Muhyiddin graft charges bring political funding issues to light

Kenneth Cheng Chee Kin

The prosecution of Bersatu president Muhyiddin Yassin for receiving donations from a business tycoon reveals the flaws in our political funding system and its regulation. – The Malaysian Insight file pic, March 19, 2023.

REGARDLESS of your opinions on the recent prosecution of Muhyiddin Yassin, the former prime minister did have a point in saying there is nothing wrong with a political party accepting any amount of donation.

The question is, therefore, whether Muhyiddin, acting as the prime minister and Bersatu president, abused his power in accepting a cheque of RM200 million from Bukhary Equity Sdn Bhd, owned by business tycoon Syed Mokhtar Albukhary and his wife Sharifah Zarah Syed Kechik.

Muhyiddin now has to justify that the political donation is not tainted with any unsavoury “favours”.

If these are proven to indeed be harmless donations, this gives rise to another question: Is it politically justifiable for a party to accept handouts from millionaires?

Or are we to believe these donations do not come with conditions and donors expect nothing in return?

If there ever were an ideal democracy, we would want our political parties to be financed entirely by membership subscriptions.

But no democracy achieves this ideal, never mind Malaysia’s democracy that is very much a work in progress.

According to a report, “Political Party Finance Reform in Southeast-Asia”, annual membership subscriptions only accounted for 2% of PKR’s income. Most of its income was derived from salary deductions from elected legislators (both federal and state) and fundraising events.

I suspect this is the case for most other political parties where expanding its membership was not seen to be a main source of income.

The wealth of the grand old coalition Barisan Nasional is arguably rosier because of its over 60 years of political dominance.

It is no secret that Umno and MCA possess property and shares in various companies that help generate income for political activities.

Unfortunately, this is another political practice that is perhaps democratically undesirable, because business interest might hold undue influence on politics.

A property-owning political party that holds power might be compromised in making policies, aiming to protect their own interests rather than that of the public.

It is an inescapable fact that political parties usually kowtow to their largest donors, and this is by no means a phenomenon that exists only in Malaysia.

In the 1970s, trade union funding comprised 92% of the Labour Party’s central income in the United Kingdom, while half of the opposing conservative party’s income came from private company donations.

The former was seen to be more sympathetic to working class and industrial actions at the time while the latter focused on tax cuts for corporations.

It should be obvious that when big corporations and wealthy people in Malaysia make generous contributions to political parties, they are making an investment for political favours.

Worse still, if what Bersatu Youth chief Wan Fayhsal Wan Ahmad Kamal said is true, that Bersatu is not the only party Syed Mokhtar Albukhary has donated to.

This means wealthy donors in Malaysia are practising an investment strategy of not putting all their eggs into one basket.

At this moment, the easiest way to tackle this issue is to introduce a policy that mandates political parties to publicise their accounts.

Most importantly, the political party would have to disclose the name of their donors and the size of their donations.

This is a crucial reform because if the public knew beforehand that a company under Syed Mokhtar made a huge donation to Bersatu under Muyhiddin’s administration, it would have scrutinised the government more closely.

Likewise, the government would have had to think twice before granting any favours to political donors for fear of public backlash.

The best reform for our political financing system is comprehensive public funding, where political parties are directly subsidised by the state for their activities.

However, this might be a policy impossible to implement, given Malaysians’ perennial scepticism towards politicians.

But just like death and taxes, political parties are essential to parliamentary democracy. Ideally, parties would no longer need to solicit money from the people or big corporations, nor would they need to own property or shares to generate income.

I think that is already an upgrade from the current conditions, and reason enough for us to give this policy a try. – March 18, 2023.

* Kenneth Cheng has always been interested in the interplay between human rights and government but more importantly he is a father of two cats, Tangyuan and Toufu. When he is not attending to his feline matters, he is most likely reading books about politics and human rights or playing video games. He is a firm believer in the dictum “power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will”.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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