Asset declarations turn into political hot potato

MALAYSIA - In a bid to seize the ethical high ground, some 30 assemblymen in Penang state have publicly declared their assets, putting renewed pressure on the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition and other opposition leaders to follow suit.

So is this the way forward for all elected officials, or just another political gamesmanship between BN and the opposition?

The answer is not so clear-cut.

For one thing, BN Cabinet ministers and elected representatives for several years have had to declare their assets - and those held by their wives and children - when they come into office.

But the lists are seen only by Prime Minister Najib Razak.

By contrast, the properties, cash, shares and cars owned by Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, his 10 state executive councillors (exco) as well as 19 other assemblymen were made public last week on the website of the Penang state government. The list is audited by Grant Thornton accountants.

"I am all for this because people can see if you have excessive assets and whether those are from your own efforts," Datuk S. S. Subramaniam, a former federal deputy minister who joined the opposition in 2009, told The Straits Times.

The move by Mr Lim, who is also secretary-general of the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP), was followed by promises from many opposition leaders that they would do the same soon.

Mr Lim said he and his exco members had declared their assets to the public last year. With last week's declarations by PR assemblymen in Penang, they have fulfilled their 2013 election promise, he said.

PR Members of Parliament in Penang were excluded as it is up to their respective party whips, and not the Chief Minister, to decide if they need to do the same.

The idea is meeting resistance from some PR leaders.

Not everyone is comfortable with letting the public - and potentially, criminals - know how many houses they own, how much cash they have and what cars they drive.

Selangor Menteri Besar Khalid Ibrahim, a multi-millionaire from his days heading government-linked companies, said last month that his exco members and he will not make public declarations of their assets as they feared for their personal and family's safety.

Meanwhile, others want even town councillors and senior officers working in the opposition-held states of Penang, Selangor and Kelantan to declare their assets.

Opposition chief Anwar Ibrahim said he would like to hold a meeting of top PR leaders to discuss the matter as "we could not ask every single citizen to declare their assets".

To others, there is also a catch in Penang's asset declaration - non-elected family members are not included. So in theory at least, some assets could still be tucked away under the names of wives and children, perhaps even using offshore companies.

Asked why family members were not included last week, Chief Minister Lim said this was because this was not promised in PR's 2013 election manifesto.

To BN leaders like Mr Zaharin Mohd Yassin, secretary of an Umno division in Kuala Lumpur, that's not enough.

"This showing of your public assets, but not that of your family members," he said, "is political provocation by the opposition."

What some politicians say they own

PENANG Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng has RM308,368 (S$119,678) in fixed deposits and owns two fully-paid for shophouses in Malacca worth nearly RM1 million, according to his asset declaration which is posted on the website of the state govenrment.

He does not own a car, and when asked by reporters last week, said he travels in his official car that comes with a driver provided by the state.

Mr Lim's net worth is somewhere in the middle of what the other 29 Penang assemblymen had declared.

An assemblyman from Parti Islam SeMalaysia, Datuk Salleh Man, said in his declaration form that he does not own any property or company stocks. He only has a motorcyle bought for RM5,000 and a Toyota Altis bought for RM118,000.

Another assemblyman, Mr Maktar Haji Sapee from Parti Keadilan Rakyat, has even less to his name, with only a Proton Persona bought for RM60,000.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are Penang politicians who have a string of assets.

This group is led by Mr Phee Boon Poh from the Democratic Action Party who said he owns inherited houses and land in New Zealand. Their worth is not given.

He also has two apartments, a house and two pieces of land in Penang.

In addition, Mr Phee has shares in 24 companies, and unit trusts in six funds, with their value not declared.

Another politician, DAP state exco member, Mr Lim Hock Seng, owns two apartments, a landed house, two pieces of land, and part of a shophouse and a factory in Penang.

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