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Saturday, July 30, 2022

A flurry of denials over political ‘donations’

 

The denials from some of the biggest names in Malaysian politics have come one after another, swiftly and with a touch of indignation, following claims in the corruption trial of Ahmad Zahid Hamidi that they had received millions in contributions or donations.

The former ministers and political leaders named in the ongoing trial of the former home minister were confident enough in their innocence to say they were ready to be investigated.

Let me make it clear at the outset that I am not accusing anyone named in this column of corruption. What was said in court are claims by witnesses, and even if the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission were to investigate those named, as it said it would, it does not prove anything.

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Let’s understand this: No one is guilty unless and until proven so in a court of law.

It’s just that I am overwhelmed by the claims made and the persons named, and am trying to digest it all. The payments that were allegedly made were done by just one company, and there are so many companies which are given contracts by the government.

I’m also concerned about a remark made by one of the witnesses, former UKSB director Wan Quoris Shah Wan Abdul Ghani, that it was normal for businesses to “lobby” government officials for contracts.

Two witnesses told the High Court that Ultra Kirana Sdn Bhd (UKSB), the firm that was given a contract in 2016 by the government to handle the foreign visa system for Chinese tourists, had given political donations to several ministers, politicians and government servants.

On July 25, former UKSB administrative manager David Tan told the High Court that Dr Mahathir Mohamad received RM2.6 million as a political donation from UKSB for his then Bersatu party after the 14th general election.

He claimed the money was passed to Mahathir’s nephew, Rahmat Abu Bakar. This was when, following the victory of Pakatan Harapan, Mahathir had been appointed prime minister.

That night, Mahathir denied the claim and told Berita Harian: “I did not receive (the money as claimed). If he (David Tan) can prove it, show the evidence. It’s easy to say (I received money).” He added: “Check my bank accounts, there’s no problem.” Rahmat issued a denial later.

One June 17, Tan told the corruption trial that former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin had received RM1.3 million between June and August 2018, when he was home minister under the Pakatan Harapan government.

Tan told the court: “The money was also given as a political donation to assist Muhyiddin.”

In denying the claim, Muhyiddin said: “I wish to state that I never received money, be it directly or indirectly, from David Tan, the witness from UKSB, his director or shareholder.”

Tan also claimed that former Sabah chief minister Shafie Apdal and former foreign minister Anifah Aman had received funds from the company, as had current housing and local government minister Reezal Merican Naina Merican. Another name mentioned during the trial was that of current defence minister Hishammuddin Hussein.

Tan, however, did not specify the amount of money paid to Shafie, Anifah, Hishammuddin and Reezal Merican. All of them have publicly and stoutly denied Tan’s claim.

Tan claimed he gave them code names to ensure secrecy, in case the ledger of payments he had prepared fell into someone else’s hands.

On June 13, Wan Quoris Shah, a former director of UKSB, told the High Court that his company had given contributions of between RM50,000 and RM200,000 to current health minister Khairy Jamaluddin’s Rembau Umno division. He said, however, that the money was not given directly or personally to Khairy.

Khairy immediately issued a denial. “I have never received anything personally, whether money or political funds,” he said.

Officials of UKSB had earlier told the court that Zahid had received financial contributions from the company .

Tan, for instance, told the court he was directed by UKSB’s former directors to prepare cash to be given for Zahid’s use, including for the Umno General Assembly, Hari Raya, and his wife’s birthday. Tan claimed it was agreed that it was in UKSB’s “best interest to give money to Zahid as we needed to secure our position as the sole contractor for the visa facilitation services”.

The Umno president is facing 33 charges of receiving bribes amounting to S$13.56 million (RM42 million) from UKSB in his capacity as the then home minister. The Bagan Datuk MP is also accused of another seven counts of receiving bribes worth S$1,150,000, RM3 million, €15,000 and US$15,000 in cash from the same company in connection with his official work.

Zahid has claimed trial to all the charges.

It would be wrong to assume that someone is guilty just because someone else said so. As I said earlier, we should let the courts decide if any of those named is guilty of any offence.

But then again, there is no law in Malaysia against receiving political contributions.

Let’s not forget that in overturning the RM2 million corruption conviction against former federal territories minister Tengku Adnan Mansor, the Court of Appeal found that the RM2 million was a political donation to Umno for two by-elections in 2016.

It is, however, alarming that business concerns can and do make huge political contributions to ministers and other senior government officials to win favours.

The most crucial question arising from political contributions or donations is whether the money will influence the decisions and policy-making processes of political leaders and parties – especially if they form the government.

More than ever, these latest claims call not just for transparency in the giving and receiving of such donations but also the need for political financing regulations or laws.

Although political parties are required to submit their audited financial statements to the Registrar of Societies, there is no requirement that they reveal the sources of their donations.

As Thomas Fann of electoral reform group Bersih told FMT earlier this month: “If we do not regulate political funds, parties and politicians will continue to receive money from corporate or wealthy individuals, which could then lead to corruption through the award of lucrative contracts once they are in government.”

He added: “Money is a major incentive for elected representatives to party hop. Though hard to prove, money is certainly a big reason why we are experiencing political instability.”

Calling for a political funding law, Fann said such a law must be clear and unambiguous, and consist of disclosure, reporting, monitoring and enforcement and that it should cover parties and politicians alike.

Transparency International Malaysia (TI-M) has been saying for years that there is a need for a practical mechanism to regulate and channel political financing so that everything is transparent and above board.

In May 2011, TI-M submitted a 22-point memorandum seeking reforms in political financing to then prime minister Najib Razak, based on its research on the state of political financing in the country in 2009-2010. Nothing came of it.

Ironically, Najib, who was convicted of corruption and abuse of power in 2020, admitted in court to having received RM2.6 billion in “donations”.

Among TI-M’s suggestions were: that the federal government provide funding for parliamentary elections, and state governments for state-level elections; that limits be placed on contributions to political parties and that, ideally, companies should be prohibited from making political donations; that a list of non-permitted donors be prepared and this list should include government-linked corporations, non-citizens and foreign organisations; and that there must be regulations for the reporting of political financing.

Last September, the Malaysian Bar’s constitutional law committee co-chairman Andrew Khoo suggested that the Companies Commission of Malaysia, Registrar of Societies and Cooperative Societies Commission of Malaysia should come up with their own regulations while waiting for a political financing law to be promulgated.

I agree with the suggestions of Bersih, TI-M and Khoo.

In announcing on May 19 that the Special Cabinet Committee on Anti-Corruption had agreed in principle to a political funding bill, Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob said the proposal would be discussed in the Cabinet before the authorities began engaging with political parties.

If Ismail and his government are sincere, they should start the ball rolling immediately and not wait another six months or hope that the public will forget it soon enough.

I for one believe in the remarkable remark by historian C Northcote Parkinson, who once worked in the then Malaya, that “delay is the deadliest form of denial”. - FMT

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of MMKtT.

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