(Car images by Two Hundred Percent, source: Wikipedia; background image source: Dreamstime.com)
I PERSONALLY find declaring one’s assets, as the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM) did at the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall on 11 Mar 2009, a little embarrassing. Personal income and wealth are normally considered one’s private domain. Most people would consider it intrusive or even downright rude if an acquaintance were to inquire into one’s income and savings.
But there we were, the five PSM members holding public office, declaring our assets (or rather our relative lack thereof) for all to see. In a society that tends to evaluate individuals on the basis of their material possessions, our public declaration of the meagreness of our material possessions was in effect a public admission of our “failure” in conventional terms.
But we did not have much choice, as PSM had promised that this is what we would do yearly, as long as we held public office. And promises to the rakyat must be kept.
PSM, of course, has good reasons to insist on asset declaration. For far too long, Malaysian politicians have used public office as a shortcut to amassing wealth. So much so that it has almost become “acceptable”. It is seen as something politicians do. It is also rampant in many other developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
PSM feels that we need to take a firm stand on this, and play a leading role in developing an alternative political culture. Elected positions should be used for the good of the people whose votes we begged and cajoled for. Those who want to amass wealth should go into business, not politics. Politicians should take a “vow of poverty” like Catholic priests do — at least for the period in which they hold public office. Only then will there be no conflict of personal interest with the promises we make to the electorate.
So we at PSM steeled ourselves, and told the world how little we possessed. The PSM press event appears to have forced several Pakatan Rakyat (PR) politicians to confront the issue of asset declaration. The first steps towards developing an alternative political culture, perhaps?
Keeping the spirit alive
Coming clean on income and assets also has another useful function within the party — it keeps alive the spirit of sacrifice and volunteerism among ordinary members who do not hold public office.
PSM has a core of active volunteers who have been sacrificing their time selflessly for the past 10 years. What would be the impact on the spirit of volunteerism and sacrifice among the ordinary members if I were to act as if the RM15,000 that I receive monthly was mine exclusively? RM15,000 is more than seven times the income of most of the other members in PSM’s Sungai Siput branch. And I cannot deny that I won this particular seat through the sustained activism of PSM members and supporters both within and outside Sungai Siput.
I treat my RM15,000 monthly income not as my personal right that no one else has a right to question; I treat it as a source of funding for the work PSM is doing, from which I take a modest monthly stipend. I believe this approach contributes to the maintenance of the spirit of volunteerism that is so essential to the further growth of PSM.
(Crossroads image by LostMyHeadache / Flickr)
Malaysia is at the crossroads. The old political order has grown corrupt and self-serving. It probably is past repair and is in the process of being replaced by a new coalition of parties. The slate for this new coalition is still clean.
As the first generation of this new order, I and the rest of my cohorts in PSM and PR are in a unique position. We can actually determine the standards that those coming after us will have to live up to. This, I think, encapsulates the significance of the asset declaration press conference on 11 Mar 2009.
Salam perjuangan! We can build a better world.
Dr Michael Jeyakumar Devaraj is a physician by training and a founding member of PSM. He is currently Member of Parliament for Sungai Siput.