Time for political funding law

Lim Chee Han

Muhyiddin Yassin is the second former prime minister to be charged over dubious funding sources. – The Malaysian Insight file pic, March 20, 2023.

FORMER prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin is accused of bribery and laundering more than RM230 million.

It is another eye-opener, although nothing compared to the court cases of another former prime minister, Najib Razak, who allegedly embezzled US$681 million (RM3 billion).

Muhyiddin was in office when the alleged crimes took place. Najib has been convicted of some of the charges.

People should be worried about money politics and how political funding can influence or determine election outcomes.

Najib’s money extended his tenure as prime minister in the 2013 general election; Muhyiddin’s may have led to a better-than-expected result in the last polls

Is Bersatu alone to be blamed? Hardly, which is why Muhyiddin’s ex-aide Marzuki Mohamad has called on the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission to examine PKR and DAP’s books to show that the Bersatu president is not the victim of selective prosecution.

There are three broad ways in which a political party can raise funds: grassroots fundraising, private donations from vested interests (usually big donors), and public funding.

At present, there is no public funding for political parties in Malaysia.

Many established parties would do better in grassroots fundraising through membership fees and various forms of crowdfunding.

Newly formed parties would find it difficult to achieve a critical mass of support.

For all the benefits of a participatory democracy and the hard work that goes into grassroots fundraising, it may not be enough to pay for a political party’s day-to-day expenses (salaries, utility bills and rent), issue-based campaigns, policy research and advocacy, and, ultimately, its election machinery. 

Most political parties are unlikely to immediately refuse private donations from vested interests. There are no laws or regulations to monitor this inflow of money, unless the authorities are prompted to investigate suspected wrongdoing.

Interest groups may offer tens or hundreds of thousands or even millions of ringgit, but rarely do such donations come without strings attached. The conditions may not be explicit, but there would be the expectation that the party, when in power, will return the favour. The donations are more likely an investment than borne out of true love for the party.

Bersatu’s supporters must be feeling the heat as they now find themselves on the wrong side of the political fence.

Private funding of any party without legal limits is a major concern because voters do not know who the big funders are and what is their agenda.

Obviously, the party’s dependence big donors and vested interests should be reduced, and that is where a political financing law comes in. It is about creating a level playing field for healthy democratic competition.

There must be a contribution limit for individuals and companies. A private member’s bill drafted by the former all-party parliamentary group on political financing last August sets the statutory limits at RM50,000 and RM100,000 per year, respectively.

Foreign entities and government-linked companies will not be allowed to contribute.

For monitoring and regulatory purposes, all fundraising must be done through a designated party account.
The government should set up a commission on political financing to oversee the monitoring, regulation and enforcement processes for political parties to submit their annual financial reports and disclose major donors.

The commission should consist of independent commissioners who enjoy public confidence, are paid from the federal budget and accountable to parliament.

Public funding should be a key component of the political funding bill to win the support of the political parties because of the tangible benefits it will offer them, given that they have to meet the contribution limits and disclosure requirements.

The public funding of political parties proposed in the all-party parliamentary groups’ bill will only require 0.05% of the federal budget, or RM130 million.

It may also be true that the first reaction of most people to the bill will be: “Why do we have to pay for these political parties?”

The people need to be told that the alternative to public funding is private funding, the results of which they have seen for themselves. – March 20, 2023.

* Lim Chee Han is a founding member of Agora Society and a policy researcher. He holds a PhD in infection biology from Hannover Medical School, Germany, and an MSc in immunology and BSc in biotechnology from Imperial College London. Health and socioeconomic policies are his concerns. He believes a nation can advance significantly if policymaking and research are taken seriously.

* 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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