ANGER was in the air last week. News reports since Sept 25 about 14 MPs making monthly claims of RM10,000 had made almost every Yang Berhormat fuming that his good name had been tarnished.
One MP was said to be so upset that he lost his appetite.
Many were unhappy with parliamentary secretary in the Prime Minister's Department, Datuk Noh Omar, who was seen to be gunning for PAS MP (for Jeli) Mohd Apandi Mohamad but ended up wounding even his Barisan colleagues.
Noh has denied any charge of political motive but it is clear that he lacked finesse in handling the issue.
When naming Mohd Apandi as the one who had the most number of monthly claims exceeding RM10,000 within an 18 month-period, Noh had not given a proper explanation of the MPs' entitlements and categories of claims.
Even Datuk Othman Abdul's (BN – Pendang) original question, which led to the uproar, was vague.
Othman had asked for names of MPs who made claims exceeding RM10,000 monthly in tuntutan perjalanan – which was translated as mileage claim in several earlier news reports.
Noh should have stepped in quickly to rectify the matter then, instead of letting the public make their own assumptions.
This so-called tuntutan perjalanan actually covered meeting allowance (RM150 daily); living allowance (RM100 daily); hotel accommodation (RM200 daily) or lodging allowance (RM80 daily) if the MP stays elsewhere; mileage charge (60 sen per km); business class flight tickets; and other claims like laundry, telephone bills and faxes sent from hotels.
“Depending on how frequent an MP attends meetings and the distance travelled, it is entirely possible for a claim to hit RM10,000,” Dewan Rakyat secretary Datuk Mohd Salleh Hassan said.
An MP can submit all these claims when he attends functions organised by the federal or state government, but the claims must be backed by invitation cards and receipts.
Besides seeking reimbursements for these official duties, he is also entitled to similar claims when Parliament is sitting.
Last Thursday, Noh finally gave a clearer picture when he issued a list of MPs who made RM10,000 monthly claims for official duties and/or Dewan sittings.
As it turned out, only four MPs had made claims exceeding RM10,000 based on official duties alone.
They are Mohd Apandi (nine times), MP for Lubok Antu Jawah Gerang (five times), MP for Kemaman Abdul Rahman Yusof (once) and MP for Sri Aman Jimmy Donald (once).
“It's too late,” one MP moaned as Noh elaborated on the issue inside the House. To the MPs, the damage has been done.
According to the list, 10 MPs had submitted 18 claims of between RM10,000 and RM15,000 from 2002 to June this year for attending official duties AND Dewan sittings. As such, this is not “excessive” at all.
Under the category of claims for Dewan sittings, MPs for Sibu, Nibong Tebal, Kota Baru, Mambong and Jerlun each submitted claims of RM10,000 once. Again, this category is less contentious especially if the Dewan sits throughout the month.
After all, besides claiming for their expenses when attending Parliament sittings, the MPs could also make claims when they go back to their constituencies in the weekends.
Only one-third of the 123 MPs would actually submit their claims. Several MPs never claimed at all despite being based in Sabah and with their constituents living in far-flung places.
Noh's explanation only came after the news made the front page of all major dailies in the past one week.
At times, he appeared to shift the blame elsewhere – the press for picking up the issue, or that he had no chance to explain it the first time because the Chair had asked him to stop when an opposition MP cited him for having malicious intent.
“Besides, the original question did not ask for a breakdown of the claims. If this had been requested for, we would have given the itemised claims,” Noh said.
There is talk in the corridor on why the question came up in the first place, although Noh defended Othman by saying that he believed in his sincerity.
Othman merely grinned and walked away when reporters approached him.
With the Parliament term ending soon, the MPs are worried that the issue will jeopardise their electoral prospects since there is now a public perception that they are reckless in their claims.
Ronald Kiandee (BN –Beluran) is one of the MPs who made only one RM10,000-claim for both official duties and Dewan sittings.
Usually a composed man, he spoke in an agitated manner when he fought to defend himself on Thursday.
“I hope this matter will be clarified. Otherwise, there will be MPs becoming casualties, losing their seats in the general election,” he said.
On his part, Lubok Antu's Jawah laid down a challenge: “Just follow me (during my rounds).”
There were six rivers in his constituency, and it could take up to two days to travel from one end to the other, he said.
On his lawyer's advice, Mohd Apandi hardly spoke to the press.
Noh said: “It is his right to claim.” After all, there is no limit to the amount that an MP can seek reimbursements.
What appeared to be a stink bomb aimed at Mohd Apandi ended up putting everyone else in a foul mood.
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