ONE of the aims of the MP Watch: Eye on Parliament project was to find out and highlight the challenges that Malaysian Members of Parliament (MPs) face, and explore how these might affect how effectively they play their roles.
Even though many MPs understood that their function was to be lawmakers, MPs from both the Barisan Nasional (BN) and Pakatan Rakyat (PR) had similar stories about another role that was just as crucial in the Malaysian context. Indeed, providing social services to one’s constituency was often more important to some MPs than their role as legislators.
Additionally, playing both roles – when only one, that of being lawmaker, is technically what MPs are voted in for in a healthy democracy – incurs a cost on the MPs and on Malaysia’s law-making process.
Being a “good” MP
To the question “How do you define your role as an elected MP? Does Parliament provide you with the necessary infrastructure and support to fulfill your role?”, a significant number of the 113 MPs indicated that being a lawmaker was not the top priority.
A “juara rakyat” or people’s champion was what Datuk Ahmad Maslan (Pontian) wants to be, first and foremost. Other MPs also said their primary role was attending to constituents, and this meant lawmaking usually took a back seat to solving day-to-day problems.
Charles Santiago (Klang) described these day-to-day problems as being related to “low-cost housing, overflowing drains, land grabs, or helping to establish joint management boards, and getting government departments to effectively respond to problems faced by the people”.
“The role of an MP is to ensure that their constituents’ interests and the interests of the nation are protected and promoted. Also, there is a need to find a working balance between legislative and constituency work,” he stressed.
“Sadly, sometimes people don’t really mind if you don’t really play a role in Parliament but you take care of the people in the constituency,” said Dr Mohd Hatta Ramli (Kuala Krai).
And while some MPs like Datuk SK Devamany (Cameron Highlands) considered an MP’s role to be a “consolidating” one that brings together the different levels of government, others pointed out that this was plainly a failure of local governments and councils.
“Like other MPs, my role is mainly to participate in debates and to vote on legislation in Parliament,” said Dr Lo’ Lo’ Mohamad Ghazali (Titiwangsa). “[But I] serve more like a district or welfare officer than a legislator. I give advice to my constituents on all sorts of things, and address matters which should be handled by agencies like DBKL (Kuala Lumpur City Hall).”
It was also apparent that some MPs from rural areas or bigger states felt that they had more important development-related roles to play than being a lawmaker. Datuk Joseph Salang Anak Gandum, who is the MP for Julau in Sarawak, said he faced a different situation compared with MPs in urban areas, and that East Malaysian MPs prioritised more basic concerns for the people. They were “not really facilitating lawmaking” so much as they were supporting the needs of voters, as these constituencies moved into and grappled with a monetary economy.
Many MPs also said that while they valued being close to their constituents, handling many local issues took their time and limited resources away from policymaking.
Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah (Temerloh) said because of a lack of political maturity, many of his constituents did not understand that he was, by definition, a lawmaker. “They look at me like I am a welfare officer, that I have to be in my constituency most of the time, and that I have to do some of the jobs which are not really, by definition, an MP’s job. It could be the job of the welfare or district officer or the Yang di-Pertua Majlis Perbandaran,” he said.
He stressed that there was a “need to improve the public understanding of an MP’s role”.
The cost of being an MP
A significant number of MPs said they needed more funds than the income they received to fulfill the roles expected of them. But just how much does an MP need to do his or her job? Is the MPs’ lack of funds manageable, or is it causing financial stress?
“I think everyone knows that Malaysian MPs’ salaries are among the lowest in Southeast Asia,” Tan Ah Eng (Gelang Patah) said. Our MPs get a monthly basic of RM6,508.59. With allowances and benefits, this brings the total gross amount to around RM15,000 per month. Singapore MPs earn S$13,170 a month, and Thai MPs earn no less than 100,000 baht, but both have paid staff and assistants. Thai MPs are also entitled to hire up to five assistants who are paid well.
Indeed, the highest costs Malaysian MPs have to incur are staff-related, with many saying that after paying their assistants and officers from their own pockets, they do not have much left.
Many MPs echoed the views of John Fernandez (Seremban), who said he was not given a single sen for the upkeep of his eight service centres.
In a further interview with The Nut Graph, Sungai Siput MP Dr Michael Jeyakumar Devaraj said he hired four full-time staff, paying them RM1,200 a month each. He acknowledged that the pay was low, but that thankfully, voluntarism was strong among Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) supporters.
Apart from the cost of maintaining their service centres, those who have highly populated constituencies, like Teresa Kok (Seputeh), said they incurred other costs in serving their constituency. These included donations to schools, medical care for poor people, and supporting welfare programmes.
Many MPs said they just could not say no to underprivileged constituents who came to them for help, even if it meant having to use their own funds.
“There are always people coming to see you, weddings, funerals and kenduri to attend. In Malaysian politics, if you don’t attend, you are condemned by the people. If you only give RM10, people say you are a stingy MP. The minimum you can give is RM50. And when people take your envelope, they don’t put it in the same pocket with the others. They put it in a different pocket because they want to see how much they received from their MP,” Datuk Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar (Santubong), who is also the Dewan Rakyat deputy speaker, revealed.
