IN Ayi Kwei Armah’s book, The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born, the protagonist is a civil servant who chooses not to take bribes for favours at the expense of his children’s education and basic access to shoes. He is surrounded by friends who, unlike him, benefit from the corrupt system and live in luxury.
That is, until the regime one day falls. His friend, to escape conviction, enters the latrine and wades through faeces, symbolic of the muck of deceit he was part of. The main character is vindicated and continues to live life the way he has chosen: uncompromised honesty.
For far too long, Malaysians have become used to corruption as a way of life. It is part of the air we breathe; many businessmen are obliged to include under-the-table money to ease approval processes to government bodies, infrastructure projects are inflated in value, and deals are often shrouded in secrecy without open tenders. We have become accustomed to the rule that there is no price to pay for corruption since even the highest-level offenders can get off scot-free.
But the astoundingly swift events following the general election may give us reason to believe otherwise. After the fall of the Barisan Nasional government, Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has moved quickly to act on his promises to clean up the government.
The heads of key institutions that are said to have colluded with Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak in the 1MDB scandal have either resigned or been terminated. This includes the attorney-general, Apandi Ali, Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission chief commissioner Dzulkifli Ahmad, and Treasury secretary-general Irwan Serigar (chairman of the 1MDB board). The purge of the top leadership has begun, and others who are proven to have had a hand in aiding and abetting corruption will surely also begin to quiver in their seats, now that the 1MDB case will soon be reopened.
With the formation of the new committee on institutional reforms announced two days ago, it is foreseeable too that with institutional reform will come the replacement of individuals unfit for duty. It is time for those with the best capabilities and calibre to be appointed, especially those with no record of corrupt deals.
However, the challenge is, this is the system that has existed for such a long time that undoing and untangling the complex web will not be immediate. The danger is that instead of wiping out the culture and practice of corruption, there is a new slate of cronies ready to receive the goodies from the gravy train they were waiting for all along. Switching from one group of rentiers to another would not signal real reform, only the changing of guards.
There may have been a “Malay tsunami” that is said to have happened across Malaysia, where even hardcore Umno supporters chose to switch camps to vote for Pakatan Harapan for the first time, but it is important to note that voters in different parts of Malaysia voted for different reasons.
While it may have been for governance and anti-corruption reasons in the cities, it is more likely for economic and bread-and-butter reasons in rural areas. After all, the main message of Pakatan was to abolish the GST, which was the convenient bogeyman to explain the rising cost of living. Would they expect the culture of hand-outs and “money-for-votes” to stop? Probably not – and educating a larger mass audience about the importance of good governance will take an even longer time.
But on the other hand, there is a key lesson to be learnt out of all this: that no one leader can so blatantly pocket millions of ringgit into his own personal bank account without suffering some consequences.
One week ago, we were in a place where we thought that the corrupt would always win, that the system was so deeply rotten there would simply be no alternative. Now we know it is possible to live in a world where some injustices can be righted. Will all past scandals have their truths revealed? Will the system change overnight, so that there is absolutely no corruption at government agencies? Will all past leaders have their corruption record publicly brought to court? Probably not. But there are small triumphs to be celebrated, and celebrate we must.
The unpredictable has taken place: Najib and wife Rosmah Mansor are now on the Immigration Department blacklist, barred from leaving the country. Investigations on their involvement in 1MDB, and possibly other national corruption scandals, will resume under the instruction of the new prime minister.
Under a new attorney-general, perhaps there will now be cooperation to share documents and files with other countries to help them in their investigations of the case. There is now hope in the renewal of the institutions that are meant to uphold the rule of law, in order to protect our fundamental rights as citizens.
In The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born, the main character is not given a name, but is just referred to as “Man”. It is believed the author did this intentionally, to tell the story of not just him, but many of us simple civilians living our simple lives.
There are moments in which we may choose the less lucrative option of bypassing bribes based on our conscience, and nobody will celebrate us for doing so. But these are the real heroes of the day, especially when we quietly witness the fall of the corrupt.
First published in thesundaily.com on 17 May 2018