If, like me, you are frustrated and furious with the recent revelation by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission that the RM2.6 billion that was deposited into Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak personal bank account was found to be from donor contributions and not from 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), let me assure you that you are not alone.
Thousands of people across the country are clustered around tables at kedai kopi, mamak shops, dining rooms and even hipster cafes wondering what the hell is going on.
The whole thing feels like it was stage-managed to help take the heat off this particular issue in the wake of the reportage from The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), The Edge Financial Daily, The Edge Weekly and the Sarawak Report.
Earlier tweets from the honourable Member of Parliament for Kota Belud disparaged and mocked WSJ’s report last month, describing it as “gutter journalism” and a “wanton allegation.” There was also his earlier vocal support for the continuation of the work of the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee into the 1MDB issue to “end it” and provide closure.
Then came the recent Cabinet reshuffle, the raids on the MACC, the agency’s revelation regarding the RM2.6 billion, and the suspension of the PAC hearings.
Minister of Sycophancy
Newly-minted Minister Datuk Seri Azalina Othman wasted no time in distinguishing herself from the pack by actually saying that the amount in the Prime Minister’s personal bank account was not a big issue.
Congratulations Datuk Seri, on starting your ministerial stint by polishing the apple with a touch of sycophancy. But to be fair to that lot in the Cabinet, it sounds like precious little is shared on this issue during those weekly meetings. As was confirmed by a former member, you find out more from reading a copy of The Edge Financial Daily or The Wall Street Journal.
After all, collective responsibility only goes so far. It must also be great being a minister.
By stating that the amount in question originated from donor contributions rather than the 1MDB, the MACC announcement inadvertently confirms the following points which were earlier reported by the abovementioned publications:
That the funds existed and were a total of US$700 million or RM2.6 billion (would be worth more in today’s depressing value of the ringgit). That the amount was deposited into a personal bank account.
That the account holder was Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, the current Prime Minister of Malaysia. RM2.6 billion is a heady sum. It would be strange if you felt that there is nothing wrong with this picture and that the PM is entitled to have that amount in his personal bank account.
To put the US$700 million into context, consider that this amount is equivalent to 1 per cent of the 2014 Federal Government Budget of RM262.1 billion.
If I were to take the MACC announcement at face value, I would have at least three questions to ask:
1. Who were the donors of such largesse?
2. What were they expecting as a result of their generosity?
3. Why was the prime minister the recipient/ beneficiary/ trustee of these donations?
Let me say right now that to explain away RM2.6 billion as coming from contributions of UMNO members and various supporters, would be an insult to the Malaysian people’s intelligence. Don’t even try it.
If it didn’t come from 1MDB funds, from whom and where did this funding come from? I must surmise that with all this sudden talk about how it is alright for politicians to receive foreign funding, that this amount allegedly came from sources abroad.
If this funding which the ministers are now suddenly acknowledging exists and are claiming is above board, why then the need for secrecy and the reticence? Sure, it’s not a crime to receive all that money but whose money is this? Are the donors governments, organisations, companies or special interest groups? It is extremely important to highlight not only how much but where the money came from.
Is this why we have been bowing and scraping to various entities in the Middle East? What kind of influence do these unknown donors and benefactors have over our country?
Which leads me to the second question, what were or are they expecting in return? What is the quid pro quo? Nobody gives this kind of money dengan penuh tulus ikhlas, without expecting something in return. Let’s not be naïve.
This is a sobering reality as money is endemic in a democracy. There is a famous quote attributed to American politician Jesse Unruh who said that “money is the mother’s milk of politics.” Or in our case, this is probably susu kambing of some kind.
Private financing is a legitimate and necessary tool for political parties and their candidates. Campaign war chests are growing ever bigger with each election. In many countries, record amounts are being spent on elections.
Consider the following:
In the last US election according to the New York Times, Barack Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012 raised around US$770 million (not including the Democratic Party and political action committee funding). His opponent Mitt Romney raised US$467 million through his own campaign fundraising. In total, each had more than a billion dollars on hand to spend.
On the lower end of the scale, the cost of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (SPD) campaign in the last German federal election, was around 30 million euros or RM127 million. That was for everyone. From her all the way down to the junior parliamentarians. Not individually but everyone combined.
If RM2.6 billion was divided by the 726 seats (221 parliamentary and 505 state assembly) contested by the Barisan Nasional in the last general election, it would come up to RM3.6 million per seat. That’s assuming that the disputed funds were shared with all the Barisan Nasional partners and not for Umno alone.
However, under Section 19 of the Malaysian Elections Offences Act of 1954, each candidate is not allowed to spend more than RM200,000 (parliamentary seat) or RM100,000 (state seat) for campaigning.
The ability to raise private funds to finance political activities, especially from abroad, makes politicians and political parties vulnerable to a wide range of threats to democracy, especially those which affect government policies and actions.
Finally, the Prime Minister was the recipient and trustee of these funds. If we are to hold ourselves to a higher standard of transparency and accountability like that of developed countries, it would be very clear that nobody gives campaign donations direct to the personal bank account of a politician. Certainly not in these huge amounts.
For the sake of the dignity, honour and credibility of the position of the Prime Minister, this issue must be further clarified and explained.
Not too long ago back in 2012, Foreign Minister Anifah Aman stated that foreign funding of NGOs in Malaysia, could be “seen as interference in the domestic affairs of a sovereign state.” A whole buffet of pro-establishment Malay rights NGOs attacked their counterparts who received funding from abroad and accused them of helping to “destabilise the peace of the country.” Despite the fact that these civil society organisations were working to strengthen democracy and human rights in Malaysia, they got hell for this and were even accused of being foreign agents.
Suddenly, some are barking that “politicians are free to accept financial aid or contribution from abroad.” What are we to think?
There is an obvious and urgent need for political campaign finance reform in Malaysia as big money politics is threatening and compromising the integrity of this government and the country.
We need reform urgently because when you look at history and precedence, the pattern where there are huge amounts being spent which are extremely disproportionate to the number of registered voters and population, can be found in banana republics, authoritarian regimes and tin-pot regimes where corruption runs rampant and unchecked.
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The emergence of such “black money” in elections often leads to erosion of public confidence in the political process. We cannot let that happen.
I am willing to bet that there are many, many questions that the Malaysian people are asking about this RM2.6 billion which is probably just a part of a very large iceberg in our democracy.
But I have just one more before I end my piece: Unless it was all spent during the 2013 elections and its aftermath, where is the rest of the RM2.6 billion?
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.