Ideas: Push for more transparent political funding

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THERE has been a lot of negative press surrounding politicians lately. We had the recent uproar with a no-show from Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak at PWTC, which subsequently led to former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s unceremonious removal from the rostrum as he tried to speak to the crowd on issues facing the problematic government-owned company 1Malaysia Development Berhad.

Add to this, the big tug-of-war between PAS president Datuk Seri Hadi Awang and DAP strongman Lim Kit Siang over the status of their relationship in the Pakatan Rakyat coalition.

In politics, intense public scrutiny is often focused on the politicians but not nearly enough on the political parties themselves. Though Najib, Dr Mahathir, 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. It is the political party that provides the main platform and funding, especially for less well-known politicians.

As California 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 than the actual candidates, although the latter receive 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 private interests trump a free and fair democratic process.

Voters in Malaysia have no access to information on how these parties are financed, which means there is no visibility on whom the political leaders may possibly owe political favours to. This may have a serious impact on the interests of political leaders. Although they would need to secure votes from a large majority in upcoming elections, they would also need to secure large funds 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 included the adoption of a political financing governance framework while  Transparency International Malaysia (TI-Malaysia) has 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 they 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 Commission (EC) rather than the Registrar of Societies (ROS), the rationale being that the EC — whose members are appointed by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong — 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 better regulate political parties. Parties would also have to disclose the sources of their revenue and donations, and this provision would be supplemented by a Political Parties Act.

A similar practice already occurs in the UK, where parties register under the Electoral Commission. Parties also have to submit independently audited accounts to the commission on an annual basis. In some instances, the 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, 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 such as the UK’s is something we could 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 support it come together on a cross-partisan basis to endorse a political financing act as this would benefit Malaysia’s democracy and truly be welcomed by the rakyat.

US five-star general and war hero Douglas MacArthur said: "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."

Our political leaders should show some real leadership across party lines. Only genuine sincerity and leadership in politics can make this reform happen.


Shaza Onn is senior researcher in political economy and governance at the Institute for  Democracy and Economic Affairs

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on June 15 - 21, 2015.