KUALA LUMPUR— Malaysians head to the polls in the coming months with the country’s persistent corruption high on the list of public concerns, and few have done more to put it there than baby-faced Rafizi Ramli.
Officially the strategist for the political party of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, Rafizi is best-known to his enemies in the ruling coalition as Malaysia’s foremost whistle-blower on official graft.
Formerly a top executive at state oil firm Petronas, Rafizi joined the opposition full-time five years ago and has used his financial smarts to sting the government with corruption revelations pulled from his now-feared files.
“I have about three more in my back pocket,” Rafizi, 35, told AFP at his office in the capital Kuala Lumpur, where the odour of cigarette smoke hangs over stacks of documents.
The Barisan Nasional (National Front) has governed the multi-ethnic nation since 1957 independence, bringing economic growth and political stability under its authoritarian rule, but also longstanding allegations of large-scale graft.
Elections expected in the next two months however could be Malaysia’s tightest yet after the opposition handed the Front its worst-ever showing in 2008 polls.
As the ballot nears, a survey in December found corruption was the top concern of 51 percent of voters, which the opposition has fed by hammering the government on recurring scandals, and through revelations coming from Rafizi.
Most recently, Rafizi produced documents late last year that he says show a powerful state leader received $13 million in kickbacks and a cabinet minister’s son got a Hummer SUV in exchange for timber contracts. The accusations were denied.
His top expose was a scandal brought to light in 2011 in which the women’s affairs minister allegedly helped a company owned by her family win an $83 million contract to increase domestic beef production.
Funds were allegedly siphoned off to buy luxury cars and property in the “cows for condos” affair — now a catchphrase for official graft.
The disgraced minister resigned in what was a major embarrassment for Prime Minister Najib Razak, who has pledged to fight corruption.
“People in power can’t just do whatever they want anymore. Those below now have the courage to blow the whistle,” said Wan Saiful Wan Jan, head of Malaysian think tank IDEAS.
Corruption—ranging from small bribes sought by police, up to huge kickbacks alleged in a string of large projects—is blamed for hastening a decline in Malaysia’s economic competitiveness compared to its neighbours.
Despite Najib’s anti-graft pledges, Malaysia has failed to significantly improve its standing in corruption rankings.
It suffered the world’s third-highest illicit capital flight from 2001-2010—$285 billion—according to financial watchdog Global Financial Integrity, and topped Transparency International’s (TI) 30-economy bribery survey in 2012.
“When 50 percent of businesses surveyed say they lost a deal because they refused to pay a bribe, it’s not just perception. It’s institutionalised,” said TI-Malaysia’s president, Paul Low.
A Malaysian government spokesman told AFP tackling corruption remains a “key priority” of Najib’s, adding that “failure to eradicate it will harm our democratic and economic progress”.
He pointed to recent initiatives such as setting up special corruption courts across the country and a 2010 Whistleblower Protection Act.
Despite that law, however, Rafizi is now facing charges of revealing private banking details in the cow case, which the opposition dismisses as an attempt to muzzle him.
“I have no children, so I don’t have to worry about threats against my family. And with a finance background, I guess I was the best man for the job,” said Rafizi, who now plans a parliament run.
Rafizi’s notoriety has brought him a flood of documents from other whistle-blowers who distrust the commission. In August, he set up a centre to handle the flow.
Criticised by the government as partisan, Rafizi insists the centre will also look into credible allegations against the opposition.
As for future revelations involving the government, Rafizi does not rule out wielding them as campaigning begins.
Rafizi said the three-party opposition alliance led by Anwar expects to find “massive” corruption in government books if it takes power, and Anwar has said he will save the country billions of dollars by wiping out official graft.
But Rafizi insists the opposition won’t launch a “witch-hunt”, but instead will focus on recouping lost funds in larger cases.