Public officials must declare assets, not just income

Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) chief Mohd Shukri Abdull does not seem to know the remit of MACC in the “new Malaysia”, and he needs to attend a refresher course in Accounts 101. After releasing the declared incomes of Pakatan Harapan (PH) ministers and MPs, he said “the commission only provided the information as given by the government”.

It is not as if MACC does not understand what assets are. When its officers raided the houses of the former prime minister Najib Razak, they carted away all the cash and valuables found not only in his residences but also in those of his children and even his elderly mother. Exhibiting a thoroughness that goes beyond the seizure of tangible visible assets, the entire MACC machinery is still scouring the books and accounts of Najib’s family and associates.

It’s assets!

In contrast, when it comes to the declaration of assets by public officials, MACC chooses to only recognise their individual incomes. A list published by MACC has put Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng ahead of 47 other MPs from the ruling coalition as well as Cabinet members who recently declared their incomes to the anti-graft body. And twice, Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad only managed a poor third despite the fact that a few decades ago, at least one of his sons was already in the Forbes 50.

Can we have an explanation please from the MACC chief as to whether that is all we are going to see of the full asset declaration of our public officials? Does the MACC only consider the public official’s income when assessing his or her assets?

What full asset declarations should cover

We have seen some state administrations carrying out token “asset declarations” by their ministers involving only information about their salaries and allowances as state representatives. This is far from the best practices expected of asset declarations.

An asset declaration should cover the public official’s assets and income, the assets and income of his or her spouse and dependent children, from all homes, valuables and financial portfolios, as well as liabilities, such as debts and mortgages; all sources of income from directorships and investments to consulting contracts; gifts and any potential conflicts of interest such as unpaid employment contracts.

After the recent corruption charges against the former chief minister of Penang, Malaysians would expect the market value of public officials’ houses to be one of the basic assets declared.

For a start, the new PH government should stop the dubious practice of appointing peoples’ representatives as directors of federal and state corporations and commissions. All public corporations and commissions must be run by independent and qualified professionals, not government lackeys which would be an obvious conflict of interest.

The MACC must monitor this asset disclosure programme and should be given the powers to investigate, prosecute and sanction those who fail to comply.

It is time for the prime minister to lead by example and ensure that he and all his ministers and representatives fully declare their assets and those of their families upon taking office, since he has declared that corruption is a key threat to the growth of our nation and its institutions and that fighting corruption and promoting good public governance are the top priorities of the new government.

Corruption and ostentatious wealth not confined to BN leaders

The torrid exposure of the ostentatious wealth seized from the residences of the former prime minister and the mantra of transparency by the new PH government points to the urgent need for full asset declarations by all public officials. But to presume that corruption and ostentatious wealth are only afflictions that affect BN and not PH politicians is the ultimate in naivety. After all, with the recent defections of BN MPs to PH, we could be expecting a return of BN 2.0, could we not?

Making it mandatory for all public officials to declare their assets, including those of their spouses and children, is crucial to the campaign to prevent corruption in politics. The leaders of the three branches of government – executive, legislative and judiciary – and senior civil servants should be required to file asset declarations before and after taking office as well as periodically while they are in office.

The United Nations Convention against Corruption, which has been ratified by 166 countries, requires a legal framework for asset declarations of government officials. Asset declaration that is open to public scrutiny is a way for citizens to ensure leaders do not abuse their power for personal gain, the corollary of corruption.

Kua Kia Soong is the adviser to Suaram.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.