Getting rid of the money politics scourge

By Zubaidah Abu Bakar (NST)

UMNO is still fighting political corruption more than seven years since setting up a special body to look into what the party termed "money politics" — the irritant that is causing Umno to lose credibility in the eyes of the public by the day. 

At the recently concluded party assembly, Umno, under its new commander, declared itself committed to beating the scourge. Datuk Seri Najib Razak proposed introducing drastic measures, amending Umno's constitution for new election procedures and regulations against money politics.

Many of Umno's problems are linked in one way or another to money politics, and party leaders Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi have tried in vain to persuade party members to shed the despicable trait.

Najib, who took over the party last week, is determined to ensure that Umno will not be further weakened by something over which the party should have some control.

Umno members remember only too well the Umno special general assembly in 2000, when Dr Mahathir, voice choked and breaking, pleaded with the house to reject all forms of corruption and expose those who offer bribes.

"Reject corruption," he had said, "reject all, including offers to go on tours and perform umrah.

"Reject all that smells of corruption for the love of the race, because our race will be looked at with contempt and will, in the end, be destroyed and become a humiliated and ignorant race that has lost its dignity."

It was at this assembly that the way was paved for the setting up of the Umno disciplinary board a year later.

In 2006, Abdullah in his presidential address at the Umno assembly appealed to members to help him fight money politics by providing concrete evidence of such corruption, the lack of which remains a stumbling block to punitive action against more offenders.

"Arresting and prosecuting is not as easy as people think it is," Abdullah said. "The investigative process is painstaking, and the process of proving corruption and getting witnesses is extremely difficult."

As often pointed out by disciplinary board chairman Tan Sri Tengku Ahmad Rithauddeen Tengku Ismail, many escape the law because of a willing-giver-willing-taker situation.

The board, an entity independent of the party's supreme council, has always maintained that it conducts its investigations autonomously, without fear or favour. But then again, it is human nature for it to be accused of bias.

The proposal by newly elected deputy president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin for the Umno disciplinary board to be restructured to strengthen its position is lauded by many, including board member Tan Sri Megat Najmuddin Megat Khas.

"This is a good suggestion, as we don't have enough manpower," said the party veteran, well known as a strong anti-corruption advocate.

"Umno is a big party with over three million members, so we need to increase our capacity accordingly."

Something that needs clarification is the very definition of "money politics", which to party members is still vague. The accepted interpretation in Umno circles is of buying votes outright, or offering other forms of reward to get elected to party posts.

But it's a term clouded by grey areas, such that many candidates are unable to draw the line between what is acceptable and what is not, despite explanations from the board.

To the disciplinary board, there's nothing wrong with treating a person to a meal or paying for someone's petrol, as long as there are no ulterior motives. But just how certain can anyone be that paying for campaigners' meals and fuel does not amount to vote-buying?

With these questions always cropping up when offenders are found guilty, allegations of the disciplinary board practising selective prosecution are predictable.

But Umno has had enough, and it is time to make things right. The party needs credible leaders to win back the people's support and confidence, and fortify it for the next general election.

It is pointless to continue belabouring the ill-effects of money politics. Stern action is needed, as the punitive measures meted out so far against offenders are obviously not a deterrent.

Stories of candidates buying votes to secure posts, even if exaggerated, recurred in the run-up to last week's party elections.

The board's determination to nail offenders — the highest-ranking of whom has been former vice-president Datuk Seri Mohd Ali Rustam, who was running for the deputy presidency — is laudable. The Malacca chief minister was found guilty and barred from contesting.

There are also those who are facing corruption charges in court, due to action by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission.

In the 2004 party election, Tan Sri Mohd Isa Abdul Samad was suspended for six years (later reduced to three years on appeal) and lost all his party posts — including the vice-presidency he had won nine months earlier with the highest number of votes among the three elected vice-presidents.

With innuendoes against some of those who have made it onto the party's supreme council, many welcomed news that the disciplinary board had begun investigations on several leaders who won senior party posts at the just-concluded Umno general assembly.

Barely 48 hours after failing in his bid for one of three vice-presidencies, Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim, a vocal crusader against vote-buying, called for the Umno disciplinary board to investigate all members of the supreme council for money politics. "I hope the disciplinary board will look deeper into the matter," he said.

"If you look at the supreme council list, a few of them have hardly touched ground with real politics, yet they're in."

Rais, and many others in the party, perceive that the pleas of the party leadership to stop money politics remain largely unheeded.