Monday, December 2, 2013

“How to stop corruption like that?”

It was an atypical night away from Bangsar, thanks to my friend Ragu who’s quite the politician, in a good way.

“Can you tell which of these massage parlours are legit?” Ragu asked me. It was just ten minutes ago when he told me he wanted to show me something and I was to wait and see.

I scanned the rows of two-storey shoplots in Subang Jaya and was surprised by the number of “massage parlours” operating within what must have been a radius of not more than 1km. They were interspersed by three or more utility shops that had closed for the day, making them even more conspicuous that night. It wasn’t the Subang Jaya I knew twenty years ago when I was a student at a private college there.

On the exterior, the shops have either pusat kecantikan or foot reflexology on signboards made from inferior artwork, not different from those you see at Petaling Street. Nothing fancy, just the usual uninspiring type-font accompanied by a standard picture of a Caucasian woman’s face covered in bright green clay mask or a cut-out silhouette of a foot with colourful body organs within it.

The interior of the shops were dark and many had some sort of a red neon light at the front corner of the shop. Despite their dimness, the lights gave away the men stationed at the counters by the shop entrances.

They were mostly young or middle-aged Chinese-Malaysian men who could barely string together a decent sentence in English. I know because I asked a few of them how much a massage would cost and whether they would allow female customers. Their answers were incoherent and they eyed me suspiciously.

What really gave these “massage parlours” away were the young women dressed in skimpy clothing standing outside the shop. Although they were chatting to each other, their eyes were constantly on the look-out for potential customers. There were hardly any but then again, it was only eight that Saturday night.

Looking at the concentration of what Indonesians would refer to as massage plus-plus, I wondered whether it was a happier neighbourhood.

“I doubt it. The older folks and women are complaining there’s just too much hanky-panky going on at night. People are unhappy about the reputation it brings,” my friend who is also a proud resident of Subang Jaya proffered.

We were looking for a place to eat and my friend Ragu thought a detour around the belligerent side of Subang Jaya would sufficiently pique my interest. It did because we ended up having a debate on whether such establishments are immoral and whether it should be sanctioned by the local authority.

“You do know that there will always be demands for sexual services right? You can’t stop it and it just opens up the doors for corruption, trafficking, forced prostitution and slavery. Which is worse?” I asked.

“So you think it should be sanctioned then?”

“Yes, provided the workers are not being forced, enslaved or paid unfairly. It’s not hurting the public, is it? If wives are unhappy with their husbands getting a hand job elsewhere, it should be a domestic matter. Bring it up with the husband, get a divorce. The State shouldn’t be allowed to police morality,” I insisted but my friend wasn’t convinced. He looked at me incredulously and gave me a patronising you-are-so-naïve look.

“You’re talking like an orang putih, a middle-class-western-educated person. Get real. This is not Europe. It’s Malaysia. Your liberal views have no clout here. You’re merely representing the views of the minority and unfortunately, the majority rules,” Ragu argued.

I know I could always count on Ragu to bring me down to earth. He always opined how superfluous it is for human rights activists to demand for social reform and change when in reality, the majority of Malaysians are not willing to accept these changes yet.

To him, the real challenge lies in creating awareness and educating the mass so that this so called liberal thinking can one day become the view of the majority. Until then, we should all just shut up and rethink our strategies.

“You want democracy? That’s democracy for you. I’m telling you, majority of Malaysians want these places shut down.”

As we continued to patrol the area, there were easily eight to ten such illegal massage parlours within the same block of shoplots. Since 2008, the Selangor State has vowed to stop issuing new licenses for massage parlour, entertainment centre and cyber café to curb vice or immoral activities. And yet, these so-called massage parlours disguised as beauty spa or foot reflexology continue to multiply. Whatever attempts made to put a stop to happy endings have been sadly superficial.

My friend conceded that corruption is the main cause of failure to eradicate these special massage places. He thinks law enforcement officers are being bought off by business owners because every time the local authority raids and closes one illegal massage parlour, two more would open up within the same area.

“So shouldn’t the State concentrate on eradicating corruption first before they intrude on other people’s private lives? Admit that corruption is a bigger enemy than this.”

I felt like I had won the debate. I was wrong.

“Do you know that majority of Malaysians are okay with corruption? Go ask anyone and they’ll tell you they have no problem bribing the police or local municipality if it would serve their interest. They go around condemning top officials for corruption, demanding a cleaner government but what about them? How to stop corruption like that?”

My conversation with Ragu that night left a bitter taste in my mouth and I decided to talk to a few people I know just to find out whether he is right.

