DEC 5 — Wages are tied to dignity. If one’s efforts, enthusiasm, endeavours and expertise are not commensurate to the pay one is supposed to receive, it is nothing more than crass exploitation. 

A conscientious employer would prioritise the welfare of those in his team rather than his own fat profit margins. The compassionate employer acknowledges that his employees deserve some semblance of respect.

This is why the Minimum Wage Act is of extreme importance. Minimum wage provides due recognition to the lowest common denominator - that no matter how low the value of one’s work is viewed, dignity is accorded through a minimum standard of remuneration.

Now, the issue of the hiking up of the salaries of our lawmakers is a delicate, if not a sensitive matter—especially in these turbulent economic times. It does not help that Malaysians have developed a cynical attitude towards our representatives. 

Long gone are MPs who are polished, classy and respectful like the Tunku and Dr Ismail. Instead they are replaced with the polemical and the controversial. I don’t need to name names. The imagery of the arrogant Malaysian MP has unfortunately been reified as conventional wisdom.

Thus, the passage of the bills to increase the wages of the Selangor Aduns, Excos and Menteri Besar has been met with controversy. Some say it is too exorbitant. Some say it is an example of the excesses of our representatives.

To my mind, while a raise is of utmost necessity, the attitude and reaction registered by the Menteri Besar, Khalid Ibrahim, towards the reaction is at best, tactless.

The need for equitable wages

A newly-elected Parliamentarian advertised the position of Constituency Officer on Twitter and Facebook. I applied for the post, among many other jobs that I tried to secure. At that time, fiscal considerations were of little value to me. I was (and still is, mind you) infused with youthful idealism. 

He disclosed to me that his salary was around RM10,000 and implied that this was to be apportioned between the both of us accordingly. I am quixotic, sure. But not until the point that I have to subsist on sand!

The point of this short anecdote is this; the salaries of our representatives are so minuscule that it may impede optimal service to the public. It behooves me to remind the public that a fair wage is necessary to ensure that lawmakers don’t go down the dirty road of corruption or the morally questionable road of “donations.”

The expenses scandal among UK Parliamentarians was partly attributed to the considerably low salaries that they receive. The British, pragmatic as usual, mooted ideas to increase their salaries. The logic goes that this may prevent further abuses.

Singapore is famous for the high salaries of MPs and Ministers. Despite the criticisms among certain quarters that the salaries there are too exorbitant, it has preserved clean governance and attracted the best talent available.

Shouldn’t this be of pre-eminence? Getting competent lawmakers and not sub-optimal ones?

I am not advocating that Parliamentarians should lead lavish lives and go around shoving people with police outriders. But since they are in positions of power, they are more susceptible and vulnerable to the temptations of corruption. If they are not insulated against these vices by a society that does not give them the necessary provisions to do so, they cannot be 100 per cent blamed for flirting with corruption.

Dignity is also eroded when MPs need to ask for donations from capitalists to subsist or to campaign in elections. It is better for representatives to be paid reasonably, in an honourable manner, than tread the abhorrent path of corruption.

The deserving lawmakers

Competency, Accountability and Transparency has been the battle cry of Pakatan Rakyat (PR) governments. And this has rung true in the states of Selangor and Penang. In Selangor, the Freedom of Information Bill was pushed through by tireless PR lawmakers—in the name of clean governance. Asset declarations by the MB and Excos were done (though it was partial).

Let us not forget that the Selangor government has been reining in sizeable surpluses by meticulous fiscal management. While the Federal government has been running in consistent deficits, the sound management by Khalid is a moral victory for  PR—it demonstrates that scrupulous governance can happen in consonant with controlled spending (like the water subsidies).

Furthermore, the Selangor government need not drastically raise the tax assessments in Klang Valley like what will happen in KL.

What I am driving at is that people like Khalid deserve the raise. He has and will earn more if he had stuck to the soulless corporate world. But his altruistic desire in wanting to serve the people should not go unrewarded.

He has already done well for himself as the CEO of numerous corporations. He also magnanimously accepted the apology and did not claim compensation from the former MACC head who had accused him of abuse of power.

The wage raises for Khalid and the Selangor representatives are fair. A wage raise for Taib Mahmud who called the MACC “naughty” is not. The unconscionable comparison that the MB of Selangor’s salary is way higher than the prime minister’s is misguided.

Khalid is industrious and ingenious. The prime minister, on the other hand, is paid RM 19,000, only to be silent on core issues and to break promises. Thus, I think the amount that the latter receives is sensible.

Direct your anger at the real issue

I think Khalid Ibrahim made a few miscalculations. He thought that the wage raise would be a normal, routine and controversial-free procedure. He also did not provide reasons nor furnish statistical evidence to support the raise. Lastly, the wage rise was considered too drastic—it was not incremental.

Khalid Ibrahim is not a bard like Anwar Ibrahim. The former is a man of numbers, not a man of words. People wanted Khalid to explain and provide reasons to justify the wage raise. Yet, his initial silence and then his statement telling dissatisfied Aduns to donate their salaries (at the time I’m writing this) appeared callous.

The refusal to review the wage hike, while principled, made him look hard headed. Naturally, the government monopolised media, ever pliant to do their master’s bidding, spinned and amplified the issue to football field proportions.

Khalid should have instituted damage control measures, such as public consultations or considered a more gradual raise. The wage raise was not sensitive to the realities that the Malaysian public faced.

I hope this issue is hastily resolved and that everyone will come together to discuss how the average person is to finally achieve a reasonable standard of living.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.