From Freedom House

The 2010 edition of Freedom House’s Crossroads analysis covered three important countries in maritime Southeast Asia –Indonesia, East Timor, and Malaysia. All three countries experienced modest gains in public accountability and civil liberties during the period of review, but the reports collectively point to the endemic problem facing democracy in Asia – corruption. Despite the efforts of leaders to improve the legal frameworks that guide anticorruption efforts – through the creation of the Whistle Blower Law in Indonesia, Anti-Corruption Agency in Malaysia, and Anti-Corruption Commission in East Timor, progress in addressing the abuse and theft of public funds is minimal and severely undercuts the quality of democracy.

The reasons for the limited headway differ. In Indonesia, the measures introduced by President Yudhoyono only touch the surface of a deep-rooted problem. Corruption is interwoven in the fabric of political life since the Suharto era, and arguably expanded with political decentralization in 1999 after the democratic transition. There is an urgent need to engage in civil service reform, and to transform the patronage networks that characterize Indonesia’s party politics from contract allocators to more accountable representation. Without substantive changes to the institutions that shape policy and deliver services, the new laws will not be implemented effectively and transform the routine practice of corruption.

In Timor, claims of corruption and nepotism at the higher levels of government have increased, as issues of contract allocations to family members and appointments of personal advisors have raised questions about the abuse of power for personal gain. To date the Timor government has failed to adequately investigate or prosecute these claims, allowing a climate of impunity that generally extends over rule of law matters to extend to corruption.  Timorese leaders started to put in place legal bodies to oversee corruption, but these are not operational, and even more troubling, lack the staff to operate effectively. The polarization of party politics over graft charges further undercuts the building of institutional capacity to check corruption, which is now tainting leaders across the political divide in Timor.

The political use of corruption to attack political leaders has been a well-honed practice in Malaysia, since the practice of “money politics” is so widespread among political elites. While the country’s former PM Abdullah Badawi put in place a stronger body to address corruption before he stepped down in 2009, the agency lacks enforcement powers. It has also been perceived to be in engaging in selective targeting, focusing on opposition members and those not connected to the political center. Corruption remains unchecked, as the predatory activity has extended to parts of the civil service and the selection of political candidates by the governing coalition with known corruption records.

The Southeast Asian experience shows that new laws are only the first step to address corruption. Horizontal accountability can only be strengthened if the new anticorruption bodies are given enforcement powers and staffed with qualified professionals who are not tied to the political elites that misuse these bodies for the political gain of incumbents in office. Measures to root out the rot of corruption have to go beyond legal frameworks or the scourge of graft will continue to sharply limit the quality of government in the region.