Moonlighting MPs and the tale of untapped talents

JUNE 4 — The casual way how stewardship of Klang Valley’s trains (LRT & MRT) and buses (Rapid and feeder) is handed over to one of Dewan Rakyat’s most prolific shouters and hecklers, should be a reminder that in Malaysia blind loyalty and violence in the name of protecting the status quo builds — not destroys — political careers.

As fun as it would be to see how elected leaders go mad and lose all sense of reason or decorum and still be rewarded handsomely in Malaysian politics, the column’s interest lies elsewhere, though vastly related. 

On whether it’s right for MPs to be saddled with other distracting organisational responsibilities or from the opposite standpoint compensated substantially for their external participations?

Which includes Tajuddin Abdul Rahman, though few are sad not to endure his chamber abuse and interruptions.

While there are various discussions about the ethical considerations of such manoeuvres, to position politicians in part-time gigs, rife partisanship shouldn’t be ignored.

When DAP Klang MP Charles Santiago was removed as SPAN (National Water Services Commission) — not a company but a statutory body with immense clout — and replaced by PAS Dungun MP Wan Hassan Mohd Ramli, there were cries of murder from one side and par for the course from the other side.

Which is what makes it sticky. Either oppose it whole, or accept it as a norm, not claim it’s only wrong when the other side does it.

Barisan Nasional (BN) promoted MPs to GLC leadership, with access to the money that came with it for decades. Pakatan Harapan arrived in 2018, and duly appointed a combination of both professionals/industry experts and political nominees. 

They were not new to helping friends, in the preceding 10 years of Selangor and Penang control they gave posts to political nominees, even those from other states. 

Now, Perikatan Nasional cobbled together with a minority leadership from Bersatu Pribumi which fled Pakatan and relies on BN and PAS to stay on top, naturally gravitates to appeasements — GLC positions being the most enticing. 

There are over 60,000 government companies.

To put it in perspective, GLCs — represented by over 60 companies — own almost half of the Malaysian Stock Exchange (Bursa KL), which is worth about RM1.5 trillion. Politicians by their positions then have a massive say on the country’s economic action.

Add then statutory bodies, regulatory bodies and agencies, positioned where they affect the system, the appointing of MPs to positions is not about accumulating power but about making a politician omniscient in our lives.

PM and the Cabinet

Eighty per cent of the Cabinet, including the prime minister, is from Dewan Rakyat.

If the PM and Cabinet MPs can double up as members of the executive and legislators, why not let all other MPs, backbenchers and opposition do the same, just outside Parliament?

Firstly, there are clear problems with MP ministers as they are stretched, but they oversee government departments not corporate entities.

They have large bureaucracies to assist them, and their work is in the public eye, far more than inside corporations.

The minister is not offered stock options in his ministry or offered a bonus. All government activity should, even if not in the present, face great scrutiny.

But the division of attention does remain, and some point to the US system where Cabinet members do not have legislative roles, only to assist the president. It’s a good discussion for a different day.

The other guys

The members of the opposition and the government backbenchers are expected to lift and protect the  legislative’s role. From participation in select committees — now scuttled with the new sheriff — and active floor debates to raise issues of public interest and to keep the government on its toes.

First main objection to their appointments is distraction from their legislative duties — ministries support ministers for fresh Bills and amendments — while backbenchers (opposition and government) rely on a limited number of researchers and assistants to present their views and educated contribution to the process.

The government MPs seek to show how they have with limited support dissected well the ills and amendments and therefore forcing the prime minister to consider or reconsider them for the next Cabinet. The opposition MPs, on the other hand, are out to prove that both the government and its backers are clueless with their facts and wit — or what can be said between Tajuddin and friends’ heckles.

External positions distract MPs.

Second objection is money.

Government can both get the support and silence of its backbenchers by rewarding them. Westminster has strict rules on disclosure, so while MPs can earn outside, the public is made aware they are doing so and informed how much these excursions pay.

Which is completely rational.

The MPs have to act on behalf of the electorate which elected them. Not only the appearance of doing so but to do so substantially.

Some claim for example, an MP as Tenaga chairman can ensure his rural constituency has better supply. But the chairman is also incentivised to push Dewan Rakyat, more of his colleagues, to pass higher tariffs in order his annual bonus gets bumped up.

Is he speaking for Padang Terap, the Independent Power Producers (IPP) or for Tenaga?

Regardless of system of government, whether direct or not, special interest and business lobbies will transgress and tear down walls that protect voter interest through their legislators. 

So much is expected of the MP that the voter might be forgiven for expecting his allegiances to be centred to his constituency rather than a corporation.

The war ensues to champion the voter, and brazenly appointing MPs to companies and bodies works against rather than for the average man on the street.

Talent scorned

The weakness of MPs doubling up also harms the part-time job. The job of chairman of the Malaysian Commission for Multimedia and Communication is tough enough for instance, with change of data, spectrums, privacy and profiteering by telcos way too large to be reined in by the few. It’s harder when the chairman is also a MP busy at Parliament and visiting his constituency over the weekend.

The statutory body or GLC may suffer because the appointee gets distracted by postponed Parliament and votes of confidence. The company is short-changed.

A country is not a small adventure, which is why it requires more.

While there are political and strategic reasons, most selfish, having politicians split their talents also bars the entry of other talents.

Politicians take up space which other full-time business executives can take up. While the average IQ of politicians and business executives have never been conclusively compared, it can be agreed any executive or politician when focused in one field and not split would be better than the one split in attention.

Every time politics and business get openly incestuous, the doors of opportunity for many others slowly but surely shuts and the businesses suffer.

Why bother

It’s a complex discourse, and founders and thinkers of political systems realised, while failing at many junctures themselves, the philosophical underpinnings are discussion points which they want to maintain even if the arguments are lost in the pace of life and practicalities.

That they are kept in sight for the future.

Keeping the MPs out of other enterprises is a means to get them full time on their higher calling.

We must want to live in a world where those who run for office are not doing do so in order to commandeer national assets rather than primarily serve the people who voted them in.

This obviously won’t make a difference to any Malaysian government for the next 10 years, because majorities would be thin and securing MPs would require enticements. 

But as we try to have a country rather than a corporation, the discussion should grow over time.  

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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