Paying campaign volunteers may be unethical. Here’s why

JANUARY 18 ― Malaysia is a strange democracy because we see nothing wrong and, in fact, expect our lawmakers and politicians to give us money for weddings, funerals, personal emergencies, and anything and everything under the sun.

We treat our representatives as sources of charity during their five-year terms in between elections, rather than as legislators whose job is to make laws and policies that benefit their constituents so people don’t have to ask for donations in the first place.

A lawmaker’s act of giving constituents money from their parliamentary or state allocations is not viewed as vote buying or even unethical behaviour, even though it is very likely that giving monetary donations for five whole years will significantly endear voters to their incumbent representative.

So it is no wonder that political parties sometimes feel obliged to pay campaign volunteers cash allowances during the short campaigning period in an election.

It is unclear if the Pakatan Harapan (PH) campaign in the Cameron Highlands by-election had committed a criminal offence by giving 60 Orang Asli volunteers (or supporters) RM20 each to travel from the interiors of Cameron Highlands and other locations to turn up on Nomination Day in Tanah Rata.

Those volunteers who live in Cameron Highlands are probably also voters in the by-election, although Tanah Rata assemblyman Chiong Yoke Kong said some of the Orang Asli had come from outside the constituency, like Gua Musang.

The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission is already investigating the case after Barisan Nasional politicians accused PH of bribery when pictures emerged online of a woman in a PH shirt giving out cash.

However, just because giving campaign volunteers (who are also voters) “petrol money” is not necessarily criminal, it does not mean that it is ethical.

When it comes to politics, money should be treated with the highest amount of caution. We should strive to avoid even the slightest possibility of the influence of money in elections.

If a campaign wants to enable as many volunteers to participate in an election as possible, including from the lower-income community, then campaign officials should provide food and transport for volunteers not by giving them cash, but by buying them meals, bus tickets, or maybe even petrol gift cards, so that no money ever changes hands. Everything is purchased by the campaign and stated in their accounts.

Cash allowances and expense reimbursements for campaign volunteers should be avoided to prevent any money influence whatsoever on voters, since volunteers are most likely voters too.

One may argue that it is obvious who campaign volunteers will vote for and that small cash allowances are totally irrelevant, but just how much money plays a role in a volunteer’s act of voting is unknown because there is no black-and-white document outlining the terms and conditions of the transaction, or relationship between the campaign and volunteer.

This is not the same as a campaign hiring contractors, part-time or full-time staff, or freelance consultants because in those cases, there is either an employment contract or an invoice and receipt.

I am not arguing for campaign volunteers to be subject to strict bureaucracy. Volunteering for a campaign should be as easy as grabbing flyers from the operations centre and handing them out in your neighbourhood without having to fill out forms.

Campaign volunteers should just simply do the work and cover most of their own expenses themselves without expecting daily allowances or reimbursements. They can eat meals provided by the campaign at the operations centre, but otherwise, they should generally pay for their own transport.

Politics is local. If you are a volunteer, you would probably campaign for your preferred candidate in your own constituency, which means you don’t have to travel far.

But if you’re poor and cannot even afford to travel to another end of your constituency (since some constituencies are huge), then just campaign in your own taman or kampung. Volunteer based on how much you can afford to.  

My friend Elaine, who volunteered in PAS campaigns in the east coast in 2009 when the Islamist party was part of Pakatan Rakyat then, told me that she paid for her own train tickets travelling from Kuala Lumpur, car rental, and accommodation in a motel. The campaign only bought volunteers a meal after the election. She didn’t get a single sen during the campaign.

“I can tell you, none of my friends got any kind of reimbursements. They would have been so insulted.”

An American friend of mine called Ken, who once tried to run for office in Chicago, says it is abnormal for campaign volunteers in the United States to get a cash allowance. Campaign staffers normally provide food for volunteers by buying it for them, not by giving volunteers money to purchase meals.

Campaigns sometimes pay for volunteers’ travel through gas cards, or by arranging other ways like a campaign bus or a bus ticket for a committed volunteer. For accommodation, the campaign usually arranges a homestay with another volunteer or staffer, he said.

In America, if campaigns really want to pay volunteers, they just turn them into contractual staff.

In Manogaran v Sivaraj (the election petition that had nullified the 14th general election result in Cameron Highlands and triggered the current by-election), the Election Court heard allegations that village chiefs were given RM300 each and that voters were supposed to receive RM40 each. 

Justice Azizah Nawawi had ruled that for the offence of bribery, “it is unnecessary to prove inducement to vote for a political party. It is sufficient if it is proved that money was given in order to induce the elector to vote.”

In other words, a campaign does not have to give money to a voter with a specified condition to vote for a certain candidate, in order to be found guilty of an offence; it is already considered criminal if a campaign gives money to a voter to get them to cast a ballot.    

So, the best practice is to not pay campaign volunteers to avoid misunderstanding and abuse.

Fundamentally, politicians should never give voters money, either during or in between elections, for whatever reason. It is us voters who should financially support our favourite candidates instead, so that we can help get them elected and make policies that we like.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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