Overcoming the cartel syndrome

Without complicity and collusion by rogue enforcement officers and officials aiding and abetting the law-breakers, there’d be no cartels in the first place.

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Published in Asia News Today, Business Today, Focus Malaysia, Astro Awani & Daily Express, image by Asia News Today.

Cartels are a way of life in Malaysia. They are a “normal(ised)” part of our society and culture in that without corrupt practices and bribery, our economy – both licit and illicit/semi-licit – wouldn’t thrive as they are and pulsate with the vibrancy that we have become accustomed to.

Simply put, without complicity and collusion by rogue enforcement officers and officials aiding and abetting the law-breakers, there’d be no cartels in the first place.

Rogue or immoral enforcement officers (high-ranking, middle-ranking and low-ranking alike) are on the take from the mobsters, gangsters, and scammers in exchange for protection and cover-up.

So, never mind organised crime or our own home-grown version of the Mafia. To be sure, we have our triads, irrespective of ethnicity. But, again, unlike our closest neighbour Singapore – whereby the phenomenon was virtually eradicated within the span of twenty years – organised crime and gangsterism show no sign of abating or being progressively suppressed.

To repeat what’s a truism, we still have active mobsters in our midst involved in activities ranging from loan-sharking, prostitution, unlicensed gambling and betting (conventional, online) to drug manufacturing and peddling (including ecstasy pills for the nightclub scene) and financial fraud, etc.

Perhaps, the most famous example, to date, of the nexus between organised crime and the rogue law enforcers would be the Macau scam involving the infamous Nicky Liow – as the mastermind and ringleader. He’s still on the run and – with the connivance of certain individuals from the police and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) – has fleeced off hapless victims of their life savings to the combined tune of billions every year. The Sun Daily had reported that in 2018 alone, the losses from the Macau scam totalled RM2.8 billion.

Not only did Nicky Liow held the title of Datuk Seri, he’s been pictured with certain VVIP figures. Other lesser-known conmen are the likes of Tedy Teow who’s involved in get-rich quick (Ponzi-type pyramid) schemes, investment scams and finally, money laundering (through cryptocurrencies and high-end property purchases). According to the South China Morning Post (SCMP), Teow is also known as “Jho Low 2” for currently evading the authorities.

As it is, cartel-type activities flourish because of their implicit or tacit approval from the higher-ups.

This can only happen because, in the first instance, the political elite/masters manipulate and exploit the State security apparatus and government machinery for their own personal interests masquerading as the agenda of the rakyat.

Abuse of power precedes institutionalised corruption which the cartel syndrome embodies.

The political masters, thereby, set the negative or debilitating example to the civil service and administration, including the security and law enforcement services, to follow.

The moral enervation starts from the top, as we all aver.

The cartel culture is grounded in the political culture of the nation.

Cartels could take root when, for example, the political elite make use of the security personnel to detain a politician who’s become a persona non grata (i.e., someone who’s fallen out of favour and become an outsider to the establishment) on trumped up charges.

Another example would be when the political elite allow corruption to thrive as a means of securing support (“carrot”) and at the same time a tool to ensure subordinates toe the line (“stick”).

So, instead of nipping the problem in the bud, the files containing the transgressions of allies and subordinates would accumulate – ready to be used someday, if need be.

Therein lies the origins of the cartel culture which can be likened to the cause of a cancerous outbreak resulting in the formation (metastasis) of a malignant tumour which, precisely, can be hidden until it’s too late (reached an advanced stage) or infarction i.e., the reduction or obstruction of blood supply to an affected area because of bacterial infection (sepsis) that finally results in gangrene (death of the tissues). In both cases, the condition can be terminal (fatal).

The corrupt practices of administrators and enforcement personnel simply mimic the behaviour of the political masters in their own way. Not to mention too when religion is misused in the most cynical and disgusting way to justify the hypocrisy and double-standards of the political masters.

Society writ large, i.e., considered as a whole, is subject to “mental games” by the political elite. By that it’s simply meant ideological as well as psychological manipulation and brainwashing, and this is especially true of the majority ethnic community. This explains why despite Islamisation over the decades, corruption has not been rooted out.

In fact, the mindset has changed to uncritical/mindless acceptance of corruption among some government officials, so that it’s in some sense institutionalised and widespread, as a commendable and laudable way of life.

Values then are inverted and perverted – from the top.

Then too, State institutions responsible for upholding the sanctity of Islam are inhibited and prevented from discharging their sacred duty because of the cartel’s reach – the web of conspiracy involving the various government agencies in their inter-connexion of illegal activities.

There was a case in the northern region many years ago which involved a babies-for-sale racket. Thankfully, it was “short-lived”. The Star had reported that the syndicate entangled Indonesian women desperate for cash (paid between RM2,500 and RM4,500), errant doctors (public and private hospitals), and rogue National Registration Department (NRD) officers to falsify the birth certificates. The racket even had the protection of rogue police officers and other government officials. Al-Jazeera even featured a documentary about this abhorrent phenomenon in “Malaysia: Babies for Sale|101 East”.

Recently, the spectre of the meat cartel returned when it’s reported on June 24 that a consignment of nearly 30 tonnes of boneless buffalo meat worth RM427,000 from India was seized at Penang Port in Butterworth. According to the Malaysian Quarantine and Inspection Services (Maqis) Director Noriah Dahlan, the halal certificate on the consignment did not match the packaging of the imported meat.

The latest highlight is, of course, the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report (2021) which serves as reminder of the human trafficking cartel in Malaysia.

At the end of the day, overcoming the cartel syndrome within our society requires more than just the political will. Even if there’s a move towards a new political order, our government simply can’t do it on their own.

There has to be what the Rasuah Busters movement means by character-building (#NilaiMoralKarakterBangsa). That is, the reformation (reformasi) not only of the system and institutions but of moral character also.

We can no longer rely on our leaders alone to fight the scourge and menace of corruption – even as the cartel syndrome is too inter-twined in the political and administrative system itself.

Overcoming the cartel syndrome would require a concerted ground-up approach and reforms that unites all Malaysians across ethnicity, religion and social background in a never-ending struggle. To be sure, a struggle in support of the government and its agencies – of which the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) is the most prominent.

Practically speaking, moral reformation would have to start from within ourselves first – the personal dimension.

And this applies to all political leaders, irrespective, since they are supposed to be exemplars. And, by extension and inclusion, the administrators and law enforcement officers across the ranks too.

Moving outward, the public and private attitudes and norms of our society can thereupon be in symmetry (harmonised) and thereafter further reinforced and stabilised – the communal dimension.
Attitudes have to change from acceptance and normalising of corruption as way of life to total rejection and renunciation. Cognitive dissonance that’s unhealthy or rooted in immoral self-interests have to be de-legitimised.

“Cash is king” must be seen for what it is – not a necessary evil as a fact of life but an evil that must necessarily be resisted and overcome.

Hopefully then, we might gradually but steadily see a “shake-up” and “breakthrough” that’s both unprecedented and sustainable.

Jason Loh Seong Wei is Head of Social, Law & Human Rights at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

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