Federal Territories Minister Datuk Seri Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor’s excuse for not declaring his assets publicly ― fears of his family getting kidnapped or robbed ― is incredulous, but there is actually no reason to expect him to do so when we don’t have the necessary laws and systems in place for the public disclosure of assets.
Malaysia needs to enact legislation to require high-ranking public officials like Cabinet ministers and state executive councilors, as well as elected lawmakers, to disclose their assets to the general public.
Tengku Adnan says he declares his assets directly to the prime minister every year. According to the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS), the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) chief commissioner can access such asset disclosures.
Members of Parliament, however, are not required to declare their assets. According to MACC, Regulation 10 of the Public Officers Regulations (Conduct and Discipline) 1993 requires all public officials to declare their assets upon their appointment, as well as when they acquire new assets. The asset disclosure also includes information on properties owned by the officer’s spouse and dependent children.
State executive councillors in Penang and Selangor declare their assets. The information on Selangor executive councillors’ assets is available on the Selangor government’s website.
However, the asset declaration of only five out of 14 state executive councillors is available (mostly for the year 2014). Selangor Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Azmin Ali’s information is unavailable.
The asset declarations of Penang state executive councillors are available on the Penang government’s website (for the year 2011).
It’s not enough to have Cabinet ministers declare their assets to the prime minister and to the MACC. As it is, we don’t even know what exactly those disclosures cover.
The practices by Penang and Selangor are a start ― the former covers income sources, properties, investments and vehicles, while the latter is more comprehensive, covering income sources and amount of income, properties, vehicles, debts and loan repayments.
Selangor’s asset declaration also covers the officer’s spouse’s income amount and loans. One Selangor state executive councillor also disclosed details of his business.
If we want to curb corruption and prevent scandals, then we must expand the scope of asset disclosures, be more targeted in who to mandate asset declarations upon, and most importantly, make them available to the general public.
In the US, high-level public officials in all three branches of government are required to disclose their financial information, such as income sources and amounts, gifts, assets and liabilities, as well as transactions in real property and securities. Similar disclosures are required about the finances of the officer’s spouse and dependent children too.
Financial disclosures for US government officials must be publicly accessible for six years, with certain exceptions in the interest of national security for members of the intelligence community and exemptions for members of the judiciary. If there is danger to the latter, redactions are permissible, but there must still be sufficient public disclosure.
Here in Malaysia, asset declaration should also be made mandatory for all three branches of government ― the executive, the legislative and the judiciary. However, there’s no need to require all public officials to declare their assets as this would be a waste of resources. The office clerk, for instance, probably won’t have many opportunities to receive bribes.
Asset declaration should only be mandatory for civil servants in high-ranking positions or of a certain paygrade, who wield great decision-making powers and are responsible for making policies.
So not only should the prime minister, Cabinet ministers, chief ministers and state executive councillors be required to declare their assets, we need to identify which rank of civil servants who should do the same too.
Federal and state lawmakers should also be required to declare their assets, since they would likely receive plenty of contributions during election campaigns.
Asset declaration should be mandatory for judges too. The MACC said in 2012 then that a task force had been set up to develop an asset declaration process for judges. But it’s unknown what came out of it.
The spouse and dependent children of such individuals should be subject to similar financial disclosure requirements.
The scope of asset declaration needs to be widened too in Malaysia to include gifts and other financial transactions. In Latvia, which is said to have one of the most comprehensive financial disclosure systems in Europe that arguably cut once-rampant corruption, the mandated disclosure of the financial and personal interests of public officials and of their relatives include information about their income, property, stock and other securities, savings, transactions performed, debts, and loans.
The declarations are published in their government’s official gazette.
If Malaysian government officials lack faith in the police and are afraid that public financial disclosures will lead to kidnaps or robberies, then we can consider making such information available to the public only through a Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, instead of putting it on government websites.
Some US agencies notify individuals when their information is requested and requestors have to fill out forms. US law prohibits financial disclosure reports from being accessed for commercial purposes (other than the media for dissemination to the public), for establishing one’s credit rating, for the solicitation of money, or for any illegal purpose.
Malaysian officials shouldn’t be afraid of a federal FOI Act, considering that in the case of Penang, only 71 applications were made last year since the FOI Enactment came into force in January 2015.
This goes to show that although Malaysians make a lot of noise on social media about corruption, the citizenry still generally lacks maturity in exercising their right to freedom of information.
However, if Barisan Nasional (BN) is sincere about lifting Malaysia to developed nation status, then it needs to show the way by creating a rigorous asset declaration system and a culture of transparency. Pakatan should also improve the asset declaration systems in Selangor and Penang.
It will take time to change the mindsets of ordinary citizens and civil servants ― who appear to still be beholden to the government of the day (even in a Pakatan administration) ― but we must start somewhere.