Dennis Ignatius: What does the “Malay spirit” mean these days?

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To great men of the past, the Malay spirit was about integrity, honour and selfless public service.

Like many other Malaysians, I’ve been following the corruption trial of former Penang chief minister Lim Guan Eng.  Lim has been charged with several counts of soliciting and receiving bribes in connection with the RM6.3 billion Penang undersea tunnel project. He has denied all the charges.

The 23rd witness was Consortium Zenith Construction Sdn Bhd (ZCSB) director Zarul Ahmad Zulkifli. According to a Malaysiakini report, Zarul said he suffered immense pressure after being remanded for 11 days by the MACC. He also mentioned that the fallout from the corruption investigation almost destroyed the project as banks refused to lend him money and his business colleagues lost confidence in him.

Raymond Ooi/The Star

Nevertheless, he said – and this is where it gets a little incredulous – he did not give up hope as he was determined to “prove his mettle as a bumiputera businessperson,” adding that “the Malay spirit that burned within him allowed him to weather the difficulties to regain his success as an entrepreneur”.

His talk of the “Malay spirit” immediately piqued my interest. I mean here’s a guy who – if we are to believe his own testimony – paid a huge bribe to win a contract and then happily spilled the beans to avoid prosecution.

Under the law, it is an offence to both offer or receive a bribe. It may be recalled that a businessman was fined RM1.5 million in 2019 after he pleaded guilty to the charge of abetting Tengku Adnan (the then Federal Territories minister) in receiving a bribe.[2] Strangely, Tengku Adnan was subsequently granted a discharge not amounting to an acquittal in the same case, but that is another story.

Zarul went on to say – again as reported in the aforementioned Malaysiakini report – that as a bumiputera businessman, “keeping promises is important”. And what was that important promise he felt obliged to keep? Again, according to him, it was his promise to give the former chief minister a kickback!

Leaving aside the matter of who is guilty and who is not – which is for the court to decide – what we have, based on the testimony given in court and reported widely, is a well-connected businessman who admits to paying a bribe to obtain a very lucrative contract now boasting about his “Malay spirit” and the importance of honouring his word – even if that involved engaging in illegal and immoral conduct.

Is this what the “Malay spirit” has come to mean? Is this representative of the ethics of a successful bumiputera businessman these days? If it is, I am sure that some of the great men of the past, men like Tan Sri Zainal Sulong, Tan Sri Aini Arope and Tun Arshad Ayub would be appalled. To them, the Malay spirit was about integrity, honour and selfless public service. They would certainly never dream of offering or receiving a bribe. They would have suffered the loss of title and position – as Aini Arope did – rather than act with dishonour.

But we are now living in an increasingly amoral nation, one in which a convicted felon is honoured, feted and treated as some sort of national hero; a nation where men charged with corruption and abuse of power are allowed to carry on with politics as usual; a nation where bribery and corruption are dismissed as nothing more than “willing giver, willing taker”.

In times like this, I suppose anyone can lay claim to the Malay spirit; hopefully the true spiritual heirs of men like Aini Arope – and there are many – will rise to rescue the Malay spirit from the likes of Zarul. – Dennis Ignatius