THE recent spate of investigations — and demands for other investigations — into the campaign spending of political parties and the wealth of individual politicians once again highlights the importance of political finance reform.
It is entirely right, of course, for the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC), Royal Malaysian Police, Attorney General, and the judiciary to identify, prosecute and judge those who have engaged in corruption. And it is commendable that these institutions have made some progress — for it is still ongoing — in relation to 1MBD.
But it is crucial that these institutions are seen to be independent, acting on evidence and prosecuting in the interests of the nation, not in the interests of political leaders who happen to be in power. Sadly, a growing impression is that such investigations are motivated by revenge and the desire to exclude people from power. This has been further contrasted by the controversial appointments of other people into positions of power and influence. (And once again we see how political allegiances make principled people invoke squirmy arguments in their defence.)
Meanwhile, Malaysia’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI) score just took another hit, scoring 47 in 2022, down from 53 in 2019, and ranking as the 61st cleanest country in the world. (Meanwhile, Singapore ranks fifth with a score of 83.)
Political financing is an important part of the solution because it will subject all political parties, whether in government or opposition, to similar measures of transparency, disclosure and scrutiny. The Private Member’s Bill introduced last July by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Political Financing — of which the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas) was secretariat — requires all political parties to declare their funding sources to an independent commission.
It also sets a cap on donations from individuals and companies; bans donations from government-linked companies (GLCs), statutory bodies, and foreign governments; and gives bonuses for parties with more women elected representatives. But the main innovation is the public funding of political parties, based on how many votes the parties (or rather their candidates) receive in elections. This will all be overseen through a new Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) and independent Commission on Political Financing.
At the same time, the MACC’s independence can be much upgraded. As advocated by Ideas together with the Malaysian Bar and others since 2015, this can be done by ensuring the security of tenure of commissioners, and having a separate body to govern on policy matters (apart from the work of investigation, implementation and enforcement). Furthermore, the powers of prosecution should also be independent; thus, reform of the Attorney General’s roles is another key component: thankfully, the separation between legal advisor to the government and public prosecutor seems to be underway.
The National Anti-Corruption Plan (NACP) launched in 2019 targeted the introduction of political financing legislation by the end of 2020 and a PSC for the MACC by the end of 2023. This commitment was made by a coalition government consisting of parties that are part of the current government. Unfortunately both targets were removed when the NACP underwent a mid-term review in 2021: both should be reinstated.
On much of this, we worked (and continue cooperation) with Transparency International Malaysia, co-founded in 1998 by Tunku Abdul Aziz Ibrahim, who passed away on Feb 7. In the early days of Ideas we valued his opinions on anti-corruption and ethics since he had served with many international organisations including the World Bank and the United Nations where he also served as a special advisor to the Secretary General.
He divided opinion by joining DAP in 2008, but then quit in 2012 and became one of its ferocious critics. In 2011, he asked me to launch a book written by his brother Tunku Muszaffar Shah, ‘Memali: A Policeman Remembers’, which provides a fascinating snapshot in the story of how religion has been abused by politicians — some still around! — for decades. In return, he spoke at Ideas’ second anniversary when he showed us his father’s diary entry recording the birth of a distant cousin, Tunku Abdul Rahman, who would become Prime Minister.
Years later we had a minor tussle when he learned of an attempt to get me involved in politics. He was pleased that I had rejected a “constitutionally dangerous proposal” but criticised me for listing six other sons of Rulers who had entered party politics (including his distant cousin). Later on, we disagreed about the objectives and tactics of the Bersih movement.
Disagreeing with people you respected is an important sign of maturity, but I hope my friends in civil society will agree that his contributions over the decades to the institutions and policies relating to anti-corruption and ethics far outweigh these misalignments.
Tunku Zain Al-‘Abidin is founding president of Ideas.