There was an interesting debate in the Dewan Rakyat this week. Opposition Umno members took offense to the use of the word “robbed” by Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng after the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) concluded that the previous administration had not “robbed” RM19.4 billion in Goods and Sales Tax (GST) credit funds as stated by Lim last year.
According to the PAC, the money didn’t go missing, it was just used for “operational and development expenditures”. The GST collection was kept in the Consolidated Fund and released in stages as and when needed and decided by the GST refund committee.
PAC chairperson Datuk Dr Noraini Ahmad (who, by the way, is Umno Wanita chief), however, added that this procedure was “not in line” with Section 54 (2) and Section 54 (5) of the GST Act 2014 which required that all GST collection must be credited into the GST refund account.
The fact is — and the PAC concurs — that the GST revenue was unlawfully diverted. Whether that constitutes stealing or not is the unanswered question.
This episode reminds me of the cases of staff who take out money from the petty cash entrusted in their keeping and use it for their own purposes but who put it back before the employers find out. Their employers may know what is going on and may ignore it since the money is always reimbursed, until one day it isn’t and then they are caught.
This is a common practice among some and they may not see this as stealing but others may. However, when large sums and, especially, public funds are involved, no leader should be given that much of leeway to do as he or she pleases and get away with not strictly following the law in ensuring that the allocated money goes for the designated purpose and nowhere else, even temporarily.
Leaders are human and they err like everyone else. That’s the reason there are laws which clearly spell out how funds are to be disbursed. If they don’t follow the law, that’s a serious breach of trust. But is it stealing?
Some may say it is not because the intent is to replace the money taken. What if for whatever reason the money can’t be replaced? Would that then become stealing?
If I were the person moving the money around — no matter how much I trusted myself not to misuse the money — I would see it as stealing because I would be using money that isn’t mine. Even if some may argue that it doesn’t amount to stealing, doesn’t it smack of dishonesty?