Ministerial perks – time to revisit?

These are revelations that’s bound to raise the ire and irk the rakyat.

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Published in BusinessToday, Astro Awani, Focus Malaysia & Asia News Today, image by BusinessToday.

In times of crises, including at the present, we shouldn’t expect the political elite of the day to continue with pre-existing perks/benefits/privileges and pensions – and even salaries – which gives out the perception of “unbridled” enjoyment of “lavish” treatment, rightly or wrongly.

Of course, this is always at the expense of the money belonging to the rakyat.

And yet, as recently revealed by Member of Parliament (MP) for Muar, Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman and leader of the Muda (Malaysian United Democratic Alliance) party, there’s been no let up in the provisioning of ministers’ salaries and perks during what’s an unprecedented spell and the most devastating economic impact ever – brought about by Covid-19.

In fact, ministers have doubled down on their claims and self-entitlements which have created anxiety and unease among MPs giving their due response on behalf of the rakyat – who have been put through the most severe economic and socio-economic upheaval so far.

This is set against a real-world backdrop where it’s been estimated that unemployment together with under-employment could well have reached more than two million by now. Some have had to endure pay cuts before the wage subsidy kicked in. Worst still are those whose pay cuts were never restored.

Tragically, thousands of businesses have shut down simply because they were unable to withstand the impact from the movement control orders (MCOs) or lockdowns that had caused such a drastic drop in sales in conventional or face-to-face transactions. Hundreds of thousands more are on the verge of bankruptcy and closure.

For businesses that have adapted to and adopted digitalisation by way of low contact transactions, some (i.e., high growth businesses) have found success and their niche in the market through e-commerce platforms such as Shopify Plus, and digital marketing solutions providers in the form of Meekco, among others.

Whereas for the wider real economy, getting onboard delivery platforms like Grab, Food Panda, Shopee, Lazada, it’s been a mixed picture. Many continue to struggle and sales from digital orders barely cover the losses from the conventional or face-to-face transactions.

On top of that, businesses suffer from the perennial cashflow problem that’s compounded by high gearing ratios or highly leveraged financial positions (i.e., high debt) as well as outstanding rental payments to landlords, among others.

A staggering 580,000 households from the M40 classification have slipped into the B40 category whereas there are now 639800 households that are deemed as poor as of 2020. Incidences of absolute poverty – that’s supposed to have abolished a long time ago – increased to a scandalous 8.4%. All of these data are from the Department of Statistics (Dosm) applying the current Poverty Line Income (PLI) set at RM2,208 per month.

In short, statistics after statistics from our socio-economic data point to a grim outlook.  For the vast majority of the rakyat, they continue to struggle to survive and cope whilst some have barely enough to put food on the table.

According to Syed Saddiq, “… a cabinet member gets paid RM50,000 a month. On top of this, a minister also gets a lavish home in Putrajaya, a car, a driver, a licence plate that is worth hundreds of thousands, an approved permit (AP) to bring in luxury cars, and a plot of land in Putrajaya, among others” (“Syed Saddiq shines spotlight on how MPs, ministers make big bucks via long service”, Malaysiakini, September 29, 2021).

Furthermore, “… ministers can also claim for meal expenses, and holiday allowances” which can range from RM100,000 and RM200,000 for holidays per year.

And “… when a minister steps down, they get gratuity pay which is based on the minister’s term as an MP. If an MP has served four to five terms, even if they served as a minister for one day, their gratuity payout exceeds RM1 million”.

These are revelations that’s bound to raise the ire and irk the rakyat even more as they reel under the effect of the restrictions imposed upon them as a result of the government’s having to balance between lives and livelihoods as part of the measures to contain and manage the transmission of the virus.

To further accentuate the contrasting standards and backdrop, perhaps we can point to the situation where austerity had been unfairly imposed on the populace.

We have learnt from the lessons of other countries that austerity shouldn’t be imposed on the rakyat during times of economic difficulties. Countries such as Greece that experienced austerity saw its gross domestic product (GDP), and output and employment contracting and shrunk massively.

In the UK, the austerity measures (timed over a five-year period) were unable to go on full swing as it stalled by 2012 when GDP fell to 0.2% (in inflation-adjusted GDP – this is below the level in 2007, i.e., the year before the onset of the Great Recession of 2008/09).

But savings and cuts should be made by the government on itself. If at all, any self-imposed constraints and restraint should be upon the government’s internal expenditure. Whatever one wants to call it – “efficiency savings” and what-not.

Specifically, the government should go all out in plugging the leakages and wastages from public expenditure as reported in the Auditor-General’s Report year after year by tightening up the screws on the procurement process and implementing a zero-based budgetary system (introduced by former Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng).

More to the point, and to put it simply – ministers’ pay, perks and pensions should be revisited and subject to a reasonable reduction, accordingly.

For one, there should be a temporary or time-limited cap on ministerial pay, perks and pensions across the board. On top of that, there shall be a freeze or halt to any proposed rises.

Just because the government is “splashing” or rather to be more precise allocating funds to the rakyat to help them tide over the impact from the pandemic, it, therefore, doesn’t mean that ministers are “equally” entitled to a “helping” as “reward” for what they’re doing.

Such casuistry, if at all, is only self-serving above all.

A mild or modest belt tightening of this kind on our ministers doesn’t hurt them in any way at all. In fact, it’ll elevate their standing in the eyes of the rakyat and assure them that our political elite and masters truly empathise with their situation.

A big thanks again to Syed Saddiq for raising and highlighting this matter.

The MP – and former Minister for Youth and Sports himself – is a stellar wakil rakyat who’s gone all out to help his constituents in every possible way with much of the costs being borne personally.

Please, dear ministers, can we see some show of real empathy here?

Jason Loh Seong Wei is Head of Social, Law & Human Rights at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focussed on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

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