Pay durians and you’ll still get monkeys

Durians, like government MPs, are high in demand and low in supply. Because of the 60% drop in production yield, durian prices have gone up. The Malaysian favourite, Musang King, are now selling for up to RM96 per kilograms. But MPs are more expensive; they are allegedly valued at RM30 million – 312,500 times more than a Musang King. 

A few opposition MPs have lodged police reports after receiving WhatsApp messages from an anonymous messenger, asking if the recipient was willing to fill up the recently vacated ministerial positions. The alleged offer was the position, plus “Durian RM30”, guesstimated to mean RM30 million in cash, given the context. 

Regardless of the veracity, validity or sincerity of the offer, it is worth exploring the idea of whether using positions and money actually guarantee quality and loyalty – two of the primary concerns for any government. My argument is that it does not. Instead, enticement of money and positions of this nature actually worsen quality and loyalty; making incoming ministers more likely to be incompetent and disloyal. 

Why does money produce bad quality?

First, money does not equate to satisfaction. Having an open call, without interviews or assessment, and immediate payment meant that the level of competition for these positions are low. Low competition is created because no one wants these positions, and no one wants them because there are other downsides that are more important than money. 

For instance, very few MPs would want to be part of a government that has been struggling to curb the Covid-19 virus, with declining popularity and high attrition rate close to the point of collapse. An MP knows that s/he would not be satisfied at work if s/he would drown in the barrage of criticisms on a sinking ship. 

A meta-analysis study showed that how much you pay does not correlate with the job satisfaction that a person would get. This same pattern applies across all cultures and group comparisons. 

Instead, the kind of MPs who are most likely say yes to such offers are themselves incompetent and uninfluential in the first place. They are not doing it to serve the country; they are doing it simply for the money you offer to them. 

Over time, a culture of incompetence would be created as more and more subpar, second-tier MPs take up these offers. Incompetence necessitates enticement; enticement attracts incompetence; incompetence creates unpopularity and exodus; exodus necessitates enticement; enticement attracts incompetence. Incompetence begets incompetence. This is the vicious cycle. 

Too much money is a bad thing 

Second, money does not make a difference when it is too much. Setiawangsa MP, Nik Nazmi, said that the most recent “Durian RM30” offer was an upgrade from a previous offer of “RM24 or RM26 million for 6 MPs”. There is a fundamental error in assuming that an increase in offer amount would make a difference. 

In the famous study by Nobel-winner Daniel Kahneman and colleague Angus Deaton, they claim that money received above a certain level no longer increases the wellbeing or happiness that the recipient would feel. In other words, it does not make a difference to whether an MP would switch camps if the offer was increased from RM24 million to RM30 million. 

Instead, what will happen is that money will actually diminish any MP’s intrinsic motivation of wanting to do well at the ministerial role. Research has shown that when a person at work is focused on the extrinsic motivation like money and status, they are three times less likely to like or remain engaged at the job. This means that money has the possibility of “crowding out” any intrinsic motivation of wanting to serve the country and do the best to their capability. 

The best predictor of whether an MP will do well in his/her role as a minister is by looking at their intrinsic motivation (patriotism, compassion, sense of responsibility, improving skills) rather than the extrinsic factors like financial rewards.

Loyalty could be bought, couldn’t it?

Lastly, money does not guarantee loyalty. Gallup engagement research has found that how much you pay someone has no correlation to how engaged they are at their jobs. That means that it is perfectly possible that an MP receives the money, defects and assumes position, and shows utter disinterest at his/her role, and still decide to defect again. 

In fact, two characteristics make this highly likely: One, a disloyal MP sets a precedent for him/herself that they are comfortable to defect; two, politicians’ tendency of disagreeableness, egoism, overconfidence, and narcissism make it highly likely that applied disloyalty would repeat. 

That is why 30 durians may not guarantee quality and loyalty when these are most needed. You could pay durians, and still get monkeys.



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