Commentary: Does the Malaysian public need to know what assets the Prime Minister holds?
KUALA LUMPUR: This week, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad announced that all Parliamentarians from the Pakatan Harapan coalition, including himself, would have to declare their assets, in a bid to clean up corruption and cronyism in Malaysian politics.
This may be one of the cases that the Pakatan Harapan government takes one step forward but two steps back.
On one hand, this is a positive development compared to the situation under Najib Razak’s administration.
Ministers were compelled to confidentially declare their assets to the prime minister and the chief commissioner of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission. Ordinary members of Parliament were also advised to declare assets every two years but there were no sanctions for not declaring.
An administrative circular and a code of conduct also made it mandatory for the civil service to declare their assets.
But the prime minister himself was not subject to such regulations. A court ruling last year also decided that as then prime minister, Najib was not a public official and therefore could not be held liable for misfeasance in public office.
So it is refreshing to see the leaders of the Malaysian government now lead by example rather than by exception.
But while Dr Mahathir’s announcement was laudable, he said the government was still mulling over whether these disclosures will be made public and whether immediate family members of elected representatives will also have to declare their assets.
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Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. (File photo: Reuters/Lai Seng Sin)
STRONG INSTITUTIONS, PUBLIC DISCLOSURE NEEDED
In the spirit of reform, what Malaysia needs is to set up permanent institutions to ensure that government leaders and their families are subject to checks and balances. Malaysia needs a law requiring political leaders holding elected office to declare their assets; this arrangement cannot be left as an uncodified, informal practice.
In many jurisdictions around the world, political leaders and top civil servants are compelled to declare their assets, gifts and income by law. These laws intend to detect illicit enrichment and conflicts of interest. They serve as a deterrent and a disincentive against corruption.
For example, in neighbouring Philippines, the country’s constitution requires every public officer, their spouse and children to declare their assets, net worth, liabilities and business interests.
Their statement of assets, liabilities and net worth, made under oath, are often used to determine if government officials have unexplained wealth. Former president of the Philippines Joseph Estrada’s statement was a pivotal piece of evidence at his trial.
In South Korea, about 5,400 high-ranking officials including the president, members of the National Assembly, and chairs of public service related companies have to register and disclose their property status under their Public Service Ethics Act.
Former Philippine President Joseph Estrada (Photo: AFP/NOEL CELIS)
There is no international consensus for how much public access to asset disclosure information should be given, taking into account also the need to balance this move towards more transparency with an official’s right to privacy.
There are good reasons why public access to information must be part of an asset declaration law. Information about a politician’s assets allows for voters to be better informed.
Civil society and journalists can also become part of the verification process to ensure political office holders do not abuse their power for personal gain.
This enhances the deterrent value of the system, increases its credibility and complements investigative work by monitoring agencies overseeing audit declarations.
REQUIRE FAMILY MEMBERS TO DECLARE
Like many others before him, Dr Mahathir has expressed concerns over privacy as well, highlighting the need to protect family members.
But studies have not shown negative impact when it comes to the safety or financial standing of these public officers and family members who have publicly declared their assets.
On the contrary, many jurisdictions realise the need to include spouses and children in these exercises. Public officials can very easily conceal irregularities by transferring assets to their immediate family members.
Look no further than the profligate wealth of Najib’s spouse, Rosmah Mansor, whose shock that she did not know the value of her wealth was just as shocking to the public. Current finance minister Lim Guan Eng’s ongoing trial involves the acquisition of land through his wife’s legal firm.
NOT A BINARY CHOICE
It is not a binary choice – whether requiring these asset declarations be publicly available or not, and whether all immediate the family members of public officers should be involved. Malaysia has to find the balance between privacy and public interest.
Experts have suggested calibrating to only allow a subset of information to enter the public domain, allowing a certain level of privacy depending on the risk profile of the position of the office holder.
Rosmah Mansor, wife of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, arrives at the Anti-Corruption Agency for questioning in Putrajaya, Malaysia on Jun 5, 2018. (Photo: AP/Vincent Thian)
The more exposed a politician or a senior bureaucrat may be to potential corruption risks, there may be more value in releasing more information about his asset declaration to the public and in greater detail.
Some jurisdictions also require their monitoring agencies to hold onto full details of an official’s asset declaration record until a reasonable request from the public is made. But there may be value in maximum disclosure for the leadership echelon – including the top civil service leaders who head ministries, or a full minister.
After all, such declarations are also an affirmation of public transparency and integrity.
For too long, Malaysians have allowed the concentration of power in the hands of the executive, tolerating far too great a level of opacity for national economic performance. Najib exploited this situation to conduct his affairs with impunity.
Dr Mahathir and the Pakatan Harapan government must realise that this was a mistake and create a rules-based system that returns power to the people to check their leaders.
An asset declaration law that involves public disclosure and accounts itself to civil society, rather than simply the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, is crucial to the goal of restoring Malaysia’s reputation.
Ho Yi Jian is the Open Government Initiative Officer at the Centre to Combat Cronyism and Corruption (C4 Center), an independent good governance policy advocacy group based in Kuala Lumpur.