By taking a ministerial role, former graft crusader Paul Low is putting his integrity on the line
By Sacha Passi
Three days after Malaysia’s ruling coalition won parliamentary elections for the 13th time in a row, Transparency International Malaysia (TI-M) called for electoral reform. The anti-corruption group claimed the May 5 result, which saw tens of thousands of urban voters desert the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition party, did not reflect the will of the majority.
About a week later, then TI-M head Paul Low, a tireless critic of graft and cronyism, was sworn in to the Malaysian cabinet as the minister in charge of promoting integrity and fighting corruption under Prime Minister Najib Razak’s re-elected administration.
Since taking on the gargantuan task, Low has been heavily criticised, in part for toeing the government line so quickly.
“Datuk Paul Low has often been candid with his criticism of corruption and opaqueness of government,” said Tony Pua, member of parliament for opposition Petaling Jaya Utara in Kuala Lumpur. “What disappoints isn’t his acceptance of the role but his immediate transformation to ‘tread softly softly’ with issues in regards to anti-corruption and transparency in government.”
Low’s appointment was controversial from the outset. The offer and acceptance of the role goes against Malaysia’s Federal Constitution, which states that a ministerial post cannot go to a person who does not hold a position in the senate.
Critics have been quick to brand the 67-year-old a BN apologist after he backpedalled on issues he staunchly advocated as president of TI-M, such as the establishment of the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC).
Shortly after he assumed his government position, four people died in police custody in a two-week period. However, when the issue was raised in a cabinet meeting, Low announced that the government had “more or less” decided against establishing the IPCMC.
“Part of the problem is, not only does Najib rely on political symbolism rather than starting a frank discussion about the roots of the systemic and endemic corruption in Malaysia, but the enforcement organs, such as the police that have to support Low in his fight against corruption, are very corrupt, biased and co-opted by elites themselves,” said Michael Buehler, a political scientist with the Asia Society.
Low’s defence of Malaysia’s poor scores in the 2013 Revenue Governance Index – placing the resource-rich nation in 34th place out of 58 countries on quality of governance in the oil, gas and mining sectors – raised further questions about Low’s ability to deal with deeply entrenched cronyism in Malaysia’s oil and gas industries.
Malaysia’s natural reserves are monopolised by state-owned oil firm Petronas, which is controlled by the prime minister and known to favour the allocation of contracts to companies closely linked to the administration’s network.
“I am very sceptical that he will be able to fundamentally change the political system in Malaysia,” said Buehler.
“If he is serious about fighting corruption and starts to investigate people from the inner circle of the political system, I think he will be removed from his post or curbed from his responsibilities pretty quickly.”
Why Low accepted a role within a confined political framework is debatable. His reputation at TI-M would suggest a belief that he is better positioned to influence change from within Najib’s government.
Observers will watch with interest to see if he will bow out of the political game, or choose to last the course until the next election.
“Low can afford to be the ‘bad cop’ in the Najib administration because he owes no political allegiance to any person or party,” said Pua. “However, it is hoped that the administration isn’t just trying to have his impeccable credentials rub off on them, without real and tangible reforms enforced. Without such measures by the prime minister, Low will only become a lame duck minister, and have his reputation severely tarnished.”
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