26th October 1997

A salary hike for the gifted pack

By Rajpal Abeynayake

Talk about coming clean. “I don’t see anything wrong with MPs selling liquor licenses when you look at the meager amounts they make as salaries,” said Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, making a “Janamandalee” appearance on national television a couple of weeks back. Fernandopulle has been called a bit of a “kokatath thaile’’ for the PA government, but this apology made on behalf of government MPs shows as to who may be the joker of the pack.

But, Fernandopulle would have been funny, if he had not been commenting on serious matters.

Almost from the day politics began in Sri Lanka, the political tribe has been getting their salaries raised. The stately spacious old State Council days, when the feudal and the aristocratic took to politics as a gamey pastime are now a memory of the past.

Which is not to say that only the feudals or the rich layabouts should be in politics.

But, the tendency to rationalise the dubious dealings of government politicians is dangerous . For example, in the same interview, Fernandopulle and some other MPs made a tearjerking appeal to viewers rationalising the pay rise for MPs. Said one MP that “ Whenever we are invited for weddings, we incur costs for presents. Our salaries should be raised, because we cannot make ends meet!!!” (Exclamation marks mine.)

Viewers probably needed to pinch themselves to see if these are really government MPs making those claims on national television. MP’s cannot make ends meet for the same reasons that government servants and salarymen (to use the Jap term) cannot make ends meet. Since when, we would like to ask our telegenic MP, did wedding presents become the preserve of politicos?

Sleaze is bad enough, but it is the rationalisation of sleaze that eventually destroyed most governments in this country and outside it. Sleaze basically destroyed the conservative government of Britain for example. But, more than the sleaze per se, there was a certain arrogance that was associated with the brand of wheeler-dealing that was peddled by the last Conservative Government. British newspapers recently characterised this arrogance as a “lack of politeness,” and advised the conservatives to be “polite again.”

The TV utterances of Fernandopulle and his fellow MP displays the same kind of lack of empathy for the mass mind. Any MP who says he needs a salary hike purely because he thinks he is the only person who cannot afford a wedding present is obviously out of touch.

Some politicians who are close to the gravy train find it difficult to resist the temptation of making the extra buck. But they also have a penchant for explaining themselves.

So we had this tendency of Ministers, especially in a previous UNP government, explaining that “commissions’’ etc., (kickbacks from private companies for favors granted) are entitlements.

Commission taking, which came in with the new development ethos that was created by letting in the robber - barons, created a new parvenu class of politicians . This tribe quickly went from being briefless lawyers etc., into becoming petty-czars who created their own urban fiefdoms.

It can be said, on the flip side of the argument of course, that its difficult to keep this sort of corruption (especially commission taking) out of a new business culture in which these practices are almost sought to be regularised. It is this kind of thinking that led to South Korea, for example, becoming the most corrupt economy of the world.

But, South Korea eventually grew up to be a developed economy, and this has led diehard market economists to argue that corruption is not necessarily fatal to Capitalist politics!

Politicians who develop a thick hide becoming arrogant as well as corrupt mercifully get their just desserts, usually at the hands of the electors.

But, what’s even worse about the rationalisation of corruption is that it is a measure of the nadir that has been reached in public life.

If this is the level of discourse that can be expected from the average politician, society cannot be blamed for being nostalgic about an era when the wallawu-wallahs and aristocrats lorded it over also ran’s in a servile parliament. Even as late as this decade, there have been various liberals who have advocated a very conservative kind of liberalism where they argued that only the rich should do politics. This, they said plainly, kept away the elements who needed to make a buck out of statecraft.

It was a self serving argument if ever there was one. But a lumpen class is a bad replacement for a ruling elite. Political institutions are made to look more suspect by the corrupt lumpens, than they were under the powerful elite who nevertheless cleverly cultivated a clean image.

A pay rise for the MPs was the issue that exposed the public to the thinking of some government MPs on issues such as corruption and the selling of liquor licenses. We don’t know about the payrise, but the excuses that have been trotted out in favour of them has surely given us a good insight into what’s rotten in these parts of the world.

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