KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 21 — The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) should investigate the promises made by caretaker prime minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob ahead of the 15th general election (GE15) to be held on November 19, electoral reform group Bersih has said.
Bersih chairman Thomas Fann explained the limits of a caretaker government which are generally practised, such as not giving out government allocations or “goodies” to get support from voters.
“Once Parliament is dissolved and election is called, by convention, the PM and his Cabinet are expected to operate as a caretaker government where they should not make any major policy decisions, make major appointments, enter into any major contracts or undertakings, involve civil servants in their campaign activities or give any allocations using public funds.
“The caretaker government will remain in place until the next government and Cabinet is formed after the general election. This is to ensure that the country is never without a government for a period of time,” he told Malay Mail when contacted.
“However, it is not uncommon for caretaker governments in Malaysia to abuse their role and give out allocations or ‘election goodies’ to try and win votes for their parties,” he added.
Previously, the government had on October 7 tabled its proposed Budget 2023. Before Budget 2023 could be debated and voted on, Parliament was dissolved on October 10, leading to an earlier GE15.
Within days of Parliament’s dissolution and before the election campaign period could even begin, announcements of government policies or allocations have been made publicly.
Fann pointed out the differences between allocations of public funds that were already approved by the government but announced after Parliament’s dissolution, as compared to promises for allocations that have not been approved but are also announced after Parliament’s dissolution.
“Allocations or announcements that are already approved or planned before the dissolution of Parliament but released after dissolution are in our view, unethical as it renders the electoral playing field uneven.
“As there are no laws to regulate the conduct of a caretaker government, it cannot be considered an offence. However, an informed voting public could punish the incumbent government at the ballot box for the abuses,” he said when referring to pre-approved decisions only announced after Parliament’s dissolution.
On the other hand, Fann suggested that unapproved allocations could fall under the Election Offences Act’s Section 10, which covers the offence of “bribery”.
“But if the allocation or promise made by the caretaker PM is not part of a pre-approved plan by the Cabinet or part of the party’s election manifesto, and is conditional upon the caretaker PM winning the election, it could be considered as a corrupt practice under Section 10 of the Election Offences Act 1954,” he said.
But Fann noted it would all depend on whether such promises are part of the election manifesto typically made by political parties.
“The promise to cancel the debts of the Felcra settlers and Risda smallholders by caretaker PM Ismail Sabri the other day, and his dangling of the unapproved Budget to voters, can be considered an attempt to bribe the voters if these promises are not in the BN election manifesto.
“A distinction has to be drawn between such verbal promises made during campaigning and promises made in a party’s manifesto because the very purpose of an election manifesto is to list out the promises a party is offering to fulfill should the party win,” he said.
On October 13, Ismail Sabri had for example announced a reduction in toll fares for six highways in the Klang Valley, but he was reported to have said the Cabinet had made these decisions for four of the highways in a May 18 meeting and for the remaining two in a June 1 meeting.
There were other reported comments by Ismail Sabri which at times appeared to be referring to allocations which are part of the unapproved Budget 2023, which he touted as being able to be fulfilled by retabling it if his political party wins. It was at times unclear from the news reports if such announcements were referring to past, current or future allocations.
In a Bera Umno event, Ismail Sabri had on October 16 reportedly said: “If you want the Budget to be implemented, vote for us and then (the Budget) can be re-tabled and approved.”
Ismail Sabri was reported on October 15 mentioning allocations of RM200,000 and RM100,000 for two separate associations for former police personnel at the nationwide and Pahang state level, and on October 16 highlighting allocations for the ethnic Indian community.
On October 17, he also spoke about a one-off RM1,000 payment to the head of each Orang Asli community nationwide and the government’s decision to write off hundreds of millions of ringgit in debt for Felcra participants.
Fann voiced Bersih’s call for a probe to determine which of the two categories such recent announcements by Ismail Sabri fell under.
“The MACC should open an investigation into the caretaker PM’s offers of debt cancellations, the unapproved Budget and even the allocations that are being handed out whether they were already approved by the Cabinet or that he is using taxpayer’s monies to buy votes,” he said.
“We also call for either the enactment of a Caretaker Government Act to regulate the conduct of a government that is also contesting in an election, or the appointment of a temporary non-political caretaker government during elections so as to ensure fairness among contesting political parties,” he added.
Currently, Malaysia does not have laws to set out the limits of what caretaker governments can do.
Countries such as the UK and New Zealand provide brief guidelines for caretaker governments in their Cabinet Manual.
Australia also provides a guideline for caretaker governments, while Canada’s guideline advises caretaker governments to limit activity on policy, spending and appointments to those that are “routine, non-controversial, urgent and in the public interest, reversible by a new government without undue cost or disruption, or agreed to by opposition parties (in those cases where consultation is appropriate)”.
(First published by Malaymail, 21 October 2022: https://www.malaymail.com/news/malaysia/2022/10/21/bersih-urges-macc-probe-into-caretaker-pms-pre-ge15-offers-introduction-of-caretaker-government-act/34791)