Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - When a Malaysian court rejected a former chief minister's appeal against a corruption sentence recently, it stirred vigorous debate in the Southeast Asian nation.
Was this finally a signal that the government is serious about tackling rampant graft in Malaysia's corridors of power?
Former Selangor state chief minister, Mohamed Khir Toyo, was one of the most senior government officials to be convicted for corruption in recent years.
Khir Toyo protested his innocence and accused Prime Minister Najib Razak of trying to make an example out of him to show the Malaysian public he is serious about ending high-level graft, a promise made ahead of recent general elections.
Corruption was a major issue during campaigning for the vote, which saw the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) return to power with a substantially reduced majority - the worst-ever showing in its 56-year rule.
Despite promises of reining in corruption, many Malaysians remain sceptical.
|Barisan Nasional's leaders [Reuters]
"What we find in corruption cases involving BN members and affiliations is that the court process is purposely lengthened and delayed," said 25-year-old Lee Ee May, a management consultant.
One official, however, told Al Jazeera the government is serious about cleaning up its act.
"I can tell you there is political will to let [the corruption commission] to investigate as much as possible - without fear or favour - and for the Attorney General to prosecute should there be sufficient evidence," said Youth and Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin.
Numerous financial scandals involving individuals linked to the ruling coalition has bred a doubting public in recent years.
Even well-respected anti-graft campaigner Paul Low, former chairman of the NGO Transparency International Malaysia, was not spared.
Low, 67, was appointed to the cabinet last month in a surprise move greeted with both praise and cynicism. Low will take charge of matters related to corruption and government integrity.
"We hope that the Najib administration isn't just trying to have Datuk Paul Low's impeccable credentials rub off on the former, without real and tangible reforms enforced," said opposition Member of Parliament Tony Pua from the Democratic Action Party at the time.
Low's anti-graft colleagues called his appointment a "brave move" by Najib as the newly-minted Minister in the Prime Minister's Department could turn on the government by investigating allegations of corruption within the ruling coalition.
"I hope Najib will give him [Low] the freedom to make all the reforms, and not interfere in any corruption investigations in political leaders from the BN component parties," said Transparency International Secretary General Josie Fernandez.
When contacted by Al Jazeera last month, Low said: "I am only three days into my job so I need to wait. As you can see that whatever I say, I am being politicised."
"The investigations have been going on for a long time. We want to know what are MACC's findings, what are the impediments to the findings being made public?"
- Josie Fernandez, Transparency International
'Mother of all corruption'
Political financing, Fernandez told Al Jazeera, was the "mother of all corruption" and needed to be addressed.
"The way political financing disperses is through money used to buy votes in internal party elections, as well as the national election," said Fernandez.
Malaysia ranked as 54th least corrupt country in the world in 2012, according to Transparency International Corruption Perception Index, tying with Latvia and Turkey out of 176 nations surveyed. That was an improvement over 2011 when Malaysia was ranked 60th.
Regionally, Malaysia did better than Thailand (88th), the Philippines (105th) and Indonesia (118th).
In other surveys, Malaysia fared badly. It topped the list in a Transparency International survey of 30 countries in 2012, in which company officials said business deals had been lost because they did not pay bribes.
In the Bribe Payers Survey, a staggering 50 percent said "yes" when asked whether they had lost deals because they did not grease palms with cash.
Malaysia was also ranked number three in terms of global illicit outflows by the Washington-based group Global Financial Integrity in December 2012. Between 2001 and 2010, $285.2bn in illegal capital flight occurred, an average of $28.5bn annually, according to the report.
The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) needs to be made truly independent to investigate corruption allegations against powerful individuals, said Fernandez.
An example that has clouded the commission's reputation is that of Abdul Taib Mahmud, 75, chief minister of the resource-rich eastern state of Sarawak for the last 32 years.
|Chief minister of Sarawak, Abdul Taib Mahmud [Reuters]
Mahmud has been under investigation for alleged corruption by the MACC since 2011.
"The investigations have been going on for a long time. We want to know what are MACC's findings, what are the impediments to the findings being made public?" Fernandez asked.
Mustafar Ali, MACC's director of investigations, told Al Jazeera the "case is still proceeding," and declined to comment further.
Barisan Nasional's future standing among increasingly angry Malaysians will partially rest on how it tackles the country's endemic corruption. Fernandez said fighting the scourge would be politically beneficial.
"If the government shows results in cracking down on corruption, it can regain the trust BN has lost," she said.
Khairy, Malaysia's youngest minister at 37, admitted "quicker action" was needed in handling graft cases.
"In the past there was the perception that government contracts and government procurements were given to the most well-connected, not the most qualified, most efficient and professional," said Khairy.
"So we have to start there. And once you start to inculcate this culture of meritocracy within the bumiputra community, then I think it is much easier for us to move to greater meritocracy across all Malaysians." Bumiputra refers to ethnic Malays and indigenous people in Malaysia.
Remains to be seen
Opposition MP Zuraida Kamaruddin of the People's Justice Party (PKR) said corruption in the awarding of government contracts has resulted in shoddy works in many public projects.
"We cannot keep harping on fighting corruption, but pay off the police every time we are stopped for a traffic ticket. Malaysians need to start practicing what we preach."
- Raja Ahmad Iskandar Fareez
"In my constituency, we have low-cost flats where the walls are cracked, toilets and lifts not working because the contractors are not professionals, who got the job because they paid bribes," said Zuraida.
It remains to be seen whether the government's rhetoric and the appointment of the anti-graft crusader Low will pay dividends in fighting corruption.
Political scientist Professor James Chin - a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore - said it was "too early to say" whether the efforts would yield results.
According to Raja Ahmad Iskandar Fareez, 24, fighting corruption needs to start at the grassroots and with individual Malaysians.
"We cannot keep harping on fighting corruption, but pay off the police every time we are stopped for a traffic ticket. Malaysians need to start practicing what we preach," Iskandar told Al Jazeera.
Source: Al Jazeera