Corruption Scandals Hound ASEAN Leaders in 2015

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Corruption Scandals Hound ASEAN Leaders in 2015

A big year for regional integration has been marred by troubling national corruption scandals.

The year 2015 in Southeast Asia will be remembered for two things: the historic election victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s party and the corruption scandals involving leaders of the ruling parties in the region.

In Malaysia, Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak is accused of pocketing more than $600 million (2.6 billion Ringgit) from state-run investment firm 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). Najib admitted that this large amount of money was transferred to his personal bank accounts but denied that the funds came from 1MDB. He claimed that a supporter from the Middle East donated the money for the election campaign of the ruling party, the United Malays National Organization.

The issue has affected Najib’s credibility as a leader and some of his influential allies even called for his resignation. But Najib is undeterred and insists he did not steal from public funds. While he is likely to remain prime minister until the end of his term, the mysterious $600 million donation and the anomalous financial transactions of the 1MDB will continue to undermine his leadership.

In Thailand, the junta is embroiled in a corruption mess after reports surfaced that a park it built in 2014 is grossly overpriced. The Rajabhakti Park in Prachuap Khiri Khan Province featured seven giant statues of popular kings which the junta commissioned to honor the monarchy, the country’s most beloved political institution. But there were allegations that large kickbacks were demanded for the construction of the park.

Last month, a former army chief and deputy defense minister confirmed that an “amulet-hawking middleman” took a 10 percent commission from the project. The army immediately announced that it would investigate the issue. This week, the junta ordered the closure of Rajabhakti Park for “maintenance” after activists and opposition groups tried to visit the park in order to conduct a protest against military corruption. When it seized power last year, the junta vowed to stop corruption in government. But the controversy surrounding the Rajabhakti Park today has raised questions about its credibility to follow through on that commitment.

In Indonesia, House Speaker Setya Novanto is under investigation after mining giant PT Freeport Indonesia accused the influential politician of asking for a 20 percent stake in the company which is estimated to be worth $4 billion. The head of Freeport Indonesia released an 80-minute audio recording of a meeting where Novanto allegedly made the demand in exchange for an extension of the company’s permit to operate in the country. Freeport’s mining site in Papua province has the world’s largest gold mine and third largest copper mine. And though Freeport is also the largest taxpayer in Indonesia, activists and nationalist groups believe that the company should remit a bigger share of its revenues and profits to the country’s treasury.

Novanto, a member of the Golkar Party which fielded a losing presidential candidate last year, allegedly claimed in the recorded conversation that the 20 percent stake is made in behalf of the country’s president and vice president. Indonesian President Joko Widodo has vehemently denied this. According to some analysts, this is already the biggest political scandal to hit Indonesia in recent years.

In the Philippines, Vice President Jejomar Binay is facing several plunder charges in connection to alleged anomalous contracts he signed when he was still mayor of Makati City, the country’s financial center. Binay, one of the frontrunners in the 2016 presidential election, described the corruption cases as politically-motivated. He questioned the string of cases filed against him, which he said was made to disqualify him as a candidate in the election.

But public perception is not in favor of the vice president as evidenced by his declining popularity ratings. It does not help that Binay’s alleged lavish lifestyle and properties have been exposed by the media. To be fair Binay could hit back by pointing out that the ruling party has not yet adequately addressed the issue of the presidential pork barrel program which was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. In any case, the fight against corruption is expected to be one of the major election issues next year.

This year was supposed to be a glorious year for Southeast Asia as the region was set to establish a single and united community. Instead, it will be remembered as the year when the region’s elected leaders and army generals were implicated in embarrassing and unprecedented corruption scandals.