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The financial disadvantage of being councillor

Hands holding stacks of RM50 notes

I AM a politician in the public’s eyes. Along with that recognition is the belief that I am flushed with cash, simply because my position allows me access to multitudes of government projects.

Being supposedly cash rich, I am also expected to donate handsomely to needy people. To finance these handsome donations, I am expected to earn handsomely, too.

Indeed, with the Petaling Jaya City Council (MBPJ) having an annual budget of RM250 million, I and my fellow councillors can be considered directors of a multi-million ringgit company whose shareholders are the 600,000 or so Petaling Jaya residents.

However, the job isn’t financially rewarding. I receive between RM1,800 and RM2,000 a month for doing what is essentially a full-time job that takes up my nights and my weekends. This is because the public can only meet me after office hours and also because people expect me to meet them to solve their problems. At the same time, I try to contribute to public discussion about local council issues by keeping up my Ampersand column in The Nut Graph for free.

To make ends meet, I work late nights writing press releases for private corporations.

I know of two DAP-appointed councillors who quit after the first year, simply because the strain on their personal lives and finances was too much to handle.

The offers

While trying to juggle between earning enough to pay my bills and serving the public, I have friends who call me “stupid”. They argue that there is an alternative source of income that I am entitled to as a councillor.

My friends are of course referring to the verbal offers of compensation I get. In return for help in securing a contract from the council, I will receive 5% to 7% of a project’s value. That I refuse such offers often comes as a surprise to those who make such offers.

Not everyone who approaches me offers me such incentives nor is it my intent to slander any individual or organisation working with the local council. My point, however, is that these offers are made regularly. Indeed, it is the norm for those of us who are in power to receive such offers.

It should be alarming that there are people who would still offer such deals. It points towards a possible weakness in the system that can be exploited with the collusion of councillors who may be less than upright and honest.

No right or wrong

Speech dialoges refuting bribes
Councillors earn less than most assume, especially if they reject bribes
Bribe offers don’t just come from those seeking to make a profit. Even the poor offer to compensate me for my help. Hawkers seeking to get a licence to poor folks looking to land a job at the local council sometimes ask me what they need to pay to get what they want. This is even after I tell them, for the umpteenth time, that they do not have to pay me.

“You need to make a living, too,” said a middle-class resident whom I had helped who wanted to “compensate” me. “You are one of the best councillors we have. You visit us personally, not like the councillors last time. We want to make sure you stay in office so that our rights can be protected.”

Other residents whom I have helped, however, tell me they expect me to bend over backwards to meet their demands since my position purportedly provides me with other “benefits”.

It is this line of thinking that troubles me because it demonstrates that the public is not concerned about what is right and wrong. For them, bribery is an acceptable reality and they expect that politicians are on the take.

Surveys may tell us that peninsular Malaysians reject corrupt leaders. But the evidence on the ground, at least for me, is quite the reverse. favicon

MBPJ councillor KW Mak bumped into some print journalists one day at a kopitiam. One reporter, whom he was not familiar with, asked straightaway if he was going to pay for their lunch. Regardless of whether the journalist was joking, he thinks the statement reflects the prevalent mindset about the relationship between politicians and some journalists.

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16 Responses to “The financial disadvantage of being councillor”

  1. vinod nair says:

    Time to upgrade their salaries NOW!!!

  2. MarinaM says:

    So true! And you don’t have to be a councillor to be in the same position. If anyone thinks you are in a position to “make things happen”, either you are asked to fork out money for scholarships/bail/rent etc, or someone offers you an “incentive” to get something for them. I used to solve this by making them write down what they were offering me. This usually made them back off hurriedly.

    But yes, there is this terrible mindset that someone else should always belanja because they surely must have money because of their position. They reckon that if they were in the same position, they’d do the same. So if they think that way, you must do, too. People assume everyone’s values are the same.

  3. ash says:

    Well I guess, as you have been appointed, you accepted for the sake of serving. Just do it as how the previous councillors had to juggle.

  4. Angie says:

    This is indeed a very good sharing. It is also an eye opener to many who assume too much.

    Overall, there is a definite urgent need for the adjustment of salaries and allowances. Life in the Klang Valley isn’t cheap.

    A family man will find it very tough to make ends meet with this salary. Reality will force you to quit or walk towards the wrong direction.

    Hopefully there will be a review for all of you to enable you continue with your service.

  5. caffy says:

    I love this article! Sounds so much like things my uncle, who was a PR-appointed councilor, told me. I’d laughed at how he had to be all tenderfoot with those gifts (hampers and such sent to his house will be sent to the orphanages, with pictures taken as evidence), to avoid being accused of corruption.

