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Thursday, 19 January 2012

Ethics – an asset to justice

Competitiveness and corruption. Presented at t...
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Getting judges to publicly declare their assets is a significant step towards improving the integrity of our judiciary and changing the perception of the bench.

DARE to declare! That seems to be the slogan of the moment, in the wake of the move by Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng and his state executive council to declare their assets publicly last week.

Based on the list of properties, investments and cars along with the loans taken, Penang is being run by a motley crew of wealthy and not-so-rich politicians.

Lim owns two shop lots in Malacca, worth RM435,000 and RM530,000 respectively and has taken RM650,000 in loans to pay for them.

He has RM298,785 in fixed deposits, with more than RM53,000 in earned interests besides investments in Amanah Mutual Bhd and Public Mutual Fund.

But there were no clues about the assets of the spouses and relatives, though. When asked about this, the CM was reported to have replied that the pledge was only for the assets of its leaders to be disclosed.

In the case of Selangor, the declaration of assets by the Mentri Besar and exco members in 2009 was basically in the form of their current earnings in salaries and allowances.

They decided not to include assets owned before the exco members held office, on the grounds of not being able to assure security for them or their family members.

Excos disclosed their assets privately to the MB’s office. The information, however, can be released for legitimate reasons, subject to conditions set and approved by the Special Select Committee on Competence, Accountability and Transparency or Selcat.

For political parties, Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) holds the record for being the first to deliver the promise of declaring the assets of its elected and appointed representatives.

Since 2008, it has made public statutory declarations about what they own.

PSM’s sole MP, Michael Jeyakumar Devaraj – who unseated MIC supremo Datuk S. Samy Vellu in Sungei Siput – has been quoted as saying: “Once you become an assemblyman or MP, you must reveal the assets of yourself, your wife and your immediate family every year.”

An increasing number of countries have adopted similar ethics and even have anti-corruption laws requiring public officials to declare their assets and income, in addition to that of their spouses and dependant children.

In the US, for instance, the main law governing this is the Ethics in Government Act of 1978.

Based on last year’s declaration, President Barack Obama has assets worth at least US$4mil (RM12.48mil).

The amount includes book royalties, retirement funds, US Treasury bills and notes and other holdings.

In Malaysia, would all elected representatives from both sides of the political divide agree to be subject to such scrutiny?

As it is, many of our YBs are seen to be extremely well-heeled. They always claim to champion the cause of the rakyat but live in mansions worth millions and lead luxurious lifestyles.

Of course, they can always declare that they were already rich before being elected or appointed.

So, instead of waiting until they are elected, why not make it mandatory for all nominated candidates for Parliament and state seats to disclose their wealth and means of income and those of their immediate family?

Perhaps one way to ensure this is through compulsion – by an Act of Parliament.

One wonders if there would still be many people clamouring to be elected representatives or appointed representatives under such rules.

But we are at least making progress when it comes to the judiciary.

Chief Justice Tan Sri Arifin Zakaria has made a laudable move towards getting judges to declare their assets.

It is indeed a significant step towards improving transparency and integrity of our judiciary and changing the current public perception of the bench.

“I’m sure all of you have nothing to fear, so we have to work together with the MACC on this matter,” the CJ said at the judges’ conference last week.

The MACC has since set up a task force to identify the process under the civil service for the implementation.

The CJ has also told judges to maintain the independence of the judiciary and not to put up with any interference, including from their spouses, when making their decisions.

According to Transparency International’s Bribe Payers Index of 2008, the judiciary was perceived by surveyed business executives to be one of the most corrupt institutions in the country.

Business executives surveyed by the World Economic Forum Global competitiveness Report 2010-2011 identified the judicial system as being under enough influence of members of government, certain individuals and companies to constitute a competitive disadvantage.

They also found the efficiency of the legal framework for private companies to settle disputes and challenge government actions and/or regulations as another disadvantage.

The CJ’s move to boost the integrity of the judiciary is noteworthy in view of such negative perceptions.

The country cannot afford to have a judiciary perceived to be ethically compromised. It would be a millstone around the neck of any anti-corruption strategy.

As such, it needs the full support and cooperation of the people, members of the Bar, the Attorney-General’s Chambers and more so from the political leaders.

> Associate Editor M. Veera Pandiyan likes to share these wise words of Gandhi: “There is a higher court than courts of justice and that is the court of conscience. It supercedes all other courts.”

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