Let’s do our part to help build Malaysia

Fixing the politics of money

My last column on regulating political financing placed me in the direct line of ire of readers and politicians. Salvos were shot through social media and bumping into friends would inevitably lead to robust exchanges.
Advocates and the like-minded lent their support, acknowledging the merits of regulation with calls to stop the bickering and politicising of issues. Clearly, Malaysians want to see the establishment of an accountable and transparent system that will bring to end the scourge of grand corruption. Steeped in the current climate of distrust, some also acknowledged – with palpable relief – the surge of voices airing concrete ideas on governance in political funding.

A prime example is Dato’ Ambiga Sreenevasan, former Bar Council President and civil rights advocate, who tweeted “Good article by @IdrisJala_ on reg. of political funding. Also need guidelines on conflict of interest which some leaders just don’t get.”

The barrage of criticisms, however, were more colourful! There were calls to “do your job and stay out of politics” and questions around whether I “…seriously believe this is political donation.”

Having sifted through these comments, I would like to address three recurring criticisms:

1. “Why are you getting involved in politics? Stick to economics”

I want to remind everyone under the National Transformation Programme led by PEMANDU, we first launched the Government Transformation Programme (GTP) in January 2010. The seven priority areas include the Anti-Corruption National Key Result Area (NKRA). Through consultation with subject matter experts and the general public including Opposition leaders, a framework was developed in 2009 to structure political financing in a clear, transparent and an accountable manner.

I have been emphatic about the need to institute a more transparent political financing system as it falls squarely under the ambit of grand corruption, an area the NKRA has vehemently sought to address.
Although introduced six years ago, it remains an objective and a very familiar challenge even today. KPIs must be met and I am not steering the ship away from my original coordinates.

2. “Your article ignores the elephant in the room – the RM2.6 billion donation”

If we had implemented our proposal as presented in 2010, we would not be grappling with issues percolating around the RM2.6 billion political donation. Whatever monies received by whichever party would have been receipted, audited and properly declared.

The Malaysia Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) in a statement issued on August 5 clarified that, “…the RM2.6 billion in the Prime Minister’s account is a donation contributed by certain parties.”

Say what you want but the black and white of it is as straightforward as this – political donations continue to stream into parties and individuals across the divide. Without regulations, funding as practiced today resides in a very grey area and sits uncomfortably with civil society.

To avoid tumbling down the slippery slope, consequently raising doubts and seeding distrust, there must be reforms that lead to greater transparency. As long as this opaque system pervades, it will always leave room for endless speculations.

3. “How can you blame Pakatan Rakyat for the current situation?”

To clear the air, my intention was never to assign blame but to create impetus for what must happen. The point I wanted to drive home was that the implementation of reforms should not be based on requisites. It merely has to be done!

The reality is that since 2010, not a single party has taken up our proposal. Five long years have passed since the clarion call for reform was sounded. Minister of Governance and Integrity in the Prime Minister’s Department, Dato’ Paul Low and his team have been campaigning for it, and yet no one from both sides took the lead, reducing the urgency for reform to mere contingencies and blame-games.

The recent announcement by the Prime Minister on the setting-up of the National Consultative Committee on Political Funding (JKNMPP) is an encouraging development. The Committee will be chaired by Low and with me as his deputy.

I propose for the committee to possibly comprise of government agencies and oversight committees, such as the Elections Commission, Registrar of Societies, MACC, Institute of Integrity Malaysia and Legal Affairs Division (PMO), and civil society such as Transparency International-Malaysia, Bar Council, IDEAS and youth groups.
There should be a representative from all political parties, including BN and the Opposition. This committee will play a big role in providing what is currently needed – a regulation on political financing to ensure accountability and transparency in all political practice.

I am often disheartened to see the rallying call for transparency and accountability tarred, misrepresented and politicised, with the sole objective of dividing society for political mileage.

Stop the laying of conditions and staging roadblocks to stunt the process for change. Instead let us work together to institute the right framework for political reform to hold politicians and their parties accountable.

Now that the Prime Minister has made a public announcement over the intent, it is our responsibility to collectively push for the right recommendations on the transformation of political financing to the new committee.
In an ideal setting, parties should voluntarily practice regulation for political funding. Any party just has to come forward and commit to follow these three rules:

  1. Political donations must be transferred to the account of the political party
  2. All transactions must be receipted
  3. Accounts must be audited and information on the donation made accessible to public

However, if it is done on a voluntary basis, what are the consequences should unethical actions arise? The public demands the security of knowing there are hard rules and enforcement in political financing.

My answer – a bill should be passed in Parliament to ensure rules are strictly adhered. Those who contravene the process will be penalised by law for non-compliance.