    I salute your refusal to accept ‘commission’! And I agree with the salary upgrade. Some sacrifice has to be made when a person goes into public service, but not to this extent.

  6. Ex councillor says:

    I am a doctor and I agree with what K W Mak has written. I too was a councillor many years back. I was paid RM 50.00 for each meeting I attended. The meeting may take hours and the time spent away from my clinic reduced my income. I do not mind the reduced income but because of that, most of the other councillors were only interested in ‘projects’. Proposals were made to ‘steal’ state land for personal use. In the end, I quit.

  7. Sean says:

    “I receive between RM1,800 and RM2,000 a month.”

    Is there a credible reference for pay scales for councillors somewhere? I thought I’d read something quite different in another article. My intention is not to call into doubt KW’s words, but to upgrade my ignorance on an important issue. My view is that the best way to inoculate people against bribery is with a regular, inert cash injection.

  8. yf Chung says:

    If MBPJ has an RM250million budget a year, why is that not possible to have full time councillors? Suppose we pay RM5,000 for each councillor, and there are say 20 of them, that is 1.2 million a year. Very, very reasonable indeed. That is less than the annual expenses for one CEO for many, many listed companies.

    If the councillors have little salary, lots of power, and little time for their jobs, we will either have a corrupted local council, or a council full of very young or retired old people. With due respect to the elderly, we need absolutely energetic, professional and experienced men and women in the team, working full time!

  9. Tan says:

    It is very difficult to blame the public for the negative perception that councillors are on the take. The meager allowance is unsustainable in the City when the cost of living are high. It is similar to those cops in the street, that’s why corruption is so rampant. I really appreciate your honesty and hard work, keep it up and be a role model for the youngsters.

    • Wong Chee Meng says:

      The reason for corruption is greed and having the power to do so. Greed is such a powerful force that can turn many to immoral practices. While the salaries and benefits of the cops are not something to shout about, they are certainly financially better than the thousands of workers in factories, farms, etc. With GREED, no amount of money is enough!

  10. JayCkat says:

    Sadly after 50 years of corruption, Malaysians don’t know any different. The systems has always been run by corrupt men, so we, the public expect to pay the toll for every and all services from the government. Bribery is how you get things done in this country.

  11. davis says:

    Sir, keep up the good work and be steadfast in your belief. That expectation of a free lunch is a result of having been given free lunches from the previous councillors. You should have told him off.

  12. KW Mak says:

    @ Sean

    With regards to the allowances paid to councillors, you can find the statement here:

  13. uds says:

    I don’t envy you your job but I have tremendous respect for your tenacity. This does not solve the problem that you and the other councillors face in executing their duties. What would be the most effective method to make the state government sit up and take notice of this dilemma and push for higher salaries? Meanwhile, bribery might be an accepted reality but it is wrong all the same. There cannot be a compromise on this unethical and morally wrong action.

  14. Sean says:

    Thanks very much for the link. I have to confess to not previously knowing that ‘councillor’ was something a person did in their spare time.

    Perhaps it ought to be made clearer what the expected hours and responsibilities are? It’s inconceivable that a person should become a councillor and be surprised at the poverty / burden of the position. Is there a description of duties / minimum commitments for the post?

    If the compensation is for four hours a week and per max-30-minute meeting (and you’re working longer out of altruism), then we can all ‘adoi’ you and get on with our lives. If it’s for 20 hours a week and obligatory four hour meetings, then maybe we should write letters.

    If your obligation is for less time and less responsibility than the public expects, perhaps you could give the expectant public the phone number of a local government employee who is paid full time to explain your hours and responsibilities. You would be doing yourself a great disservice to raise the public’s expectations of your responsibilities above the expectations of your employer.

  15. Wong Chee Meng says:

    Kudos to KW Mak for the revelation. It is unfortunate that many people perceive that all people with power will be financially rewarded and will become rich. The thought of councillors, etc having the virtuous intention to help others in need does not cross their minds. One can attribute this mindset to the environment that we have been brought up in and education or the lack of it. In order for KW Mak and the likes of him to continue to serve society, they must be appropriately remunerated. Otherwise we will lose these righteous and dedicated leaders and their places occupied by power-seeking and corrupt ones. When this happens, only the rich will become richer and the really needy ones will be cast aside. I do not imply that all rich people will offer bribes. We must learn to recognise the wholesome and unwholesome ones on both sides of the fence.

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