When politics and business were allowed to thrive side by side, corruption soon took roots in party, state and general elections.
PETALING JAYA: Ramon Navaratnam remembers clearly the day when the last wall between money and politics finally crumbled. It was 1983 and former prime minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, was delivering a speech on the newly introduced Malaysia Incorporated policy.
The policy would unlock the gates to a previously unheard-of collaboration between the civil service and private sector in the pursuit of national development.
A civil servant himself back then, Ramon said that the first government talk he attended included a stern directive to steer clear of businessmen whose sole purpose was to “corrupt you to get licences and permits”.
According to Ramon, patronage had already seeped into the system but as far as he knew, no money accompanied the verbal agreements between the parties. Until the birth of Malaysia Incorporated.
In itself the policy was economically farsighted. But Mahathir took it a step further by uttering the words that would mottle the country’s politics with corruption for decades to come.
“Mahathir declared in his speech that he didn’t draw a line between politics and business,” recalled Ramon, now the director of the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute (Asli).
“He questioned why Chinese candidates should perform better in elections than their Malay counterparts solely because of money. And then he proposed that business and politics be allowed to flourish alongside each other.”
The union accelerated an emerging culture of money politics that soon had its roots deeply embedded within party, state and general elections.
And as Associate Professor Edmund Terence Gomez of Universiti Malaya quietly noted that at the epicentre of this phenomenon was none other than Umno.
In his opinion, the defining moment of the arrival of money politics to Malaysia’s political landscape was during the Umno elections of 1981.
“It worsened during the Umno elections of 1984 when (former deputy prime minister) Musa (Hitam) and (Gua Musang MP) Tengku Razaleigh (Hamzah) battled it out for the deputy presidency,” Gomez said.
“But money politics truly reached its height in 1987 when the presidency was contested by both Mahathir and Razaleigh. And from then on it simply escalated.”
The ripples of that boom were most keenly felt throughout the country in the past decade amid blatant and alleged vote-buying practices, political patronage and rallies for free and fair elections.
Malaysia’s ranking on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI) slipped for the third consecutive time last year with its political parties rated the second most corrupt institution after the police force.
While Ramon is staunch in his oft-repeated belief that “money politics is the mother of all corruption”, he is also realistic enough to stop short of proposing a separation of the two.
“I’m not against providing funds for elections because it is part of the democratic process,” he clarified. “But there have to be limits and quantifications, and there must be a consensus that is developed over time so all quarters are satisfied.”
“At the end of the day the criteria for funding is that it is fair and reasonable without being excessive to the extent of bordering on bribery. And this then translates to transparency.”
Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak has appeared to be thinking along similar lines. Last month, he announced plans to introduce a new measure under the Fighting Corruption National Key Rasult Areas (NKRA) aimed at regulating political financing.
Among others the new measure would require all contributions to be channelled through the parties’ official accounts and receipts to be issued for all donations.
Such transparency is the most basic form of regulation of which Ramon, the former president of Transparency International Malaysia, fully approves.
“Take it one step further by making party accounts available to all members instead of just the top leadership,” he urged. “The trouble starts when information is exclusive.”
Another reform that Ramon strongly advocated was the provision of funds by the government to both political coalitions during an election period so as to create a level playing field.
He also pushed for the allocation of different budgets for federal, state and local elections with each budged tailored to candidates’ specific needs based on the size and accessibility of their constituencies.
“All additional sources of political funding must be declared before and during an election,” he added. “Otherwise, parties can spend four years building up a war chest and claim they haven’t collected funds during the campaign period.”
“Any collection at any time must be accounted for. No exceptions. You may not be able to catch everyone but at least you’ll be able to spot and go after those with extravagant expenditures.”
Ramon, who stressed that he has always avoided being labelled a “government or opposition man”, chose his words carefully when proffering his opinion on Najib’s latest initiative.
Changes in parties
He pointed out that this was the first time Najib had spoken out so strongly on the issue but admitted that opaqueness of the initiative’s details bothered him.
“The government says it wants to step up anti-corruption efforts but in what way?” he asked. “We need to see proper regulations and policy reforms.”
“And these must be put in place before the next election, otherwise it’s another false promise. And it’s not that difficult.”
“You can work out the guidelines, consult bipartisan groups and get the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) for Electoral Reforms to study it. (PSC chairman) Maximus Ongkili can hold a session within a week and reach a consensus. That’s all.”
Gomez, on the other hand, suggested that any proposed reforms begin within the political parties themselves where the real problem was festering.
“The level of internal money politics must be stemmed first, otherwise we will continue voting for candidates with the greatest access to funding,” he said.
“When it comes to political financing reforms there are two aspects to consider. The first is the deployment of money to capture senior party positions.”
“The second is the distribution of money in state and general elections. Any new regulations must apply to both aspects if we are serious about reining in money politics.”