asset declarationNOVEMBER 24 — It is strange that Pakatan Harapan (PH) has yet to adopt a formal stance on asset declarations, with the DAP even expressing reluctance, when corruption is their main campaign issue for the 14th general elections.

No DAP or Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) incumbent lawmakers participated in Invoke’s asset declaration campaign that saw 26 Opposition politicians, mostly Members of Parliament and state assemblymen, publicly declaring on Invoke’s website their net worth, assets, liabilities, income sources and monthly expenditure.

Invoke’s campaign is refreshing and much-needed, with many details on readable asset declaration forms (though IC numbers should perhaps be redacted).

The 26 Opposition politicians who declared their assets to Invoke are richer than the average Malaysian. Half of them are millionaires on paper (only one MP has more than RM1 million in cash), while the rest had a net worth ranging from RM124,000 to RM4.7 million. The average Malaysian adult’s wealth this year, in contrast, is RM94,055.

Many of the federal and state lawmakers also owned at least two properties and at least two vehicles. Twenty-five of the 26 politicians owned foreign-made cars.

There is nothing wrong with being a rich politician.

Politicians could have outside employment or had lucrative jobs before entering public office in their 50s or 60s. That age group tends to be wealthier than youths. And the majority of Malaysian lawmakers and politicians are in that age group.

Wealth should not be equated with corruption. If anything, an independently wealthy person running for office would have the power to follow their constituents’ wishes, instead of being tied to financial backers who want them to vote on Bills a certain way, or to make certain policies.

One of the ways to uncover (or to prevent) corruption, of course, is through periodic asset declarations. But asset declarations are also necessary to know how lawmakers may be influenced to act or vote on Bills a certain way. This may have nothing to do with corruption, but it is all about transparency and accountability.

Election candidates should declare their assets too. It is important for voters to know as much as possible about election candidates so that they know what interests their aspiring representative is aligned to.

For instance, if I know that my candidate has shares in a construction company that is planning to build a condominium in my neighbourhood by destroying part of a park, I will not vote for that person.  

It is unfair to expect voters to simply cast their ballots for candidates who blithely promise to “fight corruption” or to ensure “stability”, but refuse to give thorough details on their background.

Backbencher MPs or state assemblymen who do not hold any government positions should also be required to declare their assets or any financial interests that could influence them.

It is ridiculous of DAP MPs like Teo Nie Ching and Teresa Kok to claim that backbenchers do not have to declare their assets because they supposedly lack power.  

Backbencher MPs or assemblymen may not have the authority to approve projects or licenses, but that does not mean they are not powerful. They have the power to make laws that affect our lives.

And constituents have the right to know any financial interests pushing lawmakers to act, to vote on Bills, or to speak in the House a certain way.

For example, if an MP owns a business and employs workers, she may have voted against the Employment Insurance System (EIS) Bill that provides retrenched workers temporary financial assistance through deductions from both employer and employee.

There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, I do not support the Bill myself because it doesn’t benefit me and I had asked my MP Lim Lip Eng (DAP-Segambut) to vote against it. But I don’t know how he voted.  

In the UK, MPs must register any financial interest that can be perceived to influence their words or actions as an MP. The Register is updated online every two weeks during sitting periods and about once a month at other times.

In the US, the president, vice president, members of Congress, federal judges, presidential appointees, and other public officials and employees earning at or above a certain pay-scale or with policy-making responsibilities are required to disclose financial information every year. All three branches of the federal government — the executive, legislature and judiciary — must provide detailed financial disclosure.

And lest we think that asset declarations is only a Western practice, election candidates who are running for office in Parliament or in a state legislature in India are also required to declare their assets. The declarations are available online for voters to see.

There is a similar practice for candidates contesting elections to local self-governing bodies in certain states in India. MPs and members of state legislators are also required to declare their and their dependents’ assets annually after winning an election.

I would argue that periodic asset declarations should also be mandatory for senior civil servants above a certain pay grade. Besides the prime minister/chief minister, Cabinet members/state executive councillors, and MPs/state assemblymen, judges too must declare their assets.

Asset declarations should come hand-in-hand with the disclosure of donations or gifts received, including the amount and donor identity. One British MP declared the price of lunch and dinner for himself and his wife that a donor had paid for during a visit to Italy to discuss Brexit with Italian parliamentarians.

There is no such thing as privacy for lawmakers and public officials, who hold such immense power over various aspects of our lives in a heavily centralised country. If they can’t be transparent with us, why should we give them the mandate to dictate policy?

It is no secret that the long-ruling Barisan Nasional is against pro-democracy reforms like asset declarations or local council elections.

But if PH is angling its GE14 campaign on corruption, then it should behave differently and promote more structural reforms like asset declarations, rather than harping on a global financial scandal.

Credit, of course, must be given to Selangor and Penang for requiring their executive councillors to declare their assets (though the latest information online is from 2014 and 2013 respectively). Selangor Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Azmin Ali also has yet to publicly declare his assets.

But this is not enough. Politicians must go further to educate voters that such information is out there, to do the asset declaration exercise regularly (every two years perhaps) and to expand it to the legislature, judiciary and civil servants.