(ATM pic public domain / Wiki Commons)
PARLIAMENT’S suspension of Puchong legislator Gobind Singh Deo‘s allowances and benefits for a year is revealing. That Gobind, who has filed a suit against his suspension, is an opposition Member of Parliament (MP) makes the whole exercise more telling.
The episode betrays a mindset about the concept of a parliamentary opposition, and the underlying attitude towards the electorate. It is an attitude which disregards the fact that voters pay taxes and thus rightfully expect returns, even if their MP sits on the left side of the Dewan Rakyat Speaker.
Beyond Gobind’s suspension and his loss of salary, however, are our MPs getting enough to perform their roles as community problem-solvers and as lawmakers? What funding is available to them so that they can fulfil their responsibilities to voters? Who controls these funds?
What an MP gets
An MP gets about RM15,000 a month from their parliamentary income but as Gobind reveals, the money is used up fast for service centre expenses and donations to welfare organisations and community projects. Even attendance at a wedding or funeral costs the MP money because a donation is expected.
Tony Pua (file pic)Apart from their parliamentary earnings, MPs can also tap into the Prime Minister’s special fund (Peruntukan Khas Perdana Menteri) for constituency development. This amount varies from year to year. In 2008, it was RM500,000 per constituency.
However, this fund is not for MPs to use directly but is meant to finance projects within their constituencies. MPs must apply to the Implementation Coordination Unit (ICU) under the Prime Minister’s Department. If their application is approved, the money is disbursed and the project implemented through the State Development Office (SDO) in each state, which is under the ICU and therefore a federal agency.
While in principle the funds are available to all MPs regardless of political affiliation, some Pakatan Rakyat (PR) MPs allege discriminatory treatment.
DAP’s Petaling Jaya Utara MP Tony Pua said that in response to his application for a project in his constituency, he was told by the Selangor SDO to go to the PR state government for funds.
“The SDO letter did not specifically say that there were no funds for Pakatan MPs, but instead redirected me to the state government,” Pua told The Nut Graph.
Rasah MP Anthony Loke, also of DAP, had some success in securing RM10,000 for upgrading works in a school in Seremban, but the money was approved six months after his application, and he didn’t find out about it from the SDO.
“I only found out from the school later. It was made to look as if I had no hand in helping the school get the money,” Loke said. He notes that it’s not about getting credit as the elected representative, but that a BN-controlled agency would take pains to create the perception that PR MPs are not serving their constituents.
Obstacles for BN, too
Contrary to PR MPs’ claims that their BN counterparts don’t face any problems in securing funding, some BN representatives have encountered certain problems.
Former Kelana Jaya MP Loh Seng Kok, from the MCA, says that while the overall approval rate for BN MPs is high, some applications don’t get through. In his experience, these are for non-Muslim houses of worship. It was only after he complained that these applications were approved, he notes.
“In 2004, my applications which were not approved appeared to be on a religious basis, like to upgrade or repair churches and temples. But my submissions for funds for mosques and surau were all approved.
“When I complained, the answer I got from the ICU is that they need to check with the PM. But my question was, if those funds were already available and were for the good of the people, what reason was there not to approve?” Loh told The Nut Graph.
Loh says other reasons why an application may not be approved was due to overlaps, such as when a project submitted by the MP is already covered by other funding. Bureaucracy can also trip up implementation, as tender exercises are involved.
Unsurprisingly, the bureaucracy and lack of accountability to the MPs gives rise to complaints of delays and discrimination.
Questions about the ICU’s policy in approving applications were posed to ICU director-general Tan Sri Khalid Ramli. It was learnt from the ICU’s public relations unit that one of Khalid’s officers was tasked with responding.
However, after four days of waiting, no response from Khalid’s office was forthcoming.
However, Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz, the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department in charge of parliamentary affairs, doesn’t even try to rebuff allegations of discrimination against opposition MPs.
Met by The Nut Graph in Parliament and asked if he would look into the MP’s complaints, Nazri said the matter was not under his jurisdiction as the funds came from the Prime Minister’s Office.
But he did say: “The money is not just for BN areas, it’s for all areas. It’s just that for BN constituencies, it’s easier to give the BN MPs the money. But in opposition areas, they can still write to the PM.”
Why should it be easier for BN MPs? Loke hopes to find out in the current Parliament sitting which reconvenes today, 15 June 2009. He has submitted an oral question asking how much allocation the prime minister’s fund has for each constituency for 2009, and whether there will be a change in policy in how the funds are handled in opposition seats.
Without the prime minister’s special allowance, full-time MPs have no other access to public funds for their constituency. The exceptions are for MPs who are part of the government administration, like cabinet ministers who get additional allowances.
Loke estimates that about 50% of PR MPs are full-time. He says it’s not uncommon for MPs to use allowances meant for their own welfare to cover shortfalls incurred in running their service centres or other constituency expenses.
Pua adds that the issue of funding MPs’ work has not even begun to address the area of research, which is essential if they are to perform their role as lawmakers.
“In the United Kingdom and the United States, MPs or congress[persons] can get an allowance to hire qualified researchers,” he says.
Funds are available to opposition legislators in the UK, where there is appreciation for the role of a shadow cabinet to keep the ruling government in check and develop alternative policies, notes Pua.
Such funds are known as “Short Money“, an annual payment given to opposition parties in the House of Commons to help them fulfil their parliamentary functions.
There have been suggestions that MPs receive separate funding for, at the very least, their service centres.
However, Nazri says this and the request for research funds, have never been brought to his attention. He suggests that MPs raise this in the Parliament’s Rights and Privileges Committee.
What voters want
The bigger question about this issue also boils down to what is expected of MPs, and of public institutions.
Are MPs to dish out money every time a needy constituent comes along? Yet, it is a real pressure MPs face so as to remain well-liked by constituents if they hope to be returned to office.
Sivarasa (file pic)Parti Keadilan Rakyat MP for Subang, R Sivarasa, blames BN MPs for this “cash culture”, for “giving fish instead of teaching people how to fish as a way of keeping the electorate bound to them”.
While constituents’ requests for money often involve legitimate needs, Sivarasa points to the larger failings of governance — the lack of a proper social welfare safety net, and of institutions that cater to the needy.
But for the electorate to press for better governance, they need to first understand that their MPs are lawmakers, not automatic teller machines.