Ministers salaries – lets have a re-focus

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A minister in the Singapore government presently receives $1.2 million in salary. This is according to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong as reported by the Straits Times on March 23, 2007 - “Top govt salaries far behind private sector’s”:

“A minister should be drawing $2.2 million a year or more, according to benchmarks approved by Parliament in 1994 to ensure competitive salaries for a competent and honest government.”

Although increasing ministers salaries may give rise to what the Straits Times calls “knee jerk reactionary views” from the public, and “visceral reaction in many quarters” (ST, march 24 2007, Insight), one should seek to understand why this is so.

And I would offer that there are good reasons for these sentiments.

GST increase

The government had recently announced an increase in the Goods & Services Tax (GST) rate. The reason given was that the government needed the money to fund certain programmes like Workfare and infrastructure costs pertaining to an ageing population.

Thus, the government was effectively saying that they will not have enough money if they do not raise the GST.

Announcing a rise in ministers’ salaries so soon after the announcement of a GST hike has raise disquiet among some quarters. Indeed, some people have asked if the GST hike is to fund the increase in ministers’ pay. And why, if we do not have enough money for Workfare and other programmes, are we able to raise ministers’ salaries?

Public Assistance Schemes

The Ministry of Community, Youth and Sports recently raised the amount of public assistance from $260 to $290 per month, for persons living alone without any dependents. A mere $30 increase, or an extra $1 per day for those on the scheme.

Even PAP MP Dr Lily Neo found this inadequate and has continued to ask for more for such people. The government, however, has been silent on her request. We are therefore unsure if the government will be raising the amount further. Dr Neo has asked for $400 for those on public assistance.

Here again, Singaporeans may question why the government is giving so little to our elderly folks while saying that ministers should be getting $1 million more than what they’re presently getting.

"Unreasonable financial sacrifices'?

The government’s argument for raising ministers’ salaries seem to be based on monetary compensation (or competition) in order to “retain the most talented” in public service. Other aspects of the issue, such as sense of idealism, duty, and even altruism among public servants, seem to be given short shrift.

Indeed, the prime minister himself has said:

“While public officers must serve from a sense of idealism and duty and not be motivated mainly by financial reward, they should not be expected to make 'unreasonable financial sacrifices' to be in public service, he added.” (ST, march 23, 2007)

It is hard for most people to see how being paid some of the highest salaries in the world can be “unreasonable financial sacrifices”.

There needs to be a re-focus

While some may decry such high salaries, few would argue against public servants being ‘adequately compensated’. What ‘adequately compensated’ means is subject to debate, of course. My view is that there will never be any satisfactory conclusion to the issue of what is ‘adequate’ – if we do not also promote and emphasise the other aspects of being a public servant.

Yes, there needs to be a re-focus on what being a public servant means. Singapore is not a corporation (and must never be) and there must be more to public service than monetary rewards.

The government has to look beyond monetary compensation to retain our ‘top talents’. It should not assume that idealism, duty and altruism is so remote or alien to our young people that it is no use emphasizing these values. Indeed, if the government finds that such values are lacking, the more they should promote it.

Has not the government been trying to create this sense of identity, of pride, of rootedness, and indeed a sense of duty among our people? Why then do they not do the same for the highest echelons of our society?

When have we seen or heard the government saying that being in public service is a noble profession where the best, brightest and most altruistic Singaporeans seek to contribute?

On the contrary, what we have been hearing is how much public servants must be paid in order to retain them or get them into public service. It seems to me that perhaps we have got the whole thing wrong.

Paying more = getting the best?

Public service cannot be predicated on the thinking that ‘if we pay more, we will be able to have good people’. This is because if we are able to pay more, there will always be others who can pay even more. Thus, we will be subject to this neverending cycle of trying to better our competitors in this area. Where does it stop?

And if our public servants can be seduced to leave by bigger monetary packages or compensations, are they the public servants we want to run our country in the first place?

Detachment between the elites and the masses

Continuously raising salaries to such astronomical amounts will further reinforce the widening income gap in our society, which will lead to feelings of disenchantment. It will also reinforce the perceived ‘disconnect’ between the elites and the masses.

Unless public service is seen to be a noble profession (which it is) and public servants seen to be men and women of integrity, duty, idealism and most of all, altruism, speaking constantly of monetary rewards will only lead to a class divide.

So, while we race ahead on the economic front, we must not forget what sustains us in the long run – that we do what we do for our country, our people, our families.

And if the people at the very top of government do not have such beliefs, then no amount of money will bring us forward to ‘first-tier, first world’.

It will only be an empty shell – which will crumble soon enough.

As soon as the money runs out.

“We should never use material rewards to attract new members. That will be attracting the wrong kind of members. But we can get them to understand that if they do not actively support and improve on the system, it must collapse through metal (sic) fatigue or corrosion. In other words, give them a mission and a sense of purpose. We can find a mechanism to give them access to the political leadership, and influence over national policies. Give them the satisfaction that they are playing a part in shaping the destiny of the country.”

- Goh Chok Tong, "PAP Youth Wing", YoungPAP website