Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – Addressing an investment forum this week, Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim said his government would not tolerate corruption, regardless of an official’s rank or political connections, and pledged to deal with misconduct “without fear or favour”.
Less than 48 hours later, former Prime Minister of Malaysia Muhyiddin Yassin was charged with multiple counts of corruption related to directly negotiated government contracts during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The charges against Muhyiddin, announced by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) in Kuala Lumpur on Friday, represent the most notable move to date against alleged crimes since Anwar came to power last year with a pledge to crack down on the politics of the Southeast clean up Asian nation.
While the MACC is officially independent from the government, the charges against Muhyiddin, including money laundering and abuse of power, could bolster reformist Anwar’s anti-corruption efforts and “allow his government to show progress under his leadership,” said Grace Lee Hay Yean, the head of the economics department of Monash University Malaysia.
“This will give people hope that progress and progress can be made in the country,” Lee told Al Jazeera, describing the investigation as a potential “turning point” in Malaysia’s efforts to tackle corruption.
“This will also be a great vote of confidence for Anwar’s leadership and he will be credited for this development.”
Anwar, a former student leader whose election was the culmination of an extraordinary three-decade journey from leader-in-waiting to imprisoned opposition leader and back again, has used much of his reputation and political legitimacy to stamp out corruption in Malaysia. The country has been repeatedly rocked by improprieties involving the rich and powerful, including the long-running scandal surrounding the sovereign wealth fund 1MDB.
Former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who led Malaysia from 2009 to 2018, is currently serving a 12-year prison sentence for his role in the 1MDB affair, which saw an estimated $4.5 billion looted from the state’s coffers.
Anwar is respected in Western financial circles for his tenure as Finance Minister during the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98.
Shortly after his November election victory, Anwar ordered a review of government projects, worth billions of Malaysian ringgit, which he said had been carried out by the Muhyiddin government without going through proper processes during its 17 months in power.
In January, Anwar, who is also finance minister, said Malaysia — whose gross domestic product (GDP) per capita is lower than China — has the potential to become a developed country if it solves the problem. of corrupt officials. plunder his wealth.
Malaysia was ranked 61st out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index last year, down 10 places from 2019.
Anwar’s first 100 days in office were not without controversy, which tested his efforts to cultivate an image of accountability and transparency.
Last month, Anwar’s daughter Nurul Izzah Anwar resigned as senior economic and financial adviser to the prime minister after a backlash over alleged favoritism.
Anwar has also been criticized for appointing Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, on trial for corruption, as his deputy prime minister to gain the support of the corruption-infested and once politically dominant United Malays National Organization (UMNO) for his multi-racial unity. government.
Several members of Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition, including former sports minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman and Democratic Action Party national chairman Lim Guan Eng, are also on trial on corruption charges.
Niaz Asadullah, an economics professor at Monash University Malaysia, said many Malaysians are now skeptical of Anwar’s commitment to clean up politics.
“It is understandable that Anwar would like his anti-corruption campaign to regain momentum,” Asadullah told Al Jazeera.
“For now, Izzah Anwar’s resignation has helped position Anwar as a ‘responsive leader’ open to public criticism, even when it comes to his own family members. But the public pursuit of former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin Anwar, his closest political challenger, presents a greater and perfect opportunity that can help kill several birds with one stone.”
There are also allegations that the charges against Muhyiddin, Anwar’s main rival for the post-election premiership, have as much or more to do with politics than with tackling corruption.
Muhyiddin, who has applied for a judicial review to challenge a travel ban against him and the freezing of his party’s bank accounts, has denied wrongdoing.
He and other members of his Bersatu party have described the allegations, including that the then-ruling party wrongfully received 300 million ringgit ($66.33 million) from contractors awarded projects during the pandemic, as a political witch hunt.
On Thursday, Muhyiddin told reporters Anwar wanted to derail his Perikatan Nasional coalition, which enjoys strong support among the majority ethnic Malaysian Muslims, in the upcoming state elections and “be punished by the people”.
The most serious charge against Muhyiddin carries a prison sentence of up to 20 years.
Anwar has repeatedly denied directing or interfering with the MACC’s investigations, which have been going on for months, insisting that his only involvement was in disclosing projects from the previous government that failed the tender process. gone.
“We still don’t know the results of the inquiry as he was only called very recently,” Anwar told the Malay Mail on Thursday. “But if you say that all cases are politically motivated, how are we going to arrest people for major corruption cases?”
A spokesman for Anwar’s PH coalition did not respond to a request for comment.
Since Anwar is not directly responsible for investigating crimes or making arrests, some Malaysians will see the move by the MACC as a “bold move” that shows it is “autonomous and empowered to act against the political heavyweights and that no one is ‘too big to be imprisoned.’ during Anwar’s tenure,” said Asadullah, a professor at Monash University.
“In reality, however, this may be a veiled attempt to consolidate political power by delegitimizing the biggest direct and long-term political threat to Anwar’s unity government.”