By Julian Hii
RECENTLY, the question of financial accountability has hogged the headlines following the disclosure by the Finance Minister on the 101 projects worth RM6.61 billion awarded without open tender by the Pakatan Harapan government.
I welcomed the disclosure, despite the fact that there’s a political element to this. As a taxpayer, I have a right to know if my hard-earned money which ends up in the state coffers, is properly used.
Be that as it may, as a Sarawakian, I am troubled by the lack of attention given to the financial accountability of one of the most resource-rich states in this country. I am referring to the Sarawak government’s practice of “Contributions Towards Approved Agencies Trust Fund”.
Based on news reports, the fund was set up in 2006 and until 2018, some RM18 billion had been unaccounted for. The budget is allocated yearly and approved by the state assembly and the quantum is not small, accounting for around 40 per cent of the state’s annual development expenditure.
What we know so far from publicly-available documents is that they are channeled to companies set up by the Sarawak government. But hardly information is available on what the money is used for!
There’s no oversight on how the money is used, or God forbid, misused. So far, the information that has appeared in bits and pieces has raised eyebrows. For example, the recipients include Equisar Sdn Bhd for developing among others, the Tanjung Manis Halal Hub.
But the Auditor-General’s Report released in 2018 showed the company, which also undertook a project to transfer raw water to the hub failed to achieve its target and was of no benefit to the hub.
The funds have also been linked to alleged US$1.6 billion “under the radar” bonds underwritten by Goldman Sachs, the international banker implicated in the 1MDB scandal. it also made headlines when Global Witness, an international environmental and human rights NGO found impropriety linked to politically-connected personalities.
The opposition, including Stampin MP and Kota Sentosa assemblyman Chong Chieng Jen, had been trying to raise public awareness over this for many many years, including in the state assembly. But their efforts had been stymied by legal proceedings initiated by the Sarawak government. So, the public now has to pressure the government for a full disclosure.
To be fair, I am not saying that the above examples are proof of wrongdoings. But just as government procurement exercises that bypass the open tender process must stand up to scrutiny, more so should public funds channeled by the billions of ringgit to entities outside public oversight.
In the name of transparency and accountability, we Sarawakians have a right to know where the money went, how it is used and what the returns are. The least the Sarawak government can do is to be transparent about this, given the colossal amount involved.
Julian Hii is a reader of The New Sarawak. The views here do not necessarily represent those of this portal.