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To be, or not to be generous: That is the politician’s question

Prime Minister Hun Sen presents a donation to workers at the construction site of Phnom Penh’s Stung Meanchey flyover in 2013.
Prime Minister Hun Sen presents a donation to workers at the construction site of Phnom Penh’s Stung Meanchey flyover in 2013. May Titthara

To be, or not to be generous: That is the politician’s question

It is an established wisdom that politicians shall try to win the hearts and soul of their supporters. What else would they rather do? In the US, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is an obvious example.

This businessman-turned-politician would say anything in order to be liked by those coming to his campaign rallies. Commentators across the globe have plenty of his quotes to be entertained with almost on a daily basis.

Whether his tough-talk strategy would win him the Republican nomination remains anyone’s guess. But his case isn’t a lone one. Actually, thousands of kilometres away from America, Cambodians have been receiving plenty of “gifts” recently in the form of reduced public service fees, exemptions and so on.

This art of giving the people what they want is really something. A lot of beneficiaries are rejoicing over this generous phenomenon. The gift giver deserves credit and praise and is indeed receiving them.

On the bright side, average people can be very excited about the new-found “direct democracy” by which they have been able to directly affect the decision-making process simply by posting and commenting on Facebook.

Requests of the ordinary people are, astonishingly, being met, even beyond their expectations.

A few hundred years ago, the renowned thinker Machiavelli advised that a future prince must be considered generous. Furthermore, the increase in traffic on social media clearly shows that the executive recognises the power of social media actually possesses the skills to master its usage.

On the dark side, however, gift-giving in a liberal democracy could be quite problematic. First of all, if not carefully executed, the act of generosity may be prone to eventual abuse of power.

Nepotism, as is widely applied, is one clear form of generosity, but this is very problematic because it would only benefit a particular group of people to the detriment of others.

In principle, power may be found to have been abused if it is used without a proper legal basis, in a wrong formality or without having observed the established procedure.

Generous decisions taken at times of pleasure or at the heat of the moment can easily defy logic, especially when a wave of changes is brought in too frequently in a short period of time.

Secondly, since generosity simply cannot be extended to each and every member of society, it definitely creates favours for some while potentially leaving others behind.

For instance, veterans who had risked their lives and sacrificed their family duty in order to protect the rest of the country have not adequately received as much attention as garment workers have in terms of the provision of health care services.

Indeed, the executive has just mandated a new benefit system that allows garment workers to enjoy medical treatment even at private hospitals and clinics. Neither veterans nor current civil servants are entitled to such a nice benefit.

The third danger of generosity is reflected in the people always desiring more and more. Once given, a benefit cannot be easily withdrawn without creating a deep resentment and anger.

Politicians who have made a certain service available would have to keep providing it at all costs in exchange for popular support. Otherwise, generosity would quickly backfire.

The fourth inconvenient truth about generosity is that it may make people question the real motive behind it, prompting them to ponder why such generosity wasn’t shown earlier or whether it was done simply out of pity or in an effort to garner votes rather than as a matter of good policy.

In any society, there will always be groups of rational people and cynics who simply refuse to believe in the possibility that good policies do happen once in a while without any ill motive behind it.

But cynics, unfortunately, are often very loud and convincing. In a land where politicians are generally considered as skilful deceivers, the cynical line of argument almost seems irresistible.

Therefore, leaders would do well to ensure that any act of generosity is well principled and is clearly thought through to avoid the feeling of being left behind, the eventual abuse of power and, above all, the adoption of risky policies.

Machiavelli vividly warned against the negative effect of generosity when he wrote in chapter 16 of The Prince that generosity could “incur a name for rapacity which begets both disdain and hatred.”

Good policy makers and politicians should apply good principles when they decide on public policies. Below are a few key principles and criteria for developing a good public policy:

• It benefits society equitably and contributes to sustainable socio, economic, political and democratic development and enhances the rule of law.

• It helps shrink the gap between the rich and the poor, and promotes social inclusiveness and harmony.

• It promotes social accountability and encourages citizens to do their duties and obligations to serve and contribute to their nation in the form of labour, skills and finance.

• It is not biased in favour of or has a conflict of interest with the policy makers themselves, their groups, families or relatives.

Preap Kol is executive director of Transparency International Cambodia.

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