Human Writes: Lessons learnt from 1MDB and America's Watergate scandals


  • Living
  • Sunday, 27 May 2018

Fraud, blackmail, a high-level cover-up, a secret slush fund, “hush money” to keep co-conspirators quiet, obstruction of justice and plenty of other illegal activities.

Sounds familiar, yes?

No, I’m not talking about 1MDB but one of the world’s most famous political scandals: the US Watergate affair that resulted in President Richard Nixon resigning in 1974.

The scandal involved many controversies, not just the break-in at the headquarters of the opposition party at the Watergate building in Washington DC. Nixon (pictured above) also reportedly accepted US$100,000 (about US$650,000, or RM2.5mil, today) from billionaire Howard Hughes for his Florida home.

The staggering numbers in the 1MDB scandal look like they might overshadow Watergate – national debts of RM1 trillion (yes, that’s 1,000,000,000,000) and the RM2.6bil “donated” and placed in the personal bank account of Datuk Seri Najib Razak. And, of course, we all now know that just the interest from 1MDB’s debts for three months this year totals RM800mil.

During the Watergate affair, Nixon and his men ordered the Federal Bureau of Investigation to stop its investigation into the break-in and put their own man as the top boss there. Frustrated, the FBI’s number two boss, Mark Felt, leaked information about the scandal to two journalists at the Washington Post newspaper who unearthed the scandal. This is why institutions, including the media, need to be rock-solid strong – they provide the checks and balances to the misdeeds of any government.

Watergate 1MDB national scandals we can learn from
In Armenia, street protests forced the country’s leader to give up power, after a decade of rule. In this May 8 photo, people celebrate in the capital, Yerevan. Photo: AP

In the last week, we’ve heard how people who attempted to become whistleblowers about 1MDB were shut down and even chased around the world. To address this, the Institutional Reforms Committee has been set up to identify problems in our institutions. (It is accepting written representations from individuals or groups on this matter. For those interested write to: The Secretariat, Committee on Institutional Reforms, Level 32, Ilham Tower, Jalan Binjai, 50450 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; e-mail a copy to irc@jpm.gov.my.)

Despite the grim news on 1MDB, I’m actually upbeat about Malaysia right now. We are being seen as a beacon of hope for democracy.

Consider this: In much of the world, there is deep disillusionment with and distrust of political systems and institutions. Elections may be frustratingly imbalanced and political parties may offer few alternatives. Sometimes, it may boil down to changing a personality at the top. So you can hardly blame people for being fed up.

As a result, there has been a rise of nationalist xenophobic movements and populist politicians, as in Britain’s Brexit, France’s Marine Le Pen, and America’s Donald Trump.

People should realise that parliamentary democracy isn’t perfect; in fact, it’s inherently flawed. The ballot box offers limited scope for change. It doesn’t challenge entrenched elites or institutions.

Not usually, anyway.

Real change throughout history has usually happened through social movements or crises. Consider Mahatma Gandhi’s civil disobedience protests in India and Martin Luther King Jr’s black civil rights movement in the United States, or how World War II led to the end of colonialism and the employment of women. Mass protests can also work; last month in Armenia, street protests forced the country’s leader to give up power, after a decade of rule.

So how come Malaysia had an incredible political metamorphosis through an election?

Well, for one, we actually had a social movement! Bersih was a global movement; then there were the initiatives to get people home to vote. The organising, mobilising and popularising of ideas that typify social movements went on quietly through social media platforms and Whatsapp messages.

In the last week, I’ve had so many people – from bank tellers to market traders to businessmen – share their election stories with me, often as they proudly wag their inky fingers. People who went against the odds to vote; people who “defended” their polling stations against anything untoward happening, and so on. To me, this really was a mass movement.

While the election offers fresh hope for parliamentary democracy, we should still be cautious. It is easy to reverse the gains made. Don’t forget how quickly the old elite regained power after the Arab Spring protests of 2010.

And remember, we changed our politicians but, as yet, haven’t really changed our institutions. And going by the current developments, our institutions are weak, struggling to challenge powerful politicians or corporations.

This was the big difference with Watergate.

But what failed to happen in Watergate was Nixon getting convicted, although 48 government officials were convicted. He quickly resigned before he was impeached; later, President Gerald Ford pardoned him. Perhaps if Nixon had had to answer for his abuses of power, there would not be the battle between President Trump and the FBI today, which eerily echoes Watergate in Trump’s attempts to thwart the FBI’s work.

Watergate left a deep scar in America; today, the suffix “gate” is often added to any scandal there. It also offers Malaysians a sobering lesson: How we respond to our scandals sets a precedent for the country’s future.


Human Writes columnist Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health. Write to her at star2@thestar.com.my.


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