It is encouraging that 30 opposition parliamentarians recently agreed to declare their assets under a programme initiated by PKR body Invoke, many declarations of which can already be downloaded by the public on their website. However, the scheme could benefit from adopting international standards for it to be considered of good value.
Asset declaration is one of the ways in which voters can keep their elected officials accountable. Carried out regularly to track any major changes in assets held by high-level public figures, it prevents conflict of interest, reduces the misappropriation of funds, allows auditors to detect any form of illicit enrichment and most importantly, promotes transparency and accountability.
A World Bank survey in 2012 showed that out of 176 countries, 137 (78%) of them have financial disclosure systems, most of which make it compulsory for asset disclosure for cabinet members, members of parliament and high-ranking prosecutors. Some countries in the region do practice forms of asset declaration, where it is backed by the constitution in the case of the Philippines and embedded in primary law and an executive decree in Indonesia.
In Malaysia, ministers and top government officials declare their assets confidentially to the Prime Minister annually, which are accessible to the Chief Commissioner of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission only. Civil servants and family members are required to declare their assets, but only to their heads of departments.
Although a ‘Code of Ethics’, approved by the Cabinet, requires that Members of Parliament declare their assets every two years, this is not a legal requirement. It is unclear to whom these MPs are required to declare their assets to, and whether it is even being practised currently.
Both the opposition-led Selangor and Penang state governments have made it a requirement for their Executive Council (Exco) members to declare their assets, but again this is not legally binding. All declarations have been therefore made on a voluntary basis only.
The current Invoke drive to get parliamentarians to declare their assets is a good start to encourage other elected officials to adopt principles of good governance in their political leadership. It certainly puts pressure on other opposition parliamentarians, as well as the Barisan Nasional leaders to follow suit.
Nevertheless, in order that this process is properly followed through and implemented well, it is important to establish certain rules and principles. It is unclear based on the current Invoke pledge to declare assets what are the detailed policy changes they would adopt. Some recommendations are as follows.
First, the requirement should be for ministers and members of parliament including senators to declare their assets by law. This can be done by enacting a new legislation in parliament that they should declare their assets to a parliamentary committee that is independent from the executive.
Second, instead of having civil servants’ asset declarations verified internally by their heads of department, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) should take over the role of verifying declarations.
Third, it is important for there to be a verification and monitoring system in place. The MACC can be this independent body that oversees, verifies and monitors the process. It needs to also be authorised to work with government bodies like the Inland Revenue Board and Financial Intelligence Unit of Bank Negara, in order to verify if the declarations made are accurate. Of course, this also requires that the MACC itself is completely independent of the executive.
Fourth, information on declared assets needs to be made publicly available. There is oftentimes an argument made for privacy, where exceptions can be made in certain circumstances. Assets of members of parliament, ministers and high-ranking civil servants ought to be made public, but information can be made available by request only for lower-level civil servants. This also requires there to be a Freedom of Information Act in place.
Finally, the same amount of scrutiny should be imposed on state-level officials. Enactments should be in place in all states that makes asset declaration compulsory for state Exco members, state assemblypersons and state civil servants annually. However, one of the challenges would be verification and monitoring, since states would not have access to individuals’ financial information. This is why simultaneous reforms need to take place at the federal level first, in order for them to be meaningful.
Given the low levels of public trust in political leadership today, it is more imperative than ever that asset declaration is made a legal requirement at both federal and state levels. Providing information to the public is the most effective form of check and balance against abuse of power for private gain. This is a good start and it is hoped that other political leaders from both sides of the divide would also independently commit to declaring their assets should they become elected members of parliament or ministers.
First published for TheSun 23 November 2017