Political funding and transparency: an Islamic perspective

– Maszlee Malik and Musa Mohd Nordin
The Malaysian Insider
21 August 2015

It is widely accepted that the practice of good governance leads to higher investment and growth, hence development. And political accountability has been highly regarded as one of the sine qua non elements in the governance equation.

Transparency in party financing as well as asset disclosure are amongst the crucial characteristics of political accountability in many developed nations.

A myriad of researches and reports have shown that the lack of openness in money and politics has often contributed to the corruption of political finance.

Thus, policymakers aspiring for sustainable national development must seriously address the transparency of money in politics.

Many researchers in the field of money and politics claim that too much money is either hidden, goes unreported, or is acquired from illicit sources.

Secret money and corruption hurts the economy and the polity of a nation as well as distorts the behaviour of politicians, hence development falters and citizen confidence in democracy wanes.

Civil society in the developed world has begun to play an increasingly important role in the inquiry and unravelling of the sources of political party and campaign funds. This mechanism is however wanting in the developing world.

Why transparency?

Disclosure is one of the many ways by which nations have tried to control the
flow of money into politics. From the perspective of the electorate and civil society, disclosure enables them to see the origins of political money, how it flows and how it may influence legislative behaviour.

To the politician or political parties, disclosure means giving up some modicum of privacy to gain credibility through the practice of accountability. The need for more disclosure laws means that parties simply need to be more open about their honest money and allow more transparency.

In a democracy, disclosure reports are to politics, what financial statements are to businesses. Both are “accounting systems”; one for the accuracy of profits, the other for the level of “accountability” of elected leaders.

Increasing emphasis on transparency in politics engenders a lot of benefit to the people and nation. It will first and foremost increase the legitimacy and credibility of the political governance.

Illegal money can too easily find its way into the governance equation and cast aspersions.

A “pornography king” was found to have contributed a large sum of money to the Labor Party in the UK and more than just eyebrows were raised.

In Latin America, many still remember the financial scandal between the president of Colombia and the drug lords. Without disclosure, money can come from anywhere in the world, and in incredible amounts too.

And since money often determines the victor in a political contest, the transparency of fiscal origins and its use are fundamental!

No disclosure means no enforcement is ever possible. Without disclosure reporting requirements for contributions, there would be no way to enforce campaign contribution limits.

Without disclosure about spending, there could be no way of enforcing spending limits.

Without disclosure of a donor’s identity and citizenship, there is no way to enforce bans on foreign contributions. Countries that have meagre enforcement of political finance will most likely have weak or non-existent disclosure laws.

Transparency builds confidence in the democratic process.

A government that is transparent, open and accountable enhances its credibility and enjoys the trust and confidence of its citizens.

The rakyat feels comfortable and reassured with their government and political leaders who are responsible and transparent about public and political finances. In contrast, the lack of transparency makes people lose confidence in both the government and the system.

Legislation on financial disclosure

Political financial disclosure can never be effective without both a legal framework and enforcement. In many countries that legislated political financial disclosure, the laws and enforcement principally contain two major structural components:

1) a provision that any financial donation or aid, including other resources such as loans or equipment etc., should be accurately and promptly reported to a designated agency/commission;

2) a disclosure law stipulates that all financial reports be made available to the public for review and analysis as soon as practicable.

Furthermore, any political financial disclosure laws would only be truly effective in promoting transparency and openness if it clearly expose five major crucial elements of the process: 1) The donor(s); 2) The amount of the donation/aid; 3) Time the donation/aid was made/given; 4) The recipient(s); the name of the party or candidate receiving the money or 
”anything of value”; 5) Purpose(s) of the donation/aid, by explicitly mentioning in detail the name of the vendor or person receiving the money identified by name and category of the expenditure.

If political parties, candidates and donors could be exposed transparently and in detail through these five elements in a timely manner and accessible to the public about their political financing arrangements, only then the laws would become useful. Otherwise, it won’t add anything new or useful to the practice of governance.

However, getting transparency codified into law is a critical step. In many instances, disclosure and transparency often occurred randomly rather than planned for.

The calls for more transparency in many countries only emerged after the exposure of big scandals involving political parties or government or politicians by the media.

The classical example was the Watergate and the Enron scandals that eventually led to legal regulations on campaign finance in the US.

Nevertheless, there are a few countries who chose a gradual approach to disclosure by implementing “personal asset disclosure” as a way of opening the door for later, more comprehensive reporting by candidates and parties instead of having specific laws for political financial disclosure.

Every country works through this at its own pace. In the US for example, it took almost 40 years between disclosure laws being enacted and disclosure laws being enforced.

The Islamic experience

The Quran instructs:

“Allah commands you to deliver the trusts to those to whom they are due; and whenever you judge between people, judge with justice…” (Quran, 4: 58).

In another verse:

“Follow God, follow the Prophet, and those from among you who have been entrusted with authority” (Quran, 4: 59).

The fundamental principles of governance based on the Quranic concept of trust (amanah) and its implication on society are illuminated by these verses.

On elaborating the general idea of trust upon each individual, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said:

“Behold, each one of you is a guardian, and each one of you will be asked about his subjects. A leader is a guardian over the people and he will be asked about his subjects; a man is a guardian over the members of his household and he will be asked about his subjects; a woman is a guardian over the members of the household of her husband and of his children, and she will be asked about them; a servant of a man is a guardian over the property of his master, and he will be asked about it.” (Narrated by al-Bukhari and Muslim)

Amanah within the individuals’ self will create self-accountability to guide his conduct, which will create an inner feeling of responsibility to deliver the trust given and enable him to refrain from corruption and mismanagement.

