By Pravin Periasamy
Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s comments on pension schemes for elected public representatives and government officials courted significant interest from the people of Malaysia.
He said recently: “It’s just that from the moral aspect, those earning minister’s or menteri besar’s salaries, or civil servants who get three or four pensions, could perhaps look at the situation, fulfil their moral responsibility by forgoing the other pensions and just choose one, it’s up to them.”
These words hold considerable ethical and moral significance. What has been widely accepted as a morally acceptable practice in Malaysia is presently being challenged and decried at the institutional level.
It is a challenge that implicates the moral beliefs held by our elected officials. Such implications could lead to a renewed understanding of the moral standard we should hold our elected officials to.
If our elected officials decide to accept multiple pensions knowing this is unethical, this would then affect how we view their conduct in office, their leadership and our moral assessments of their character.
On the other hand, if receiving multiple pensions is widely held as ‘immoral’, we could inadvertently deprive our elected officials of fair remuneration and compensation for their public service. This could translate into legislative reform and ultimately transform public service altogether.
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Given the stakes – lest those accused be deemed guilty or innocent of the charge of moral failure – the issue requires further discussion.
Given the particular language in which this issue is articulated however, with terms such as “obligation”, “duty”, “right” and “wrong” being used in the discussion concerning this, the lessons drawn from moral philosophy could shed light on what it means to fulfil one’s moral obligation.
Let me provide two opposing views.
In moral philosophy, the concept of ‘utilitarianism’ is based on the assumption that the greatest good is achieved by securing the interests of the greatest number of people. An argument in favour of restricting those in power to one pension, from this perspective, would argue that such a sacrifice would benefit the surrounding environment; ie the civil servants and people of Malaysia. It would mean excess funds could be redirected to raise the salaries of civil servants, improve public service infrastructure and enhance social welfare schemes for the disadvantaged.
Assessing where one’s moral obligation is, under utilitarianism, would require a moral calculus to be performed. If a particular act does not benefit the greatest conceivable number of people, we are morally obligated to forfeit that act to allow for a greater good to arise.
It could be argued, therefore, that if the duties and responsibilities of those with power are concerned with creating the best possible outcomes for the country, ie the common good, then the restriction to one pension could better fulfil this moral obligation and more appropriately meet the conditions of ethical public service.
In contrast, there is an alternate perspective – a rights-based view. This view argues that there are certain entitlements, prerogatives and powers that ought to be attributed to certain persons. Under this view, those in power arguably have a justified claim to multiple pension schemes because of their contributions in their respective portfolios. Depriving officials of multiple pensions could inadvertently bring about an injustice that devalues the dignity of the profession and inhibits the degree to which officials justifiably benefit from financial support after retirement.
Under this argument stands, those in power have a justified claim, by virtue of their positions in their many portfolios, to the fruits of their labour. They should as such be accorded this prerogative. This would mean, however, that receiving multiple pensions would not constitute a failure to fulfil one’s moral obligation; rather, it would mean that one is simply exercising one’s right to fair compensation.
While the topic is complex and requires further investigation, the perspectives of moral philosophy show the many nuances that must be considered before one assesses whether there is a ‘moral obligation’ for officials to reject more than one pension.
Pravin Periasamy is the networking and partnerships director of the Malaysian Philosophy Society