By Rajni Bajpai

What do corruption and the COVID-19 pandemic have in common? They both have deep and wide-spread repercussions for development in all countries. If appropriate curtailment measures are not taken on time, the pandemic will rage across the entire population with its impact felt by future generations. 
Corruption has a similar effect on economic, political, and social spheres within countries. If it continues, it impacts government's transparency and accountability and its reputation, eroding trust internally and globally.

In April, Datuk Seri Azam Baki, the Chief Commissioner of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission was quoted as saying:  “as someone who has been in the line of fighting corruption for a long time, it is at a rate that is worrying me”, just short of calling it a pandemic. 
Despite Malaysia’s strong efforts to address corruption over several decades, recent scandals prior to 2018 have weakened public perceptions around the seriousness of the country’s anti-corruption agenda.  Current investigations and cases are still being pursued, with some even being featured on popular video streaming subscriptions.

Malaysia had a promising start with laying the foundations for good governance through a plethora of Acts and Institutional structures dating back to the 1950s. It is hard to reconcile such safeguards with the trials and scandals that have dogged the country in recent years. It also raises the urgency to act as the longer the problem of corruption persists, much of Malaysia’s development goals will be hindered.

In the World Bank’s Global Report, “Enhancing Government Effectiveness and Transparency: The Fight Against Corruption”, the case study on Malaysia lists the trajectory of anti-corruption laws and evolution of various prevention and prosecution agencies over the period of the last 70 years. It focusses on reforms and gaps and discusses the importance of institutionalizing the efforts to prevent any backsliding due to changes in governments.

With a transition to high-income nation status, Malaysia is guaranteed in terms of GDP per capita numbers, to meet the mark, joining a class of top-tier economies. But will all the country’s citizens feel that they are living in a high-income country? 
Will Malaysians get an efficient, transparent, and accountable government where there are effective checks on corrupt behavior, as with many other developed countries? Several answers to these questions lie in the National Anti-Corruption Plan (NACP) that was launched in 2019, the five-year plans, and the vision documents, among others The NACP, the blueprint for institutional reforms, outlines the government’s strategies and measures around combating corruption, strengthening governance, integrity, and transparency in government operations.

In order to navigate the high-income transition successfully, Malaysian policymakers must drive the implementation of the above-mentioned plan relentlessly. Such seriousness will be valuable in the first step to strengthen the trust and confidence of the rakyat.  Several steps are required to ensure that such a vision is realized.

First, Malaysia needs a better functioning institutional system with the right equilibrium of internal checks and balances. Examples of these checks and balances include greater autonomy and functional independence for prosecuting and preventive institutions, passage of the Public Service Act, and strengthening the Ombudsman function. 
Second, strong leadership must be exerted at the highest levels to ensure that the right mandate is continually given to the right institutions, backing their efforts to fight corruption with the required talent and financial resources. Third, building a coalition of reformers who can join hands with the government in the country’s fight against corruption will bolster efforts. 
These partners could include the civil society groups, the media, businesses, academia, international partners and public at large. Open communication, sharing of information and building meaningful partnerships will yield long-term dividends in this regard.

While it is recognised that political realities may constrain the choices a country makes but these don’t have to become a permanent barrier to addressing corruption. It is the responsibility of all to make sure that what is “worrying” us today does not become a future pandemic. 
As with the vaccine rollout and proper SOPs and physical distancing, corruption can be fought if implementation of Malaysia’s plans can be rolled out in steady fashion. Once the fight against corruption starts to yield greater dividends, a greater number of Malaysians, from all walks of life, will feel that they are increasingly benefiting more from the country’s economic prosperity.