Free politicians don’t come cheap

Kenneth Cheng Chee Kin

Nurul Izzah Anwar is financial adviser to her prime minister father, but she will not be charging for her services. – The Malaysian Insight file pic, February 5, 2023.

THERE is certainly a stench of nepotism surrounding the appointment of Nurul Izzah Anwar as senior adviser to her father, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim.

The prime minister also heads the Finance Ministry, which makes the appointment even more bizarre; it is arguable that the father and daughter have enormous power over the nation’s economic policy.

To smother criticism, the prime minister has explained that Nurul Izzah will not be paid.

This has become one of his favourite, populistic approaches that he uses to gain public favour: he once proclaimed he would forgo his salary if he is appointed to the highest office.

In almost every field where there is exchange of goods and services, the adage that there is no such thing as a free lunch applies. It is impossible to get something for nothing.

Former Singapore premier Lee Kuan Yew insisted that the only way to ensure clean governance is to ensure that the cabinet members, civil servants, judges and even legislators are well remunerated. Predictably, it was only the opposition and dissenters who should not be well paid under his iron-fist rule. 

Nevertheless, Lee was not wrong. Politicians, just like any other professionals, should be suitably recompensed for their work.

In a motion to adjust the ministerial pay, Lee argued that conviction politicians were an dying breed and fresh talents with ideals could only be had at a high price.

Again, the only flaw in Lee Kuan Yew’s argument was that he failed to see that Singapore would have achieved even more and its democracy flourished if that patronage were extended to the opposition. 

Coming back to Malaysia, some idealists expect our politicians to serve a greater cause and therefore render their services pro bono. Cynics believe politics lay bare the worst of human nature and people who choose to participate in it are only interested in hoarding power and wealth.

Paradoxically, these two groups of people think that politicians should be paid less or not at all; the former trust that politicians should not be asking for money if they seek to improve the people’s welfare while the latter assert that politicians should not be allowed to enrich themselves.

I have had the privilege of working with some politicians. Some are idealistic and passionate, others are career politicians who view their work as just a job.

Nevertheless, it is important to note that every single one of them are also ordinary people with aspirations, hobbies, interests and a family to feed.

Like other workers, they can be incentivised or discouraged by the size of the pay cheque.

A politician with low pay might be more tempted to abuse his position or be more sympathetic to lobbying.

I have personally witnessed how a conviction politician I admired become a sell-out because he did not earn enough to make ends meet.

This is not to say that high pay is a magic bullet for political malaise, but we must learn to appreciate that politicians are only human and the prime minister can do better than to sell pro bono politicians as a policy solution.

If the price of a cleaner and more competent government means paying politicians more, I am sure that even thrifty Malaysians will agree to pay.  – February 5, 2023.

* Kenneth Cheng has always been interested in the interplay between human rights and government but more importantly he is a father of two cats, Tangyuan and Toufu. When he is not attending to his feline matters, he is most likely reading books about politics and human rights or playing video games. He is a firm believer in the dictum “power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will”.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

Sign up or sign in here to comment.