I WAS taken by surprise with MACC deputy chief commissioner (operations) Datuk Azam Baki’s remarks that there must be grounds to investigate the wealth of political leaders before a formal probe is initiated, “Azam: We need valid reasons to probe wealth of political leaders” (The Star, Aug 9).
As he acknowledged, there are many wealthy people but that does not mean they got their wealth through corruption or abuse of power. Furthermore, there is no law in our country to prevent people from getting rich.
The crux of the matter is how to uncover or detect whether a politician or public servant or anyone else for that matter is seen to be corrupt. If you were a public servant all your life, you could never become a multi-millionaire or have a few million ringgit from your salary and retirement gratuity alone no matter how high your position was.
You would not be able to support a lifestyle that does not commensurate with your pension or own expensive cars like Porsche, Mercedes or BMW and luxury houses or apartments and membership in prestigious and expensive clubs. If you can have these, then you must have huge savings hidden somewhere or a substantial amount of inherited wealth.
Just check their background from their service records in the case of public servants. If you are a politician, depending on the number of terms you serve as a wakil rakyat and regardless of the positions you hold, you also cannot become a millionaire or have a few million ringgit unless you have other side incomes that are far bigger than what you receive from your political appointments.
For public servants and politicians, we know the amount they receive in salaries and allowances. But we don’t know how much ministers earn apart from their official salaries as they also receive other allowances which are kept confidential. These can be fairly substantial and could exceed their official salaries, but they still cannot become millionaires after completing their terms of office.
In the 60s and 70s, salaries for ministers, including the prime minister, were published in the annual budget presented to Parliament. It was public knowledge back then but it isn’t so now.
For both politicians and public servants, it is fairly easy to detect who is living a lifestyle that’s beyond their legitimate incomes. If the MACC cannot identify them, then there is something wrong somewhere.
In fighting corruption, public information and cooperation are vital. The Whistleblower Protection Act is very helpful although people generally are still sceptical and even fearful of taking advantage of it to help the authorities because they think they would get in trouble in the end.
In this respect, the MACC must also rely on other sources like flying letters and grapevine stories even though these may prove to be untrue or sound like witch-hunting.
Flying or anonymous letters are usually written after observing, for instance, individuals who become rich suddenly while in service or immediately after retiring in the case of public servants or after serving one or two terms in office for politicians.
Public servants are quite smart at hiding their wealth rewards (money, physical assets and etc) by having proxies (individuals or companies) to look after their interests while they are in service. And some are able to rope in powerful and influential individuals who provide them with the necessary protection against possible investigation. This can happen quite easily in any organisation where corruption is already endemic or institutionalised, as in some government organisations of late. This is quite rampant and much talked about especially by the Y generation who are a very informed and enlightened lot.
It is up to the MACC team to keep their ears and eyes close to the ground and at the same time to “sniff” the environment when anything suspicious is raised by flying letters, public gossip and even coffeeshop talk.
The suspects must be continuously watched and trailed. Don’t just confine the exercise to people who are still in service. Go after those who have retired as well, especially those who are living a luxurious lifestyle and own assets that do not commensurate with their known legitimate incomes.
One powerful tool to use to pin down any suspect is the Income Tax Act which compels individuals to prepare a full income statement under a statutory declaration as provided by Section 79 of the Act.
If the MACC is allowed to use this Act, it would achieve two objectives simultaneously – detect if there was tax evasion on the one hand and a prima facie case of corruption if the person cannot account for all his incomes and expenditures on the other.
DATUK AHMAD SIDEK