Case Study: How Transparency International got the anti-corruption message out in Malaysia

We were heading to Malaysia to begin the largest anti-corruption conference in the world and it was due to be opened by the Prime Minister. He had pocketed $700m dollars into his personal bank account claiming it was a "political donation" from a mysterious Middle East donor.

Neil Martinson
Neil Martinson
On the weekend before the conference 100,000 people were expected to demonstrate against him on the streets of Kuala Lumpar. And the conference was being hosted and paid for by the Malaysian government via their anti-corruption commission.

To say there were a few issues to handle would be an understatement and to add to the complexity much of the media is either state controlled or state influenced and, in recent months, two outlets were banned for their reporting on the scandal.

Transparency International (TI) and TI Malaysia had been campaigning with civil society organisations for fully independent investigations. 

This, though, was crunch time. How would we deal with the corruption scandal when the PM was to be on the same platform as Jose Ugaz, Chair of TI? 

And, given the state’s role in the media how would we get our messages out both in Malaysia and on to the global stage?

It was clear that the government machine was determined to present a picture of how they were tackling corruption and try to whitewash the scandal surrounding the PM. We knew there was no way we could allow that to happen. 

There were real fears that the demonstration planned for Kuala Lumpar could become a violent confrontation. The government were making ominous noises about bans and what would and would not be permitted. They had form on this sending in water canons and arresting people on sedition charges.

Targeting social media and independent media outlets we issued a statement calling for the government to respect the right of civil society to protest peacefully. We also made clear that there had to be independent investigations into the Prime Minister. It was a statement of intent to frame the debate. 

Global media were picking up on the story and, in particular, the attendance of the Prime Minister at the conference. In the days to the opening the government flip-flopped on whether the PM would be there. We made it clear that we would ask questions about the $700m at the opening.

The day before the government announced that the PM would not attend. Our Chair’s speech had already been drafted. Our team hit the social media channels to promote the live webcast and we contacted the independent media to ensure they were in the hall to video and hear the speech. 

As the Chair got up to speak his speech was landing on the desks of media in Malaysia and throughout the world. We knew we had to move fast to avoid any chance of the government trying to restrict what we were saying.

"Who paid the money and why?" hit home immediately. It forced the government minister to tear up his speech and pledge to defend the anti-corruption commission from political interference.

We certainly got the message out.

There were 518k video views of the speech in English, Chinese and Bahasa on independent media sites. More than 900k viewed the Facebook post of the speech with 5918 shares and 3726 likes. There were more than 3,300 retweets with Jose Ugaz trending in Malaysia and more than 600 news reports around the globe.

Every figure was the highest ever achieved by Transparency International and the speech succeeded in changing the political debate. 

The lessons: speed, simplicity and principles matter.

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