by Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz. First published in The Malay Mail 6 Dec 2013

When Westminster parliamentary democracy was in its infancy, Members of Parliament received no salaries at all. The logic was that representing the people was entirely altruistic: it was a voluntary role and you were expected to have other sources of income or be already wealthy. This understanding eroded over time: not only did the duties of politicians become more onerous and require more resources, but the emerging Left argued that a lack of a salary excluded ordinary people from entering politics, thus guaranteeing the continued dominance of rich elites. Thus, it was in 1911 that British MPs were granted a regular salary, and in 1937 the Prime Minister began receiving a separate salary for that position.

Centuries ago, Malay sultanates did have mechanisms to remunerate court positions like Bendahara and Laksamana, but these structures were superseded when the bulk of administration was transferred to British Advisors. Later, as former colonies and protectorates gained independence, it was accepted that working for the people was a proper full-time job. Accordingly, parliaments the world over passed laws to determine and regulate the salaries and allowances of heads of state, heads of government, cabinet ministers, parliamentarians, judicial officers, statutory positions and the grades of the civil service.

Today, of course, our parliament and state assemblies contain many career politicians: individuals who expect to make a living out of representing and making decisions for the people who elected them. Complementarily, voters accept that politicians have chosen this as a career and, like everyone else, they have families to support and a life outside work.

The furore surrounding the increase in the salaries of the Selangor government has revealed disagreement amongst Malaysians about the ideal motivations of a politician, however. It is clear that many still believe that entering politics ought to be primarily an altruistic choice: you should not expect to become wealthy through politics. These people argue that the new pay hike is exorbitant, particularly when the majority of people’s wages have not even risen in line with inflation for years.

The contrary view holds that being a politician is a tough job that involves much personal sacrifice and a huge amount of responsibility. Other jobs with similar burdens pay much more: one comparison I heard is to doctors, for while both fields involve decisions that can transform lives, doctors typically earn far more.

Furthermore, good salary prospects are healthy for the profession as a whole – the “pay peanuts, get monkeys” argument. While there are many well-educated people who would like to contribute to society, joining politics is not a realistic option if they want to lead a reasonably comfortable life. Indeed, mid-level positions with international development organisations or corporate foundations pay more than the RM6,000 Selangor assemblymen were receiving before the hike. The theory is that more competitive wages will attract brighter and more capable candidates, and a recent comparison of educational achievements between our cabinet ministers and those of a neighbouring country famous for its high wages for politicians seems to illustrate this point.

Of course, one way for politicians to supplement their low wages is to engage in corruption. Indeed, an argument in defending the Selangor pay hike was essentially that “we are honest, but the other side abuses their positions to become wealthy”. There are research papers that link higher government wages with reduced corruption, but a majority opinion seems to say only up to a point: in richer countries, it is also vitally important to have strong judicial and anticorruption institutions.

But our situation is dire: individuals have admitted to me that they joined a party in order to make money, because it is easier to win contracts. (They did not admit that if you hold a senior enough party position, patronage becomes a nice earner too.) When corruption is so institutionalised, individual guilt evaporates.

So the ideal situation is still for honest individuals to become sufficiently wealthy before joining politics (as a few have), but if we accept that politics is a full-time and profoundly responsible career, then setting a salary paid by the taxpayer will always be difficult.

Describing the hikes in percentage terms made bad headlines for the Selangor government: a pay rise of 373% (for the Deputy Speaker) sounds extravagant, but the base (RM3,327.50) was modest. Still, these people came into office knowing what they would get paid: it would have been better to apply new rates from the next term of office (the opposition might have agreed to that!).

Also, rather than the legislature setting salaries directly (which looks entirely self-serving), politicians’ salaries could be explicitly linked to salaries in other sectors or institutions.
Alternatively, an independent commission could be made responsible for setting the pay scale.

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Tunku ’Abidin Muhriz is President of IDEAS

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