politicians and civil servants to rule with justice and integrity. The Qur’an commands those entrusted with public and professional duties to carry out their rule with justice and fairness (4:58-59). The vizier and scholar of the eleventh century Seljuq Empire, Nizam al-Mulk, in his famous treatise, the Siyasatnameh or Book of Government, advised his sultan that he should listen to the grievances of his subjects directly, without intermediaries. A thousand years later, this is still what we want from our leaders.
The fourteenth century Muslim social theorist, Abdul Rahman Ibn Khaldun, believed that government decisions were as a rule unjust. This was based on his study of West Asian and North African polities as well as his experience with the vicissitudes of political life. More than five hundred years later, the Spanish philosopher and intellectual leader of the Spanish Republican government, José Ortega y Gasset, referred to the state as the greatest danger. He believed that state intervention was the greatest danger that threatened civilisation. Malaysians 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 such that its intervention results in rule by thieves.
* Dr. Syed Farid Alatas is the Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology, in the National University of Singapore.
Published in The Malay Mail 25 July 2015