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.
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
Councillors earn less than most assume, especially if they reject bribesBribe 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.
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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