We are at a crossroad and we can choose to straighten our moral compass. Civil society expects greater accountability from their leaders, and it starts first with fixing the politics of funding.

I believe political parties are able to gain greater political capital from this move. The path ahead is clear so my call is simple – just do it.

Throwing Down the Gauntlet

Political donations is the current hot topic. Bombarded on a daily basis especially the last few weeks with one sensational revelation after another, the Malaysian news landscape has become a battle zone of politics, politicking and cries of corruption. Trying to separate the wheat from the chaff on what is fact and what is fiction grows more impossible as an incendiary public bays for blood. Every twist and turn of every word and action is relentlessly belaboured and angry commentaries harangue shared spaces, be it social media or social gatherings.

‎I consulted a senior legal expert for clarification on a few points of law concerning the issue of political donations. Generally, it is not illegal for anyone to donate money to political parties. Secondly, there is no law in our country that makes it illegal to remit political donations either into a bank account of an individual or a political party. However, it is illegal when donations are directly linked to corruption. Public money is prohibited from being channelled to political parties.

Six years ago, under the Government Transformation Programme (GTP), we wanted to tackle the ‘grey’ nature of political funding. In our Corruption lab, we searched for successful examples of political donations so that these can be done without linkage to corruption or abuse of public funds. To increase transparency and accountability, the GTP Roadmap recommended the following proposals based on global best practices:

  1. Financial donations to political parties should be made under the names of party accounts rather than individual accounts to ensure transparency and individual integrity
  2. Donations must be receipted so it is clear who are the donors
  3. The accounts of the political parties and the donors must be audited and made available for public disclosure

Many countries in the world have adopted similar rules to push for greater transparency and integrity. For example, in the U.K., every single donation to any political party is recorded by the Electoral Commission. Details of each donation can be seen on its website, including the amount donated and the identity of the donor. In the U.S.A, financial donations to political parties are made to accounts of parties and these amounts declared publicly. If you run a Google search, political donations for President Barack Obama’s last campaign totalling USD 1 billion is published with names of donors along with the amounts pledged.

Since 2010, we tried hard to convince both Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat to accept our recommendations. The NKRA conducted open days and roadshows to educate and engage the public and politicians on the way forward for political funding. But alas, there was little headway to be gained at that time.

In 2014, when for the second time our Prime Minister had called for the regulation of political financing, senior Barisan party members argued that to be fair, it should be implemented in tandem with Pakatan. We felt positive about this because at least one side (Barisan) accepted our proposal and the other side, Pakatan may perhaps have been keen to jump on this bandwagon given their stance on governance and transparency. Again, we ended up with no voluntary takers. Clearly, there was no appetite for such a reform at the time.

In retrospect, I believe if both parties had accepted the recommendations back in 2010, we would not be in the current conundrum, with the entire nation suffering a protracted political battle.‎

There is a silver lining to even the darkest skies. Let us allow investigations to continue so that the truth will be unveiled. We should all avoid jumping to conclusions. In the meantime, I applaud the statement made by our Prime Minister two weeks ago, for all political parties to declare their source of funds.

He has thrown the gauntlet. Just last week, Opposition has stated they are prepared to support the administration to regulate political funding.

I now urge all parties and politicians to cast aside their political and personal proclivities to accept our original proposal on political funding as laid out in the GTP.

Let it not require any further convincing – the reasons are compelling! I believe there is now a ground swell of public sentiments on the side of our proposal on political financing.

All parties should accept the GTP’s Anti-Corruption NKRA proposal wholesale without modification – lock, stock and barrel. This is the way forward to establish a new standard of transparency and integrity in politics – an action akin to building a huge wall to prevent corruption arising from political funding and abuse of public funds.

Let us not pussy-foot around what calls for courage and conviction. The trickery to lay conditions and requisitions as grounds to accept the call by the Prime Minister only backpedals efforts and holds ransom the solution towards transparency and accountability in political financing.

My team and I are ready to engage any party and assist in establishing an open and transparent system that will, as the Prime Minister had said,”…curb abuse by politicians who might use their positions to solicit money for personal use.”

Some of the recommendations we had put forward in 2012 include:

  1. Increasing transparency of all political funding by institutionalising clear guidelines and audit processes of all party accounts
  2. Enhancing legislations to regulate and govern political parties especially during election campaigns and their funding

If what has transpired in our country to date is anything to go by, we stand at a landmark tipping point for Malaysian politics.

To fellow Malaysians, we call upon you to support the transformation of political financing. Ask your elected representative to accept these recommendations as we once and for all collectively work to create a strong impetus for more transparency and higher standard of integrity for political donations.

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