Amanah is thus the underpinning philosophy for accountability, transparency and competency in serving the society whether in the public or private sector. Such a system with effective supporting institutions will bring the governance process closer to the notion of iman (faith) as the fruit of amanah.

Furthermore, self- realisation of such concepts within individuals will contribute towards the micro-discipline of society.

The Prophet (pbuh) had demonstrated the articulation of amanah in his life as he was known, even before becoming a prophet, as al-amin (the trustworthy).

Furthermore, in preserving and instilling the concept of accountability, the Prophet, as a leader, allowed himself to be held accountable and criticised by his companions on several occasions.

When Ibn Lutaybiyah an Amil (tax collector) during the time of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) returned to Madinah, he was seen loaded with tax revenues, and asserted that a substantive portion of the revenue was given to him as tokens from certain people. The Prophet (pbuh) reminded him saying:

“What is wrong with the man whom we appointed as a tax collector and he said this is for you and that was given to me? If he stayed in his parent’s house, would something be given to him?” (Narrated by al-Bukhari and Muslim)

On another occasion, the Prophet was quoted as constantly reminding his companions by saying: “Whomsoever we appoint over an affair, we shall give him provision. What he takes after that is breach of trust.” (Narrated by Abu Daud)

The practise of transparency and accountability was also documented during the rule of the rightly guided caliphs. Omar, the second caliph, whilst delivering the Friday sermon was interrupted by an ordinary person who said, “O the leader of the believers, I won’t listen to your sermon until you explain how you came up with your long dress (Arabian robe)”.

Apparently, there was some distribution of fabric to the people and given the measure of distribution and the height of Omar; he could not have made a dress out of his single share.

So, a vigilant voice of egalitarianism unhesitatingly challenged Omar, the leader of a vast caliphate.

Omar’s son stood up, explaining that he gave his share to his father, so that a dress could be made to fit Omar. The vigilant voice then expressed his approval and sat down, and Omar resumed his sermon (narrated by Ibn Qutaybah, 2002: 1/55).

Omar’s policy on accountability did not end with the primitive style of verbal complaints and condemnations from the public. As for the public offices, he established a specific office to deal with the public administrators’ accountability.

The office was designed for the investigation of complaints that reached the Caliph against the officers of the State.

When it was first established, Omar appointed Muhammad ibn Maslamah to take the responsibility of this ombudsman-like department. In important cases, Muhammad ibn Maslamah was deputed by Omar to proceed to the location, investigate the charge and take action.

Sometimes an Inquiry Commission was constituted to investigate the charge. Whenever the officers raised complaints against him, they were summoned to Madinah, and the case was brought before the Caliph himself.

The caliph also dismissed governors when the people complained against them; amongst them was the Prophet’s companion, Saad Ibnu Abi Waqqas (Majdalawi, 2000: 86 and 90).

The same function was conducted in a later phase of Muslim history by a specially designed office known as Diwan al-Mazalim which can be understood as the classical version of the contemporary ombudsman.

Once while delivering a sermon, Omar said:

“My rights over public funds (the Baitul Mal) are similar to those of the guardians of an orphan. If well placed in life, I will not claim anything from it. In case of need, I shall draw only as much as it constitutionally allowed for providing food.

“You have every right to question me anything about, any improper accumulation of the revenue and bounty collections, improper utilization of the treasury money, provision of the daily bread to all, border- security arrangements and harassment caused to any citizen.” (Ibn Saad, no date: 3: 215-19)

Omar represents the authentic practice of transparency where a ruler, as well as the state officers, should have nothing to hide from the public and are open to scrutiny of their usage of public wealth.

On, the same account he was recorded by historians to have issued a certificate witnessed by the group of elders to all duly appointed governors stipulating that the governor should not ride an expensive horse, or eat white bread, or wear any fine cloth, or prevent the people’s needs (from being satisfied) (al-Tabari, 1994: XIV/113).


The scandalous undisclosed “donation” fiasco has unearthed the malignant and deep-seated corruption of political funding in Malaysia.

This has inevitably led to the overwhelming trust deficit amongst the rakyat towards her political leaders. The lack of transparency, accountability and competency of the ruling political elite has angered the rakyat and civil society who are now demanding for answers and clamouring for change.

First and foremost, the highly controversial 1Malaysia Development Berhad issue must be thoroughly investigated by the civil institutions of the Attorney-General’s office, Bank Negara, Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission and the police without any interference whatsoever from the Executive.

Next, the undisclosed “donation” must be similarly investigated by the due process of the law. Until and unless, these two “national fiscal tragedies” are resolved justly, the rakyat and civil society will not have any trust whatsoever in the sincerity or seriousness of the political leaders towards addressing the issues of political finance and funding.

These two pressing national issues once resolved, would pave the way for legislation not only on political funding disclosure but also asset declaration by all politicians and their immediate family members.

The disclosure laws would increase overall transparency and inform the public about the financial transactions of political parties, politicians and others involved in the electoral process.

Among others it would disclose the public funding of election campaigns and financial information of political parties.

It requires political parties and their branches, politicians, donors and others participating in the electoral process to lodge regular financial disclosure returns with a national electoral commission. These would be made readily available for public scrutiny.

The trust (amanah) needs to be guarded jealously and the disclosure laws is designed to serve just this purpose. It behoves at this juncture to narrate the admonition of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) when he said:

“Discussions are confidential (not subject to disclosure) except in three places: “Shedding unlawful blood, unlawful cohabitation and unlawful accumulation of wealth”. (Narrated by Abu Dawud). – August 21, 2015.

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