After office or service centre rentals, administrative costs and donations, some others cannot even afford a living salary for some of their staff. Dr Che Rosli Che Mat (Hulu Langat) said he paid only RM300 to some assistants for their petrol, which he felt was far too low. “People will not volunteer, and we don’t have enough allocations,” he said.
Unlike their Singapore and Thai counterparts, Malaysian MPs are only given a staff allowance of RM1,200 for a driver. “Do we need a driver to do our constituency work? Not really. An imported luxury car plus a driver will not improve our service efficiency,” Er Teck Hwa (Bakri) said.
“To improve, we need capable people from all around the country to help us to analyse the issues.”
Supplementing the income
Because MPs are forced to use their own money to fulfill their role, they resort to additional fundraising or other means to supplement their income. “Unhealthy” is how Loke Siew Fook (Rasah) described MPs’ need to fundraise.
Some MPs said they often had to hold fundraising dinners and sell tables. Jeyakumar said he held independent fundraising events once a year, appealing to friends, relatives and acquaintances. “Typically we get around RM60,000 from that, and this allows me to allocate RM4,500 a month for the donations and contributions, as well as the charity dinners, causes or tuition programmes [that I support and am asked to support].
Puchong MP Gobind Singh Deo, in an 11 June 2009 interview with The Nut Graph before the MP Watch project began, said he had to resort to personal funds, ranging from RM5,000 to RM10,000 a month, from his legal practice to sustain his work as an MP.
Others, like Zahrain Mohamed Hashim (Bayan Baru), said in MP Watch that they were lucky to have other income sources rather than just relying on their MP’s salary.
Even BN MPs faced similar challenges. For example, the Cameron Highlands’ MP from the MIC, Devamany, said, “I find I have enough resources to conduct my work as an MP because I am also a deputy minister. If I were only an MP, I would have to be responsible for lobbying or pushing for more resources. If not, I [would not be] worthy to be elected as an MP.”
Alor Gajah MP Tan Sri Dr Fong Chan Onn, who was human resources minister, admitted in a phone interview with The Nut Graph that he was much more comfortable when he was in the cabinet. He also acknowledged that many opposition MPs could not depend on their salaries alone.
“When I was a minister, I received around RM40,000 all in, but now that I am not, I get around RM10,000. [And as a minister] you also have a secretariat and staff, an office, free postal services and so on,” he revealed.
Without the bigger pay and additional perks as a minister now, can he manage his role as an MP just as well? “Well, I raise funds in various ways, perhaps through using old contacts, company sponsors, that kind of thing. We also have savings,” Fong said.
Jeyakumar noted that BN MPs often had directorships or contracts that allowed them to make more money than the opposition MPs, but this was not transparent. “There are a lot of things which allow them to make money. But if they are directors of state companies, then you get tied down and are beholden or aligned in some way. It impairs what they can do for the rakyat.”
In MP Watch, Tan Tee Beng (Nibong Tebal) said he was exhausted from work in his constituency on top of being a “superhero” who had to pay his own way for assistants and others. “Rich MPs may be looking for more contracts for themselves; poor MPs may later be tempted to be corrupt,” he said.
Dollars and debates
How do these financial concerns affect MPs and the quality of their debates or work in Parliament? MPs like Kok said fundraising “actually takes time away from work on policymaking and representing [voters] in Parliament, which is what an MP should be doing”.
So what can be done? Unless the law is amended to provide funding for offices and research assistants, MPs said they would continue to rely on fundraising efforts and other income sources.
The importance of this issue is not lost on Dewan Rakyat Deputy Speaker Wan Junaidi, who was one of the most vocal in MP Watch when speaking about MPs’ salaries.
“The government has got to consider providing more for MPs. Of course, if all MPs were to push a bill to raise salaries, it will be passed. But politically, nobody even dares to bring such a motion because they will be condemned. Your name will be all over the media as the MP who is ‘gila duit’. The public may not understand,” he said.
Tan Kok Wai (Cheras) stressed that the issue was not an increment in an MP’s basic allowance. “What we need is allowance for supporting staff such as researchers and constituency helpers, as well as for backup facilities such as a constituency office … We need these to enable MPs to work more efficiently and effectively, as well as to engage in more constructive debate in Parliament. In many other countries, including poorer countries, they have all kinds of facilities,” he said.
For R Sivarasa (Subang), if RM30 to RM40 million was spent on better supporting MPs and their constituency and parliamentary functions, this would greatly benefit the country and prevent “billions being lost through corruption”.
“I would suggest that every parliamentarian needs at least RM250,000 for his [or her] constituency office and staff to serve his/her best; and another RM100,000 to employ adequately skilled secretarial and research staff. This would be money well spent by the nation,” he said.
This essay first appeared exclusively in Understanding the Dewan Rakyat, together with other analyses on how our government works. The book also contains the profiles of the current 222 MPs and how they and their parties would vote on key issues of democracy. The book is available at PusatLoyarBurok.