If only political funding reform was sexy

By Andrew Sia

Sia urges you consider the importance of political funding. He asks if our politicians really represent our interests, or the interests of the tycoons – the developers & the corporate taikos, who made vast donations to the politicians.

Political funding reform may seem like a boring topic, unlike spicy and sexy stuff like the leaked audio bromance and the Sandakan hotel sodomy video. And of course, racial/religious issues like Zakir Naik always get us hot and bothered.

But political funding may be much more important than these melodramas. It’s a crucial topic to determine if our politicians really represent our interests – or that of tycoons who have “donated” to them. We get hung up about voting for the “right” politicians during elections, but what policies do they pursue after we give them a blank cheque once every five years? After all, if money talks, big money shouts and it may then become hard for our politicians to hear us.

How do developers, tycoons and corporate bigwigs influence our politicians? One way is by donating to charitable foundations (yayasan) linked to our dear Yang Berhormats, as revealed in a recent seminar by the Center to Combat Corruption and Cronyism (C4). For example, according to public records, well-known companies have donated millions to the Muhyiddin Yassin “Charity Golf Foundation”. ) Was it purely out of snowy white sincerity to do charity? Or is there another agenda?

You may shrug, “aiya, this is the cost of doing business la”, which basically means that you accept corruption. But if you are angry over politicians who have frog jumped, you may want to keep reading.

During the C4 seminar, Terence Gomez explained that his team was “shocked” at the number of “yayasan” used for political purposes. He described it as a “shadow world” of enormous “dark money” used to finance parties, and which contributed to corruption. He recounted how the crucial 2013 election was awash with money (to influence voters), as Barisan Nasional strived to regain seats lost in the 2008 political tsunami.

“We asked where all this money was coming from? We found out two years later, it came from 1MDB,” said Gomez. (listen to the seminar here https://fb.watch/4RpPzBM0ey/, starting from minute 32)

What his team could uncover was “only the tip of the iceberg” and much more probably remains hidden. This is because there is no law that forces foundations to publicly disclose where their money comes from, or where it goes to. Gomez asked, is this the source of the “serious money” being allegedly used to get some politicians to party hop?

Political funding laws

One way to stop this is to pass political funding laws. In fact, this was promised in the Pakatan Harapan manifesto with steps including 1) political donations must be from verified sources, 2) annual audits, and 3) limits to party funds.

There was some talk of enacting a Political Financing Act in the early days after the great victory of May 2018. But it seemed half forgotten later amidst other dramas like Jawi-khat and, of course, the Great Power Transition (Mahathir to Anwar). In fact, Gomez lamented that Harapan politicians have resisted such reforms since 2008. So has money influenced them?

There is a place like Bukit Gasing called the Shah Alam Community Forest, but it’s even better, with several “mirror lakes”. It’s wildly popular with hikers and people want to preserve it. (https://www.malaysiakini.com/columns/543292)

Yet the Harapan Selangor state government seems strangely insistent on chopping it down. Even worse, at a public hearing to hear residents’ objections, MBSA (Shah Alam City Council) barred journalists from reporting on it, going against the state’s own Freedom of Information Enactment 2011. )

Selangor also wants to destroy the Kuala Langat North Forest Reserve (KLNFR). During the public hearing over this, assemblyperson Elizabeth Wong asked, “Who stands to benefit from this? Will Menteri Besar Incorporated get this land cheap? And will a ‘syarikat ali baba’ buy this land before selling it to the developers?” )

So what is going on? Many of us voted for Harapan, believing them to be the “better” and “cleaner” choice. But does it seem that the honeyed whispers of developers are becoming louder than the cries of voters? (https://www.malaysiakini.com/columns/543576) Or is it because the Selangor menteri besar was once part of the “Azmin cartel”?

Hannah Yeoh, the only politician who turned up for the C4 seminar, recalled, “I had to do all kinds of fundraising (to service voters). But some MPs never had to. I wonder where they got their money from?” Businesspersons also offer to pay salaries of MP’s staff in exchange for some favours, like licences, she noted. And thus, compromises begin.

“When the MPs can’t deliver, they will be voted out at the next elections. So they are under huge pressure to jump,” said Yeoh. “If we want to fix defections, we have to fix political financing.”

‘Dark money’

Wong Chen, the PKR MP for Subang wrote in 2017 that many politicians from both sides of the divide (including Harapan) justify the “I scratch your back, you scratch mine” culture by claiming they are raising money for their political parties’ struggles, ironically for a “better Malaysia”. They argue that it’s okay to “engage in corrupt practices to raise money to win elections, and only then finally, can we bring about political change.” )

Rather than all this dubious “dark money” infecting politicians, a key reform is for transparent funding from the government. For example, Bersih 2.0 has proposed that the government allocate RM130 million to fund political parties (about 0.05% of our national budget) to reduce influence from private donations. ) The RM130 million suggested by Bersih may look like a lot, but if it can prevent mega scandals like 1MDB (RM42 billion lost), it’s a fantastic bargain.

It may seem outrageous that public funds are used to support politicians. But I remember how Mohamad Sabu used to explain why his party was collecting donations from his ceramah audience – being publicly funded, they would then represent the people’s interests as “wakil rakyat”, rather than be “wakil towkay”. (https://www.malaysiakini.com/columns/500935)

Another crucial reform is that private donations must be limited and made transparent. Gomez revealed that a political financing law has already been drafted. The only thing missing is the will to push for it, which is why voters have to keep bugging politicians about it.

Political funding reform is not a sexy topic, unlike the soap opera at Umno’s PAU (general assembly) or the latest leaked audio. But money in politics will kill Malaysia and that’s why it must be controlled.

It’s a disease that infects both sides and there may come a time when there’s little difference (in substance) between Perikatan and Harapan. As the G25 group of Malay luminaries said, “As everyone knows, money politics lies at the root of all the big corruption scandals in the country.”

We need only look at the United States to see how money from special interests has long captured both Republicans and Democrats there, which is why government policies favour corporate bigwigs rather than ordinary citizens.

And so, unlike other advanced nations, the US lacks basic public healthcare, charges extortionate prices for medicine and can’t enact gun controls despite multiple mass shootings. That’s why half of Americans don’t vote – because they see no hope for real change on either side.

A democracy is about “a government of the people, by the people, for the people.” But if we fail to control the epidemic of dark money in Malaysian politics, we will become a Dollar-cracy – “a government of the money, by the money, for the money.”

(The views expressed are those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the views of Rebuilding Malaysia.)

Sia’s article was first published in Malaysiakini, at this link.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Andrew-Sia-caving-at-Merapoh-near-Gua-Musang-in-Kelante.jpg
Andrew Sia is a bio-journalist with 25 years experience at The Star, covering the environment, adventure travel, social issues and the arts. He used to write the column called Teh Tarik and is now channeling that caffeine into another column for Malaysiakini. He can be contacted at tehtarik@gmail.com.

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