Originally published in The Expat, 1 July 2015.
A political catchphrase suggesting an obvious answer that emerged during Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 bid for the U.S. presidency was, “It’s the economy, stupid.” The longer I live in Malaysia, a country with genuinely fantastic potential and plenty of good things going for it, whenever I take note of some of the negative aspects, I’m confronted with one underlying reality over and over again: “It’s the corruption, stupid.”
Even the problem with traffic often comes down to corruption. Highways and huge buildings are often built with little regard to impact or serious traffic planning, focusing instead on those lucrative contracts. Construction in Malaysia is one industry identified as a real problem area when it comes to corruption. It’s compounded by lack of traffic enforcement, because you can pay an “on the spot fine” – another word for a bribe – and suffer no real consequences. I’ve heard of driving tests being marked with passing grades for payment of what’s called “kopi money” here, resulting in lousy drivers careening all over the roads with a passing driver’s test grade that wasn’t earned, but rather bought. Corruption.
And it has deadly consequences, too. The landslides in Cameron Highlands last November, which wiped out dozens of homes and killed four people, were caused by illegal farming and land clearing, and investigations showed that officials were bribed with payments of RM10,000 per acre of land cleared for these illegal operations. With the land stripped of vegetation and natural water catchment areas compromised, it was a disaster waiting to happen. Corruption.
And now, two explosive scandals, both rooted in corruption, are dragging Malaysia onto an international stage: the ongoing 1MDB debacle and the outrageous human trafficking enterprise that has now thrust the country into the spotlight as one of the world’s worst enablers of modern-day slavery. The United States is brokering a landmark trade agreement between America and 11 other Pacific nations called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Malaysia is a potential player and beneficiary in this agreement that some have called “NAFTA on steroids” (NAFTA is the North American Free Trade Agreement). The TPP is important because 60% of the world’s international commerce travels through this region – much of it through the Strait of Malacca – and several ASEAN countries, along with the U.S., are concerned about China’s provocative actions and infringements in the South China Sea of late. The TPP would serve as a deterrent to the possibility of China becoming a hegemon in the region. Primarily because of the importance of the Strait of Malacca, Malaysia is the key to the success of the TPP. Without Malaysia’s inclusion, the TPP loses much of its teeth, and consequently its ability to pressure Beijing to ease up on its aggressive expansion into the territorial waters of ASEAN countries. So where’s the problem?
Malaysia’s abysmal record on human trafficking makes it impossible, under the existing language of the TPP, for it to be included in the deal. Malaysia is ranked as a Tier 3 country, the lowest ranking possible, along with such countries as Zimbabwe, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia. Malaysia has occupied this ignominious position three out of the last seven years in the U.S. Department of State’s comprehensive Trafficking in Persons report, holding at a Tier 2 Watch List status for the last four years. Waivers kept Malaysia from the lowest ranking in 2012 and 2013, but as little was being done to combat the problem, there was no such option again in 2014.
“Malaysia is not serious about curbing human trafficking at all,” said Aegile Fernandez, director of Tenaganita, a UK charity that works with trafficking victims. “The order of the day is profits and corruption. Malaysia protects businesses, employers, and agents [not victims].”
Most unhappily for Malaysia, this attention on its tacit complicity in human trafficking coincided with the dramatic international attention of the hundreds of Burmese Rohingya refugees initially turned away by Malaysia after they were abandoned by their traffickers and left at sea last month and the grisly discovery of mass graves and over two dozen human trafficking camps in the northern state of Perlis in late May. Now, a great debate has arisen in the U.S. Congress on the future of the TPP, and Malaysia is at the epicentre of the controversy. Many leaders are steadfast in their refusal to water down the anti-slavery language of the TPP to allow Malaysia’s inclusion, so it remains to be seen how this will all play out.
It may seem that bribing a traffic cop or paying off an official to speed up a process doesn’t really harm anyone, but these recent developments show all too clearly that a culture of corruption has a severe cost. Malaysia has shown a serious and welcome commitment to eradicating corruption, and has indeed made noteworthy progress, but it’s a very arduous task. Indeed, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission got directly involved in the aftermath of the recent Cameron Highlands landslide, and when I interviewed the founder of Transparency International last year, he told me that Malaysia was doing the right things to combat corruption. We’ve recently heard reports suggesting that occurrences of traffic police asking for bribes are on the decline, too, and authorities now seem to be working to haul in human trafficking kingpins. Fighting corruption is a long and difficult road, but we applaud the efforts of those in the Malaysian government who have recognised the damage caused by corruption and are taking very real steps to make positive changes.
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Source: The Expat magazine July 2015