Though election talk saturates the air, there is one critical dimension of the electoral process that has not received the attention it deserves from both politicians and the general public. This is the financing of the fourteenth General Election which is just around the corner.

Who is funding the Barisan Nasional? Who is funding the Pakatan Harapan?  Where does PAS get its funds from? Are there more business corporations than individual citizens involved in electoral financing? Are foreign elements also in the game?

We know so little about the funding of elections in Malaysia partly because existing laws are woefully inadequate.   The Election Offences Act 1954 does prohibit bribery and corrupt practices during election campaigns and sets limits on campaign spending for every candidate, RM 200,000 for a parliamentary seat and RM 100,000 for a state seat. However the Act does not govern spending by a political party as an entity. Political parties which come under the Societies Act (1960) are required to submit their audited financial statement to the Registrar of Societies (RoS) but they do not have to reveal the sources of their donations.

Because there is so little transparency and accountability in relation to donations and political financing as a whole, suspicion has grown over the years about the influence of money upon elections. If policies are skewed in favour of the upper stratum of society, is it because of the donations that big companies make to certain political parties? If the profits of well-connected developers appear to take precedence over the welfare of the poor or the well-being of the environment is it because of the funds that they channel to political parties and politicians?  If a certain politician is able to mobilise more support than his opponent in intra-party elections is it because he is able to buy the votes of his fellow members? Isn’t it true that money politics has made some politicians susceptible to manipulation by foreign entities and agencies pursuing their own agenda vis-à-vis our country?

From the earliest years of Merdeka, the malign impact of money upon politics and power has been raised by various groups and individuals in Malaysia. In the fifties and sixties, opposition parties such as Parti Negara, Parti Rakyat, the Labour Party and the Islamic Party (PAS) criticised what they perceived as the Alliance’s abuse of money to win elections and its alleged link to business.  From the seventies onwards, parties like the Democratic Action Party (DAP), Pekemas, Parti Keadilan Rakyat  and Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) have continued to berate the  Barisan Nasional for its alleged subservience to capital and moneyed interests. But the issue of political financing is not their primary concern. Ethnic rights and interests, political freedom, economic disparities and other such issues are their foci.

In the seventies and eighties, there were very few civil society groups and how political parties funded themselves was not one of their main preoccupations. The social reform group, Aliran which I helmed in those years was an exception of sorts and tried to instil awareness about the nexus between politics and money through a modest campaign to persuade candidates in the 1978 General Election to declare their assets and liabilities to the people. Only two political leaders, one from PAS and the other from the DAP, responded positively. Some years later I joined hands with four other human rights advocates to establish ‘Election Watch’ which sought to monitor the 1990 General Election. How money impacted upon the polls was one of its remits.

Today, the number of groups committed to exposing the link between money and politics has expanded. This, and the increasing severity of the politics of money within parties and in the contest between parties in the last three decades have convinced the power holders that they should address the scourge. In fact, in 2009 Prime Minister Dato Sri Najib  Razak proposed reform of Malaysia’s political financing system. A Parliamentary Select Committee ( PSC) on Electoral Reform was subsequently established which among other things,  suggested that the possibility of creating a publicly administered common fund for financing elections be explored. The PSC’s report was adopted by Parliament in 2012.

Three years later, in August 2015, a Consultative Committee on Political Financing was formed comprising representatives from various sectors of society with the goal of enhancing accountability, transparency and integrity in political financing. The Committee came up with a number of feasible proposals in August 2016, among them the creation of a new Political Donation and Expenditure Act (PDEA). The PDEA would provide for an independent Controller who would monitor all donations and keep tabs on all expenditure “without fear or favour.”  A board comprising “credible and trusted figures with no active politicians” should oversee the Controller. On top of it, the Consultative Committee has   recommended that a Parliamentary Standing Committee on political financing be established which will scrutinise the work of the Controller. It should be chaired by a member of the Opposition.

A civil society group, G 25, has also made some worthwhile recommendations on strengthening transparency and accountability in political financing. Apart from enacting a Political Parties Act, it has proposed contribution and expenditure limits; protecting the Election Commission’s autonomy and impartiality; providing balanced access to public funding for all political parties and election candidates; and regulating private funding of politics. In the run-up to GE 14, citizens should form study-groups to discuss these and other proposals.

Our people should do more than that. As voters they should ask all parliamentary candidates whatever their affiliation to state in writing whether they are prepared to support the PDEA. It should not be difficult to get in touch with the candidates in one’s own constituency. With all the new modes of communication available, every voter or a few voters acting in unison should be able to pose this simple question about the PDEA to the candidates vying for their support. We as voters and citizens want our elected representatives to transform the proposed Political Donation and Expenditure Act (PDEA) into law because we are convinced that it will contribute immensely towards enhancing accountability and ensuring that integrity is the hallmark of our nation.

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