Missed opportunity for donation transparency

comments     Hafidz Baharom     Published     Updated

With an election now looming, it seems that we will have to wait yet another five years before making donations transparent and accessible, a headline topic once again.

When we talk about the concept of donations and campaigns, we can’t run far from the issue of such being done by media corporations, as well as non-government organisations (NGOs) either in the form of societies or registered as companies.

In the United States, one such horror ruled by the Supreme Court was the ability of anyone to establish Super Public Action Committees (SuperPACs). This allowed American corporations through frontmen to establish and spend as much money as they wanted to without oversight or limitations.

And thus, something similar is being done here in Malaysia.

With the election now nearing, the greatest concern should be just who and how are political parties and their subsequent allied NGOs are being funded. Sadly, there has yet to be any reform on this avenue, and it will be the status quo in the same direction.

It isn’t just political parties that need reform on donations, but also any and every registered society or company which is truly an NGO by nature.

You have resident group NGOs, human rights NGOs, and even political NGOs, environmental NGOs, race-based NGOs and even journalist NGOs who run blocking campaigns, which should be audited and make their accounts open for all to view.

After all, we have seen two cases of Joint Management Bodies (JMB) for residential complexes now being dragged to court by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC). Thus, resident associations should also bear the same scrutiny on their finances and events.

With so many non-government societies being featured in the media, one should also form an opinion - should unregistered, unincorporated groups of people be able to be portrayed in the media?

That question should be brought up, considering a certain group with the fetish for red that has no established accounts, nor registration. In other words, isn’t it also considered an illegal association?

What laws do we have against such establishments?

Of course, it is one thing to have a simple gang of people who share a hobby, but once it becomes an official entity, with a structure and organisation to effect and represent public change and sentiment, shouldn’t it be time for it to be registered?

At the same time, perhaps we do need to consider the following scenarios. What if NGOs go against their sponsoring business community supporters after getting a donation request dismissed - which is pretty much blackmail?

Should the company then come out and tell the full story, allowing the NGO to play victim and say it is all lies, thus leading to the ensuing court battle over defamation which will ruin the images of everyone?

Or, what if an NGO decides to hold a nationwide campaign of bullying pogroms, sponsored by someone, to block the constitutional right to free assembly and speech?

Limited transparency

While certain establishments have been transparent about their funding received from various sources, there are others who keep such transparency limited.

But more to the point, transparency and accessibility are two very separate points of the argument. This, of course, is obvious in how Selangor and Penang has a Freedom of Information policy that neither grants full freedom to the access of information, or even allows full access by placing it all online.

The same goes for government and their reluctance to make the data from the Tekun programme available for the public to view online, which instead requires clearance and formal letters rather than a simple public request.

The same goes for any government-linked establishment from Rdio Television Malaysia (RTM) to the Fisheries Development Board of Malaysia (LKIM). What we see is only the audited figures which happen twice a year, and not for all the agencies available in the behemoth that is our government.

Case in point, if I were to ask what NGOs are being funded directly by the Prime Minister’s Office, and all the subsequent ministries that there are, will it be a fully transparent list? In fact, can such a list be found on the websites for each ministry or even quasi-government department?

Similarly, if I were to ask the opposition similarly to come up with a list of guests for their last donation driven dinner by whichever quasi-related establishment they have, and how much these guests contributed specifically by person, can they indulge in the request?

We have a very long way to go before any side can say they are truly transparent and accessible to the general public without barriers. No political side can claim the moral high ground in this sense, since all sides do not allow transparency with full accessibility.

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