KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia's prime minister likes to talk about the need to tackle corruption, taking the opportunity this week to lecture the Islamic world on the topic.
But an international corruption monitor and Malaysia's opposition say events closer to home demand that Abdullah Ahmad Badawi match his words with more decisive action.
"There is deep worry that corruption is so endemic that without zero tolerance and action from the top, we will end up with a great credibility gap," said Anwar Fazal, a member of corruption monitor Transparency International Malaysia.
Malaysia, which marked its 49th year of independence on Thursday and strives to become a developed nation within 15 years, has begun to reveal growing gaps between the official rhetoric on corruption and action taken on the ground.
Abdullah, a pious Muslim dubbed "Mr Clean" for his anti-graft message, used his position on Monday as chairman of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to point out the critical need to address corruption in the mainly developing Islamic world.
But this week, Nazri Aziz, a member of his own cabinet, publicly reprimanded a customs official after the official suggested that a ruling-party lawmaker was threatening him.
The lawmaker is involved in a business that was fined by customs this year for smuggling Indonesian logs into Malaysia. He admits to having asked customs to "close one eye" to the affair and to sending a text message to the customs official.
The text message said customs continued to "harass" the lawmaker's firms and that he would continue to raise questions about the customs department in parliament. The lawmaker, Mohamad Said Yusof, told Reuters on Friday the message was not meant as a threat.
Parliament's wrath over the text message was directed at the whistle-blowing official, not Mohamad Said. Abdullah then ordered the lawmaker and customs to stop their slanging match.
"With the 'gag order' from the prime minister, are all these allegations of malpractices, abuses of power, misuse of public funds, corruption and breach of parliamentary privilege instantly swept under the carpet?" asked opposition leader Lim Kit Siang.
"It will be a major blow to the commitment of the Abdullah administration to national integrity when there is no sense of right and wrong," he added.
Mohamad Said denied he had tried to pressure the customs department into leaving his companies alone and said he had cooperated with Malaysia's Anti-Corruption Agency, which investigated the case.
"The ACA has interviewed me and I denied the allegation," he said. He declined further comment.
He and several other MPs have rapped civil servants for questioning the privilege of lawmakers to bring up issues of public interest, such as those involving customs.
Transparency International's Anwar said the case showed that the government should come up with a new code of conduct for MPs.
"The MP should not promote his profession, trade, company, relatives nor receive payments then or in the future," he said.
It should also free up the ACA, he added.
"As long as the ACA comes under the Prime Minister's Department, we can be assured that there will be political interference hindering the work of the ACA," Malaysian human rights group Aliran said in a recent newsletter.
The government is making more corruption arrests, totalling 485 in 2004, 43 percent more than during the previous prime minister's last year in office.
But there has been only one major catch -- a former lands minister arrested in 2004 -- and this case is still awaiting a full hearing. Malaysia's ranking in Transparency International's global corruption-perception survey has fallen to 39, and recent studies show the corruption mentality runs deep.
A survey by think-tank the Merdeka Centre showed that one in three people would pay a 100 ringgit ($27) bribe to police to be let off a speeding offence that carried a 300 ringgit fine.
Another by Malaysia's Integrity Institute showed that nearly 30 percent of youngsters would be willing to accept a bribe if they had the power to run an organisation.
The institute's chief, a former senior government official, recalled how a businessman had offered him a 300,000 ringgit "gift" in order to win a state project. He said he turned it down.