Nov. 6 (Bloomberg) -- Malaysia's ruling party, in government for more than five decades, plans to change the way it elects leaders to end a culture of vote-buying that hands top positions to the highest bidder, the group's treasurer said.
Bribery has become "blatant" and "scary," Azim Zabidi, treasurer of the United Malays National Organisation and a member of the party's leadership committee, said in an interview. "It's gone down to the fabric of UMNO itself."
UMNO is considering giving a vote to each of its 3 million members, making it too expensive to bribe them all, Azim said. That would replace a system where candidates seek enough nominations from the heads of 191 regional branches to be eligible for a leadership post. Fewer than 3,000 members then cast votes at party elections.
UMNO, the largest in Malaysia's ruling coalition, is facing the biggest challenge to power after suffering its worst national election result in March, and risks losing more support unless it roots out bribery.
"The party will have to show they are reforming," said Ooi Kee Beng, an analyst at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. "UMNO seems to be consolidating itself around its old culture, which includes vote buying."
In an interview with Bloomberg Television last month, Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak, set to succeed Premier Abdullah Ahmad Badawi at party elections in March, called for his organization to change or risk losing support. He didn't specify what reforms are needed.
The National Front coalition, dominated by UMNO, operates a program of benefits for the Malay majority in Malaysia. Najib said in the interview he plans to phase out the policy, which has been criticized by the multi-ethnic opposition.
Corruption is so widespread that some UMNO members voting at party elections tell leadership candidates how much money to pay, said Azim, 49, the party's treasurer for four years. UMNO funds aren't used for such purposes, he said in the Nov. 3 interview.
Abdullah last week told candidates' campaign managers and agents to stop loitering near hotels and other UMNO meeting areas, canvassing party members or buying votes, the New Straits Times reported on Nov. 1. Abdullah's press secretary, Teoh Ai Hua, said the prime minister is unlikely to comment today because he isn't scheduled to speak to the media.
A pledge of support from a regional head may cost 3,000 ringgit ($848), while a seat beside Azim on UMNO's supreme council, the party's leadership committee, might go for 1.5 million ringgit, he said.
"We need to nip this, I can't say `in the bud,' because it's not a bud anymore," he said. "It's a full-grown flower."
A new way of choosing leaders won't be in place before party elections next March, Azim said. It's hard to discipline those who offer money or accept bribes because they're reluctant to give evidence against wrongdoers, he said.
"They realize that it's corruption, but it's become a way of doing business," he said. "They tend to close one eye."
Azim, who is also chairman of Bank Simpanan Nasional, a Kuala Lumpur-based state savings bank, was suspended from UMNO for three years for a breach of ethics in 2001. During his campaign for a divisional post, Azim held a rally at the bank, breaking a rule banning campaigning. He denied abuse of power.
Opening up voting to all party members would make it prohibitively costly for candidates to rely on payoffs, Azim said.
"By enlarging that pool of voters, it'll probably cost you 10 million ringgit," Azim said. "Are you willing to spend that much for a seat on the supreme council? Probably not."
Cash bribes are typically handed to regional heads or UMNO voters by candidates or their agents, Azim said. One potential party leader once booked dozens of rooms in a Kuala Lumpur hotel during an UMNO election, offering visiting members free accommodation and food in return for votes, he said.