Bersih 2.0 – the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections demonstration in Kuala Lumpur in 2011 – is a good example of Malaysians showing strength in the face of mounting challenges from the state apparatchik, according to the 2016 Gwangju Prize for Human Rights Committee:

Bersih 2.0 gave vibrancy to electoral reforms and made it a national agenda for change with its eight demands. This brought them together on the streets to unite for a common cause – free and fair elections. Through mass rallies, it raised political issues and contributed to narrowing gaps in culture, religion and between ethnic groups. In addition, the rally had raised Malaysian citizens’ awareness to the irregularities and controversies in the electoral system and gave them a hope to unite the nation.”

A global campaign started by overseas Malaysians saw the formation of Global Bersih and the support for every Bersih rally was tremendous. It now boasts a network of 85 cities and has recently registered itself in order to continue with its international advocacy work with overseas Malaysians.

Many of the recent woes and challenges of nations worldwide – such as fading policy consensus, populist discontent and widening equality gaps – have been fueled, at least in part, by corruption and unethical practices (not all of which are currently deemed illegal). The Panama Papers, Paradise Papers and similar leaks have dented the reputation of elected politicians, public figures, established firms and respected countries. Soon after their term in office, some public sector leaders have taken up lucrative posts and board memberships in banks, lobbying

Soon after their term in office, some public sector leaders have taken up lucrative posts and board memberships in banks, lobbying firms and multinationals, leaving voters disillusioned about political integrity and the intertwinement of elite networks across sectors in society. Less visible but equally harmful can be the ways in which narrow interests seek to influence public decision-making for their own profit.

Inequalities in access to policymaking processes, often reflecting inequalities in wealth and status, often lead to decisions that benefit and further empower those narrow interests, which exacerbates inequalities and fosters the perception of politics as unfair or illegitimate.  Against the backdrop of widening income gaps between the rich and poor, the abuse of power leading to a concentration of economic resources in the hands of fewer people is a worrisome prospect.

When people lose confidence that public decisions are taken for reasons that are publicly available and justifiable and that those in official positions take citizen views and interests seriously, they often become cynical, expecting duplicity in public speech

As a result, these legal and illegal forms of influence peddling corrode the meanings and mechanisms of democracy itself. Corruption can be described as duplicitous exclusion: corruption undermines democracy by excluding people from decisions that affect them and in which they expect to have a voice.

When people lose confidence that public decisions are taken for reasons that are publicly available and justifiable and that those in official positions take citizen views and interests seriously, they often become cynical, expecting duplicity in public speech. This tarnishes all public officials, whether or not they are corrupt.  And when people are mistrustful of government, they are also cynical about their own capacities to act in favor of the public good. Elections, for too many citizens, become a way to reject traditional democratic values and practices.

There are no quick fixes or easy remedies to this dilemma, but there are two things that activists and reformers must emphasize :

First, raising integrity standards in government, business, and society as a whole is now more important than ever. Integrity is essential for building strong institutions and assures citizens that the government is working in their interest, not just for the select few.

Integrity is not just a moral issue, it is also about making economies more productive, public sectors more efficient and societies and economies more inclusive. It is about restoring trust, not just in government, but in public institutions, regulators, banks, news media and corporations. In this way, integrity can significantly boost inclusive growth and sustainable development, and keep the public interest at the center of the policymaking process.

The new OECD Recommendation on Public Integrity presents a holistic approach to raising integrity standards in government and in society. The Recommendation provides policymakers with the blueprint for a public integrity strategy and shifts the focus from ad hoc integrity policies to a comprehensive, risk-based approach with an emphasis on cultivating a culture of integrity in government – including all branches and levels of government – and across the whole of society.

Second, a process of deep democratization – one that empowers citizens to defend themselves and their interests by political means – is essential to increase inclusiveness and the range of political choices. Deep democratization is a gradual and multifaceted process involving economic and political participation and diversity, justice and open processes of rulemaking, as well as institutional reforms. It also entails a rethinking of the relationship between democracies and markets.

Democracy provides markets with an essential legitimate political base, social feedback and set of justice-oriented rules and limits. That is necessary for the strong public and private institutions that we now more widely accept as essential. It is also crucial if citizens are to accept the processes and outcomes markets tend to create.

The needed response is not just rule-making and enforcement, transparency, or political will, but rather reinvigorated democracy able to withstand pressures on the proper boundary between the public interest and the market, to offer real choices and to earn real legitimacy.

Undoubtedly, the United Nations Convention against Corruption has emboldened and encouraged active participation by civil society in the fight against corruption and measures to increase public awareness about the existence and causes of corruption and the importance of fighting it.

Civil society and independent and free media are crucial in creating and maintaining an atmosphere of deterring fraud and corruption.  Indeed, they are arguably the two most important factors in eliminating systematically endemic corruption in public institutions. Promoting transparency and citizen engagement is commonly recognized as a valuable policy instrument for enhancing accountability of public organizations.

In Malaysia, Bersih 2.0, Suaram and C4 Center are mere examples of civil society participants that are leading the charge in the 1MDB Kleptocracy crusade.  The world & Asia remain spellbound.

© Hakimi Abdul Jabar November 11, 2017, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.