On multiple pensions and moral philosophy

By: Pravin Periasamy, Networking and Partnerships Director at Malaysian Philosophy Society

Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s comments on pension schemes for elected public representatives and government officials have courted significant interest from Malaysians nationwide.  Having remarked at the Diamond Jubilee Celebration of Six Decades of Glorifying Wildlife Conservation Efforts at Zoo Negara today, the Prime Minister said the following: “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 morally acceptable practice in Malaysia is presently being challenged and decried at the institutional level. 

In many ways, it is a challenge that implicates the moral beliefs held by our elected officials; the implications of which potentially leading to a renewed understanding of the sort of moral standard we should then hold our elected officials to. If our elected officials decide to accept multiple pensions—with the knowledge of this being unethical—this would then affect how we view their conducting of office, their leadership and our moral assessments of their character. If it is widely held as ‘immoral’, we could inadvertently deprive our elected officials of fair remuneration and compensation for their public service.  This, among other things, could translate into legislative reform and ultimately transform public service altogether. Given the stakes—lest those accused be considered guilty or innocent from the charge of moral failure—the issue should invite 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; I find that the lessons drawn from the wealth of knowledge found in moral philosophy could shed some light on what it would mean to fulfill one’s moral obligation. To do this, I will provide two opposing views.

In moral philosophy, the concept of ‘utilitarianism’ is predicated upon the assumption that the greatest good is achieved by securing the interests of the greatest number of people. An argument in favor of restricting those in power to one pension, from this perspective, would argue that such a sacrifice would benefit the surrounding environment; i.e. civil servants and the Malaysian people. This would mean that the excess funds could be redirected to raise the salaries of civil servants, improve public service infrastructure and enhance social welfare schemes for the socioeconomically disadvantaged. Assessing where one’s moral obligation is, under utilitarianism, would require a moral calculus to be performed—so long as a particular act does not benefit the greatest conceivable number of people, we are morally obligated to forfeit the very thing which could afford that benefit so as 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 i.e. the common good, the restriction to one pension could better fulfill this moral obligation and more appropriately meet the conditions of ethical public service. 

An alternate perspective could be viewed from what is termed in moral philosophy as a ‘rights based view.’ This argues that there are certain entitlements, prerogatives and powers that ought to be attributed to certain persons. Under this view, it could be argued that those in power have a justified claim to multiple pension schemes as a result of their many 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 post-retirement. Here, the argument stands in the following way: those in power have a justified claim, by virtue of their position in their many respective portfolios, to the fruits of their labour and as such should be afforded this prerogative. This would mean, however, that receiving multiple pensions would not constitute a failure to fulfill one’s moral obligation; rather it would mean that one is simply exercising their right to fair compensation. 

While the topic is itself complex and requires further investigation, the perspectives of moral philosophy demonstrates the many nuances that should be taken into consideration before one assesses as to whether there is a ‘moral obligation’ for officials to reject more than one pension. 

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