By Wan Saiful Wan Jan. A version was published in The Star, 9 June 2015
Let me start by expressing my condolences to YBM Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, fondly known as Ku Li, for the demise of his wife, Puan Sri Noor Yvonne Abdullah last Friday evening. I sincerely hope that Ku Li will persevere during this trying time.
Ku Li is no stranger to public life. He is a veteran in Malaysian politics and he is seen as an institution by himself. His speeches are always full with wisdom. And many people I know are keenly hoping that he would make a significant move soon, especially because there is a lot of uncertainties in our politics today.
Just a few months ago Ku Li made another important statement on the eradication of corruption. He suggested that, among the various steps that should be taken to root out corruption in the country, one step that should be done immediately is for members of the cabinet and members of parliament to declare their assets.
Chairman of Barisan Nasional Backbenchers Club Tan Sri Shahrir Abdul Samad joined in to support Ku Li’s suggestion. And my friends at Transparency International Malaysia, led by their president Datuk Akhbar Sattar, too have declared their support.
Asset declaration is not a new idea. Civil society organisations, politicians and anti-corruption enforcement officers have repeatedly mooted this idea.
At IDEAS, our Senior Researcher Shaza Onn analysed the issue of asset declaration and just two weeks ago we published her findings on our website www.ideas.org.my
Currently there is no legal requirement for parliamentarians or cabinet members to declare their assets. And even if they do make a declaration, there is no independent mechanism to verify what they put in the forms.
Only Penang and Selangor enable public access to the information declared by politicians. No other states or federal agencies have such public disclosure mechanism. Not even in Kelantan where the government is led by supposedly pious and godly ulama.
An effective asset declaration system is a powerful tool to help combat corruption in the public sector. Those in government have immediate control over public assets and funds, and they manage the award of government contracts. Asset declarations curb abuses of power by preventing conflicts of interest and detecting misappropriation of these funds for illicit enrichment.
Politically, those in power can also build trust by clarifying the origins of their personal wealth. If an asset declaration system is in place today, accusations of personal enrichments and unjustifiably lavish lifestyles can easily be fenced off. So it is not just about governance but it does have positive political impacts too.
Malaysia actually does have an asset declaration system in place. But they are not consistent and there are systemic weaknesses.
For example, there are government circulars outlining mechanisms for civil servants to declare their assets. But these declarations are not available for public scrutiny so we do not know if the rules are properly enforced or not.
Cabinet members too are required to declare their assets. But they do it only to the Prime Minister and the information is kept only by the Prime Minister alone. This raises some questions. Does that not make cabinet members beholden to the Prime Minister? What can the Prime Minister do if he found problems with the declaration? And, to whom does the Prime Minister himself declare to?
Clearly our current practice is not comprehensive, lacks transparency, and does not have a strong verification mechanism to ascertain the accuracy of what is declared.
In our study, we found that globally there is not one uniform system. But we identified some clear best practices that are shared by effective systems.
In countries where the asset declaration system is effective, usually the overarching objective is twofold: to detect conflict of interests and to detect illicit enrichment. The system is then supported by a clear legal framework that requires officials in all branches of government to declare their assets on an annual basis.
There should also be an effective and independent monitoring and verification mechanism to assure truthfulness of the declarations and detect irregularities. Non compliance must be dealt with stern sanctions.
And on top of all that, there must be public access to the declarations. Hiding them as secrets beats the purpose of making the declaration in the first place.
With all the attention given to the fight against corruption these days, it is important that we strengthen and improve our asset declaration mechanism too. Ministers, MPs and Senators must lead by taking the first step and parliament should form a special committee to handle the process. In our parliament, YB Rafizi Ramli (PKR-Pandan) has taken the first bold step and he deserves credit for that.
The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission has an important role to play too. They must be given the power to verify and monitor asset declarations as well as to cross check the information with other agencies like the Inland Revenue Board and Unit Perisikan Kewangan at Bank Negara.
Our review found that having an effective asset declaration system can help lower the level of corruption when coupled with public access and a solid verification mechanism. In an environment where public trust in politicians is low, initiating a better asset declaration system can only help improve the situation.
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Wan Saiful Wan Jan is chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (www.ideas.org.my)