A plague of corruption and cronyism is ruining my land

Modern dictators are no different from the old colonial masters who carted away our riches
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The Independent Culture
IT IS two past midnight as I begin to write this article in the privacy of my cell. In solitary confinement, the sound of silence is quite deafening, if not altogether eerie. But after 90 days of incarceration, you get used to it. A sentence from my book, The Asian Renaissance, comes back to me: "Power personalised, is power plundered from the people." When I wrote it, I did have both [General] Suharto [who resigned as president of Indonesia in May) and Mahathir [Mohamed, Prime Minister of Malaysia] in mind, but I did not expect that statement to be so quickly and starkly illustrated by events.

In the civil society that we envisage, it is incumbent upon the elected leadership to inculcate certain fundamental principles and put them into practice. Chief among these would be the rule of law, the clear separation of powers among the various estates of government, freedom of belief, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.

Citizens not only must be accorded these fundamental liberties; they must also be made aware of them. So basic education must do more than merely equip students with marketable skills. It must nurture young people so they may become adequate participants in a democracy.

A free press plays a fundamental role. All the traditional cultures teach us that truth will eventually destroy falsehood. But this can happen only in an environment where debate is robust, where people are not only allowed but encouraged to speak without fear. A controlled press is anathema to this ideal.

In this regard, Malaysia is still a long way from being a civil society. The people's constitutional rights are often violated by the executive. Valiant efforts by non-governmental organisations and other civic groups to redress the problems are frustrated by a leadership intolerant of criticism. As often happens under despotic and dictatorial regimes, Mahathir's government tries to deflect attention from the real issues by creating foreign bogeys and portraying its critics as traitors. Patriotism is given a new meaning; instead of willingness to sacrifice for love of country, it is equated with unquestioning loyalty to the ruling elite.

The true patriot is one who fights to unchain his people from the shackles of colonial-style practices in the form of suppressive laws, the denial of basic human rights or even the squandering of public funds. Modern dictators, when they are finally thrown out of office, are often found to have accumulated enormous... wealth. They are no different from the old colonial masters carting away riches.

In Malaysia, we do have - though only in theory - clear separation of powers between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. Yet, for the greater part of the past 17 years, the organs of government have been mere puppets, with Mahathir pulling all the strings. Legislators, regardless of their party affiliation, should be committed to upholding the people's constitutional rights and freedoms. Might is not always right. The actions of key executive organs of government, such as the police and the office of the attorney-general, ought to be under constant parliamentary scrutiny.

There cannot be an Asian renaissance without social and economic justice. Economic progress has meaning only when the majority of the people enjoy its fruits. Under Mahathir's grandiose economic programme, important issues such as hard-core poverty, the safety of working conditions and the availability of basic housing are dealt with only at the periphery.

Naturally, we will not see social and economic justice until we see the end of cronyism and nepotism. In Malaysia, a select and selfish few have appropriated the lion's share of the wealth generated by economic development. What was meant to be affirmative action has turned into a system of corruption and favouritism. Projects and contracts are won on the basis of whom you know, not what you know. The handful of people who keep getting the largess continue to get richer at the expense of others. Cronyism breeds nepotism and corruption. It's a vicious circle.

Affirmative action... is, in fact, essential in redressing economic imbalances that were the result of decades of social mismanagement. But, in practice, the selfish exploitation of this intrinsically noble effort at social engineering has been developed into a fine art. It is used to further the interests of a handful of bumiputra, or indigenous Malay cronies, acting for themselves and, sometimes, for non-bumiputra cronies, all at the expense of the majority.

For Malaysia to progress into a civil society, fundamental social, political and economic reform is a sine qua non. All over South-east Asia we see the political landscape changing - with an awareness of the need for democracy and civil society growing, especially among the young.

The reform movement which I launched on 12 September seeks to establish justice for all and preserve the institutions and processes of law from graft and abuse of power. It advocates fairness in economic distribution and seeks to eradicate graft and manipulation of the economy. The movement cuts across ethnic, cultural and religious divides. While we seek to reinforce a dynamic Malaysian cultural identity, we must constantly guard against jingoistic tendencies and encourage openness to the world, that is based on the principles of truth and justice.

I am blessed to have known so many good people all over the world. Their outpouring of sympathy, prayer and encouragement is a source of great comfort, not unlike the cool morning breeze now blowing through my small window.

In a few minutes, it will be time for the dawn prayer. As the plaintive sound of the azan, the call to prayer, pierces through the silence, I see the breaking of dawn where "yon grey lines that fret the clouds are messengers of day", and I tell myself that, God willing, a new day will soon dawn for Malaysia.

The author, the former deputy prime minister of Malaysia, is awaiting trial on charges of `immorality'. 1998, Newsweek Inc