OCTOBER 7 — The National Consultative Committee on Political Financing’s recommendations on the regulation of political funding in Malaysia are excellent. They appear quite thorough; banning foreign donations, requiring the public disclosure of donations above a certain sum (RM3,000), and prohibiting state-owned enterprises, including government-linked corporations, from making contributions to politicians or political parties.

Some of the recommendations seem ambitious and over-reaching, such as setting a 30-day deadline for the reporting of donations and automatically triggering anti-corruption laws if they’re submitted late.

The law should allow some leeway for late submissions; political parties or politicians can be punished with a small fine instead. Asking for disclosures every month would also require far more resources than asking for, say, quarterly reports.

However, by and large, the committee’s proposals are generally good for improving the transparency of political funding in Malaysia.

It would serve the public interest well if the Controller, or the agency in charge of monitoring political parties’ financial activities, published the amount of donations to parties and the identities of their top donors online in simple graphics, like the UK’s Electoral Commission.

Publicly disclosing donation amounts and the names of donors will also help control political parties’ spending as they can’t be spending more than the contributions they reported. So, removing the limit on party or candidate spending wouldn’t matter so much because all expenditure is supposed to be accounted for.

However, Pakatan Harapan has some valid concerns. Serdang MP Dr Ong Kian Ming from the DAP expressed fears that the proposed Political Donations and Expenditure Act (PDEA) and the Controller’s office could be abused to victimise the Opposition in an already unequal playing field. Such concerns, including the worry that the Barisan Nasional (BN) government may victimise pro-Opposition businesses, are valid considering how laws like the Sedition Act 1948 are used against Opposition lawmakers.

Government procurements are also generally opaque, while independent institutions like the Election Commission (EC) have lost their credibility due to repeated allegations of gerrymandering and BN’s purported abuse of state resources during election campaigning. Not to mention the perceptions of bias when it comes to the police, the Attorney-General’s Office, and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission.

So there’s a huge trust deficit in the government.

BN must address these concerns if it wants to push through legislation on political financing. The government shouldn’t just say that the Opposition must first agreeto a better political funding system before it will enact new laws.

BN never had any problems bulldozing through the National Security Council Act 2016 and amendments to the Sedition Act despite vociferous protests from the Opposition. So the government can just as easily enact and pass a good piece of legislation to regulate political funding if it is sincere about reform, even if the Opposition disagrees.

What the government should do is to address valid concerns instead of blaming the Opposition if nothing eventually gets done, which appears likely since BN leaders keep throwing the ball into the Opposition’s court (even though they don’t have the numbers to stop a Bill in Parliament).

What are politicians scared of?

We citizens want to know who donates to political parties, across the board, and how much they get so that the wool isn’t pulled over our eyes.

Such information will allow voters to make more informed choices at the ballot box, as they can decide whether or not they want to back a party funded by certain businesses that would likely influence the party’s policy decisions in government.

The political financing committee’s recommendations will ultimately empower the people.

Pakatan should be open to the regulation of political funding if they’re really committed to reform.

Yes, the country could do with a million and one reforms like asset declarations, a federal Freedom of Information Act, and anti-discrimination legislation, just to name a few, but change can only happen one step at a time because of limited resources.

The political financing committee’s recommendations are good, thorough and shouldn’t be wholly rejected merely because of fears that the law can be abused. Implementation can be strict and rigorous, strengthened by the necessary check and balance, to address such fears. 

There’s no need to throw the baby out with the bath water.

Malaysian politics can never change if politicians are set in the old ways of doing things to preserve self-interest. The courage to do the right thing, even at the expense of one’s personal interest, is what’s needed to take this country forward.

The system can’t change if everyone settles for keeping it, while merely getting rid of certain players. That’s not reform. 

We can’t just stop the wheel from rolling on and crushing the people beneath as elite personalities at the top change, but continue abusing the same system.

We need to break the wheel.