With a busy background of essentially buccaneering cases against members of a previous government, a by-election took place in Kimanis, Sabah, on Jan 18.

The ruling Pakatan Harapan-backed candidate lost. The Opposition candidate from Barisan Nasional-Umno, Mr Mohamad Alamin, managed to secure a margin of some 2,029 votes over Mr Karim Bujang of Warisan, which is allied to PH.

The defeat has prompted the PH leadership to begin a process of thinking aloud about some kind of a postmortem.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad expressed concern over the loss but also expressed disbelief that voters could be drawn to support a tainted leader who had been charged and was being tried on serious criminal charges. It was the people’s choice and in a democracy these things happen and have to be accepted.

In India, for instance, in the last elections for the Lower House, nearly 50 per cent (43 per cent had pending matters) of those who were elected had declared criminal cases against them.

In the United States, at least three candidates who won in the mid-term elections in 2018 had criminal charges against them. Brazil also has elected representatives who have criminal records. These charges range from securities fraud, manslaughter, money laundering, sexual crimes to embezzlement.

East Asia,
A Good Example

In the East Asian region, most countries generally have a relatively better record in this regard. In Japan, if someone, including a lawmaker, is accused of breaking the law the chances of the accused being convicted is above 99 per cent. That is the existing record for prosecutions there.

In South Korea, at least four Presidents, including former office-holders, have been implicated and convicted in criminal proceedings: Chun Do Hwan, Roh Tae Woo, Park Guen Hye and Lee Myung Bak. In Taiwan, former President Chen Shui-bian was convicted of  money laundering and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was, however, released six years later on medical parole.

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In Malaysia, although a former Prime Minister has been charged and his trials are going on, he still seems to have a popular following and the mainstream press seems to give him much positive coverage. He also seems to have at his beck and call consummate cyber troopers who project his preferred narratives against the current government. Together with his equally-tainted deputy, he was in the victory line-up in Kimanis on the evening of Jan 18.

India, a Bad Example

In India, where many candidates with criminal records were elected, it was observed that the chances of a person with a criminal record being elected were actually marginally higher than for the ones without a criminal record. This was an observation made by India’s National Election Watch and Association for Democratic Reforms.

When one looks at countries that are enforcing reforms and anti-corruption measures and also making rapid and remarkable structural economic progress in the region, two countries stand out: China and Vietnam. Corruption-related charges have claimed the scalp of the highest officials in these countries including ministers, who can be led before an execution squad after being convicted. This no-nonsense approach may have some correlation with the impressive economic progress of these countries in recent decades.

Pride in Perversion

Unlike these countries, however, Malaysia is a parliamentary democracy and the principle that is upheld is that an accused person is innocent until proven to be guilty and convicted by a court of law.

This mundane principle of innocence has been transformed in recent days in Malaysia into a majestic mechanism of magnanimous magnitude that guarantees unrestricted freedom of movement within the country, comprehensive press and media coverage, complete respectability and a perception that, willy-nilly, there is no shame whatsoever in being implicated in grand larceny, corruption, embezzlement, forgery, money laundering and abuse of high office.

The way it is played out by the perpetrators of these alleged crimes and the media, with some participation by the public, there is acceptance of these glorified chartered libertines with licences to plunder, steal, subvert the course of the law and distribute their wrongful gains to a small, select group of family, friends and political associates.

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From pictures and images frequently appearing in the Malaysian media, these accused persons seem to have the greatest difficulty in suppressing their mirth at being charged and being made to appear in court. It reflects either a morbid faith in the court’s processes or a mockery of the prosecuting authority. The accused persons are often seen arriving at court complexes in their chauffeured Alphards, Vellfires and luxurious limousines as if they are about to be recognised and rewarded for their service. There seems to be no shame, stupefaction, embarrassment or inconvenience involved because without exception the accused, appear immensely wealthy, well-attired and well regarded. They are sometimes accompanied by bodyguards. Signs of contrition and a troubled conscience don’t seem to have a place in their composure.

These law-breakers seem to have derived their inspiration from the diehard delinquent lawmakers of India. While advocating a policy of Look East for Malaysia, they had all looked west to India and found fulfilment in the illegal accumulation of private wealth, immoral activities and, worse, criminal conduct.

Peril Of Majoritarianism

There are many examples of resource-rich countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America which have the highest levels of poverty, deprivation and disparity in wealth on account of corruption, mismanagement and the misconduct of their political leaders. The surprising thing is that religion is also often used as a tool to elicit obedience, loyalty and create mob hysteria in support of particular political leaders. In some countries, the majority community actually casts itself as a victim of the minorities. Members of the dominant religious community often seem to be endorsing excesses committed by their bigoted leaders. There is some apprehension and anxiety that the world’s largest democracy has fallen into this pattern lately.

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Sound Education Needed

Education which is of good moral value but devoid of an over-reliance on any religion may be an avenue to check this fascist, dictatorial and disruptive trends gaining momentum in some countries. Hopefully Malaysia will be spared this ordeal.

At the time of Independence in 1957 and the formation of Malaysia in 1963, Malaysian society was guided by a sane, sober and healthy approach to hard work, honesty, humility, simple hospitality, lifestyles and piety. Is it too much to attempt to restore those values of good neighbourliness, harmony, courtesy and quiet dignity and satisfaction.

Both reward and punishment must become rarer in Malaysia. High titles must be conferred at the tail end of the tenures of ministers and civil servants based on their performance, not their anticipated performance. Penalties and punishment, if decided upon by the courts, must also be the outcome of last resort and be proportionate with the crime for which someone is convicted. Such punishment must deter other potential wrongdoers.

Conditions in Malaysian prisons must also be improved so that prison inmates can live in some dignity and safety and reflect on their misdeeds. Imprisonment should not be about humiliating and destroying a person but about re-educating and rehabilitating them. White- collar criminals who are imprisoned often have many good compensating qualities and there is no need to treat them like hardcore violent criminals and subject them to pitiless prison conditions.

M Santhananaban
Dato M Santhananaban is a retired Malaysian ambassador with 45 years of public sector experience.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of The Independent Singapore. /TISG