by Shaza Onn. A version of this article was published in The Edge 15 June 2015
There has been a lot of negative press surrounding politicians lately, we had the recent uproar with a no-show from Dato’ Seri Najib at PWTC and Tun Mahathir’s unceremonious removal, not to mention the big tug of war between PAS’ Tuan Guru Hadi Awang and DAP’s Kit Siang. Intense public scrutiny is given over to politicians but not nearly enough to political parties themselves. Though Najib, Hadi Awang and Kit Siang make the headlines in many instances, in actuality these individuals survive and succeed as politicians due to the effectiveness of the party machinery. As political parties, provide the main platform and draw for funding especially for lesser known politicians.
As California’s State Assemblyman Jesse Unruh once said, “Money is the mother’s milk of politics”. In Malaysia, the political machinery is huge and political parties often matter more to voters rather than actual candidates themselves, although the latter receives more press coverage. Money in this sense allows the political machinery to thrive, some more than others, and it funds far-reaching campaign activities to less accessible rural areas in Malaysia. This in itself is not bad. However, it is problematic when political patronage occurs and where private interests trumps the interest of a free and fair democratic process. Voters in Malaysia have no access to information on how these parties are financed, which means that there is no visibility on who political leaders may possibly owe political favors to. This may have a serious impact on the interests of political leaders, although he or she would need to secure votes from a large majority in upcoming elections, they would also need to secure large funds in order to successfully launch a campaign. Hence, the importance of reforming political financing in Malaysia.
To be fair there have been previous attempts at reforms. The Government Transformation Programme, GTP 1.0 and GTP 2.0 both include the adoption of a political financing governance framework whereas Transparency International Malaysia (TI-Malaysia) also released a series of recommendations on reforming political financing in Malaysia.
The GTP approach to political financing is to consolidate party donations into political party accounts rather than individual accounts, including donations collected by third parties. Party accounts would have to be properly accounted for, although the GTP does not specify if it should be audited by external parties. TI-Malaysia’s proposal is more extensive, the approach it takes is to have political parties register under the Election’s Commission (EC) rather than the Registrar of Societies (ROS). The rationale being that the EC, that is appointed by the King is more independent than the ROS, which falls under the portfolio of the Home Ministry. However, the EC would still need to have its autonomy and independence enhanced in order for it to regulate political parties better. Parties would also have to disclose the sources of their revenue and donations which would be supplemented by a Political Parties Act.
A similar practice occurs in the United Kingdom where parties register under the Electoral Commission. Parties also have to submit independently audited accounts to the Electoral Commission on an annual basis and in some instances detailed statements of parties with incomes or expenditure exceeding GBP200,000 are published by the EC and the information is publicly available on its website. Similar reporting requirements exist in most European countries and the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC), of which Malaysia is a signatory, has also appealed to countries to enhance transparency in funding for political candidates as well as political parties.
Though there is no hard and fast rule for regulating political financing, transparency is an important aspect of political financing. Empowering the EC in Malaysia and adopting a model like the UK is something we might strive for. The GTP route on the other hand, may be a good first step towards transparency, although there would be foreseeable issues on enforcement and verification of the accuracy of account statements.
Unfortunately, as with reforms of any consequence in Malaysia, the push for political finance reforms has been met with painfully limited success. In a rare instance of cross-partisanship, both the ruling coalition and opposition remain reluctant to adopt such reforms. It is my sincere hope, however, that politicians who are in support of it do come together on a cross-partisan basis to endorse a political financing act, as this would truly be something for the rakyat and Malaysia’s democracy. And since I am in the habit of quotes I end with Douglas Macarthur, “A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He does not set out to be a leader, but becomes one by the equality of his actions and the integrity of his intent.” Let our leaders like Najib, Hadi and Kit Siang show some real leadership across party lines. Show us real sincerity and leadership in politics and make this reform happen.
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Shaza Onn is a Senior Researcher at IDEAS