By Rozanna Latiff
KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia on Tuesday unveiled an ambitious five-year plan to clamp down on corruption in government, months after a multi-billion-dollar graft scandal brought down the previous administration.
The plan, launched by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, would involve sweeping changes to the appointment process for key posts, require lawmakers and ministers to publicly declare their assets, and introduce new laws to regulate political funding and lobbying.
Voters rejected Mahathir's predecessor Najib Razak in an election in May last year, amid widespread public disgust over allegations that about $4.5 billion was stolen from 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a state fund set up by Najib.
The former premier, his wife, and several high-ranking officials of his former administration have since been hit with dozens of criminal charges related to losses at 1MDB and other government entities. All of them have pled not guilty.
Mahathir said Malaysia needs "all kinds of strategies, laws and restrictions" to curb corruption.
"This plan is a strong statement from the current government that we will track down and prosecute past offenders, while current and future offenders will be facing harsher action," Mahathir said in a speech to launch the new approach to fighting graft.
The plan's measures would target the government's procurement process, law enforcement, judiciary, politics and business, he said.
New rules on political funding could affect opposition parties, particularly the United Malays National Organisation, the party once led by Mahathir and subsequently led by Najib for close to a decade before his fall last year.
Having led every multi-ethnic coalition since independence six decades ago until its defeat in 2018, UMNO had established a system of patronage to bind Malay support for the party.
UMNO and PAS, an Malay Islamist party also in opposition, had reportedly received funds from 1MDB.
Malaysia was ranked 62 out of 180 countries in the Corruption Perceptions Index published by Transparency International last year.
1MDB A CASE STUDY
Malaysian and U.S. authorities allege that Jho Low, a financier with ties to Najib's family, diverted funds from 1MDB and that about $1 billion of it made their way into Najib's personal bank accounts.
Both Najib and Low, whose whereabouts are unknown, have consistently denied wrongdoing.
Officials studied the 1MDB case closely to design the new anti-corruption plan, said Abu Kassim Mohamed, the director-general of the Governance, Integrity and Anti-Corruption Centre, which drafted the anti-graft measures.
"When you have a top leader of the country allegedly involved in misconduct on such a mega scale, that has an impact on the public," Abu Kassim told Reuters on Monday.
The plan addresses high-risk practices such as the selling of government contracts to third parties, and the appointment of political operatives to the board of state-linked companies, he said.
It also aims to strengthen the independence of investigating bodies such as the audit department and the anti-corruption commission, he said.
(Reporting by Rozanna Latiff; Editing by A. Ananthalakshmi and Simon Cameron-Moore)