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Malaysian Official Arrested on Corruption Charges - 2004-02-12

A senior Malaysian official has pleaded not guilty to corruption charges - just hours after his arrest. This is the second high-profile graft arrest this week in Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi's anti-corruption drive.

Lands and Cooperative Development Minister Kasitah Gaddam entered a plea of not guilty on two counts of corruption Thursday in a Kuala Lumpur court. He was released on $260,000 bail pending trial.

Malaysia's attorney general said the minister was arrested earlier in the day by anti-corruption authorities in connection with a multi-million dollar share transaction.

Mr. Kasitah is the most senior official arrested since Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi took office last year pledging to clean up corruption in government, police, and business. On Tuesday, the former head of Malaysia's state-controlled Perwaja Steel, Eric Chia, became the first big businessman arrested for corruption. He has been under investigation for eight years.

Mr. Chia pleaded not guilty and was later released on bail.

Mr. Abdullah's move to clean up corruption comes ahead of general elections, which could be called within months.

William Case, a Malaysia expert from Australia's Griffith's University, says it appears the prime minister is serious about stamping out graft - which he says is especially prevalent in the ruling United Malays National Organization, or UMNO.

"There's an election coming up. I know that corruption of course is one of the biggest issues, [a] great source of resentment, probably the thing that most hurts UMNO...when you start arresting, investigating full ministers," says Mr. Case. "Then it starts to come a little closer to home, if that's true, I would begin to think that maybe there's some substance to all this."

Mr. Case says it will be very difficult, however, for the prime minister to completely get rid of corruption in UMNO, because the party is run on patronage politics. "Corruption in Malaysia is not just something that you conspicuously enjoy and consume; it's functionally necessary really for a party like the UMNO in order to operate. The reason being this is a patronage based party," he says. "It long ago gave up its credentials, I think, as defender of the Islamic community and a nationalist voice and that sort of thing. It's just a big patronage machine."

Mr. Case also points out that Malaysia is probably the least corrupt country in the region. It ranks somewhere in the middle for corruption for countries worldwide.