Kelly, an NGO worker, admitted shamefully that she had participated in corruption once but she was not sure whether it was her parents who were the real culprits. The bribe wasn’t her idea but she didn’t stop it.

“They paid about RM350 to the Transport Department as bribe so that I could pass my driving license,” she said remorsefully. “I was 17 then. I guess I didn’t know what it meant or understood what the consequences were. I thought it was normal because all my cousins did the same thing.”

Unsurprisingly, she wasn’t the only one. As soon as Kelly revealed what she considered a dark secret, she opened up the door for her other friends to share their own experiences. They were initially reluctant to talk about whether they had participated in corruption.
Lisa said her parents did the same thing for her.

“It’s to guarantee that you pass on the first test. Otherwise they’ll make you fail on purpose several times before you actually pass. Most of my friends did the same too.”

Both Kelly and Lisa are in their late thirties. They had taken their driving test at 17 which means it would have been a common practice 20 years ago for the authority to accept bribes in return for passing driving tests.

However, Leong revealed that his parents paid the same bribe to the authority when he did his driving test not more than five years ago.

Melur, who studied law, admitted to holding a “kopi-o license” too. She added that she had also given a RM30 bribe to a police officer who had randomly stopped her on the road while she was driving. She said that the police was obviously fishing for a bribe because she had not committed any traffic offence.

“He passed me his summon book and instructed me to put the money in between the sheets and pass the book back to him quietly. We were alone. It was funny because I don’t understand why we needed to be so covert,” Melur said and laughed.

Lisa said when she passed her driving test, her father’s first advice to her was not to drive safe but to always have small notes with her just in case she got stopped by the police.

“If you only have RM50 in your purse, you’re forced to give the police officer that much. A summon is probably around RM50 or RM100 top. It’s more worth it if you have only RM5 or 10 to offer,” he advised.

Notoriously known for forgetting to carry his driving license when driving, Lisa’s father had lots of wisdom to impart. “Easy, all you need to say to the officer is ‘boleh settlekah?’ He’ll know what you mean. Be cool, there’s no need to be embarrassed.”

Kelly wasn’t amused. She recalled an incident recently when she was stopped by the police at a road block near Mutiara Damansara. She admitted she was talking on her mobile and deserved to be stopped and fined. The only problem was, the police who stopped her didn’t want her punished.

“As soon as he asked me how much my monthly salary is, I knew what he was after. I pretended not to understand because I wanted him to say it,” Kelly said and then continued, “he beat around the bush for awhile, asking me where I work, blah blah blah and when I played along, he got tired and asked me whether I could help him. It became clear what he wanted.”

Kelly said she gave the officer her garang look and asked for his name and identity number. As soon as she said that, the officer became defensive. He had apparently told Kelly that he wasn’t afraid because he had done nothing wrong. He insisted on knowing what he had said that was so offensive.

“He went on and on about how he has served the police force for 15 years, he is a good Christian, a good father and he supports NGO work. He also told me not to call him encik because he is a sergeant. It was pathetic really,” Kelly said in disgust.

In the end, Sergeant Ong just gave Kelly a warning. According to the latter, this was the second time she had gotten away with just a warning after confronting a corrupted police officer.

Finally, Kamal, the youngest and possibly most idealistic of the group said, “It depends on the situation. I wouldn’t give a bribe to a police officer on the road but if I were, say, stopped at the border in Thailand and refused entry by the border police because they’re fishing for a bribe, I think I would. It depends on the level of inconvenience it would save me if I pay a bribe.”

From the conversations I gathered, I concluded that Ragu may have been right but I think I’m right too. Malaysians are okay with corruption because the system allows it but the system continues to support it because Malaysians are willing participants.

From Lisa’s father to Kelly and Kamal, it would appear that the level of corruption has not changed for more than 20 years.

Here’s another bit of news. Despite the government pouring money on anti-corruption advertisements in magazines catered for expatriates, Paul, a French citizen currently living in Malaysia, said he is prepared to pay bribes to the local authority if he wants to open up a business in Kuala Lumpur. He said he understands the reality of the country and will “play the game”.

“Everyone seems to be doing it. If the authority is intent on giving me hell because it expects a bribe before they would do their job, I’ll give it to them. Otherwise, I’m on the losing end and I don’t have the time to fight this battle when Malaysians themselves are okay with it.”

I thought what Paul said was pretty strong and I’ll leave you with this great initiative by an expat living in Jakarta.

This article was first published here.