Malaysia has taken small steps towards eradicating money politics but still has a long way to catch up with its Asian neighbours.
Two weeks later, Transparency International Malaysia (TI-M) waged its own battle against political patronage and graft with the introduction of an Election Integrity Pledge.
When taken at face value, it appeared that Malaysia was finally beginning to edge closer towards ending its money-riddled political culture.
But the reality was that both Najib’s intiatives and TI-M’s pledge could be as feeble as the institutions they aimed to assist because neither would be made into legislation.
And with that, Malaysia would have barely budged from where it was found to be during a decade-old research on political financing reforms and anti-corruption strategies.
In 2001, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) and the Council for Asian Liberals and Democrats (CALD) carried out its research in eight countries – Malaysia, Cambodia, Indonesia, Nepal, Taiwan, the Philippines, South Korea and Thailand.
The findings concluded that South Korea and Thailand had the most detailed and stringent regulations for curbing money politics while Malaysia, Cambodia and the Philippines were lacking in this area.
Back then, the Thai Constitution had just introduced new party and election laws that revolved around disclosure of political funds. All party officials were required to declare personal assets and liabilities to the Election Commission of Thailand (ECT) and annual party audits had to be made available to the public.
The ECT was hailed for its fearlessness in demonstrating authority by requesting the dissolution of political parties that broke these laws, fining parties for accepting illegal donations and nabbing hundreds of party officials who failed to declare assets and liabities.
And despite the ECT recently buckling to political pressure, Thai political observers noted that its confidence was slowly soaring again with the emergence and backing of civil society groups.
A lot less could be said for Malaysia’s Election Commission (EC) which had continued to receive a steady drubbing for being toothless, partisan and dismissive of civil society recommendations.
So weak was its position that when TI-M listed its proposed political financing reforms last year, three involved enhancing the EC’s autonomy and independence.
EC needs stronger powers
“The EC must be given stronger powers to go beyond vigilance and into enforcement,” insisted Ramon Navaratnam, a prominent economist and director of the Asian Strategic Leadership Institute (ASLI).
“There must be some form of prosecution within the EC because if that aspect is left to the police then it becomes a rigmarole.”
Even EC deputy chairman Wan Ahmad Wan Omar agreed that the electoral body needed adequate authority under the law to deal with money politics during elections.
“If the EC is empowered with proper legislation and authority to combat illegal practices relating to political financing, the task of ensuring transparency at all levels will be easier,” he said during a TI-M conference on political financing in November 2009.
Political Parties Act
Another political financing reform mooted by TI-M was for Malaysia to emulate South Korea in enacting a Political Parties Act.
The Act required political parties to register with the National Election Commission unlike Malaysia where the parties were registered under the Registrar of Societies (ROS).
“Absolutely,” Ramon stated. “All political parties should be registered under the EC. It’s supposed to be independent so let it exercise its independence.”
“But I don’t see a need for a Political Parties Act when those regulations can fall under the EC. There are too many bloody laws right now and we don’t have enough enforcers to see them all through.”
Where Malaysia should emulate South Korea, Ramon said, was in the enactment of a Political Fund Act which includes provisions on fundraising, expenditures and party reporting.
Universiti Malaya academic Edmund Terence Gomez, however, backed the enactment of a Political Parties Act which he pointed out has been discussed under the National Key Result Areas (NKRA).
But he cautioned that what was more important than the enactment is that the Act be given real bite.
“You may have the Act but we have not yet seen a devolution of power to the ground where the EC is autonomous and independent,” he said.
In November 2002, South Korea then introduced the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) which raised the contribution limits for individuals.
Accompanying this Act was a list of prohibited donors including federal government contractors, corporations and unions. Ramon fully approved of this.
“Removing political parties from businesses could get us benchmarked to a developed nation status,” he said. “I’m not saying that there is no corruption there but at least the public is aware that a legislation exists.”
The closest Malaysia might get to South Korea was an inclusion under Najib’s proposed initative that prohibited federal and state government entities and statutory authorities from allowing any party member who was an office-bearer on their tender board.
But this requirement did not impress Ramon who pointed out how easily it could be circumvented.
“I don’t need to be on the tender board when there is a whole range of other avenues like permits, licences and approvals available,” he stated.
“And I can always enlist a colleague in securing a project. What is more important than the tender board is the real source of funds and this is where transparency comes in again.”
Providing daily statement
Gomez, meanwhile, pushed for such a legislation to encompass parties and candidates especially since only the latter was required to reveal their expenditure after an election.
“This means the party can spend freely with the confidence that its accounts will not be checked,” he said. “And here lies the abuse of funds.”
“Parties must provide a daily statement on their expenditure during an election. It’s really not too much to ask considering that a campaign period is only two weeks at the most.”
While the NDI-CALD research hailed Thailand and South Korea for their stringent laws, it was the then emerging Taiwan that won a standing ovation.
The research also singled out Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) as the “richest with examples of internal party reforms” which paid off at the ballot box in the 2001 presidential election.
The DPP shattered the ruling Kuomintang’s (KMT) hold on the parliamentary majority for the first time in history that year, prompting the KMT to roll out its own party reforms.
This would hardly surprise Gomez who had long stressed that internal money politics has to be nipped before any national transformation can take place.
Then in March 2004, the Legislative Yuan (a law-making court) passed the Political Donations Law.
The bill was branded a significant step in the fight against political corruption for limiting political contributions to election seasons and requiring campaign finances to be made transparent.
Even more significant perhaps was the manner in which both ruling and opposition lawmakers set aside their partisan interests and compromised on key points to pass the bill just two days before the March presidential elections.
By the time Taiwan went to the polls this January, the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) was calling its elections the “envy of Asia” for upholding democratic principles.
Mature electorate, honest media
But Ramon pointed out that a democracy and the fight against money politics needed more than just legislative reforms. It also needed a mature electorate and an honest media.
“Nothing is foolproof,” he said. “The only thing closest to being foolproof is an intelligent, sophisticated electorate, and a lively, perceptive and honest media. But unfortunately we don’t have either yet.
“An honest media is especially important because apart from exposing candidates who are flouting electoral rules, it will also give voters their biggest sovereign right – the right to vote freely and according to their conscience.”