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Be mindful of the affective gap

From The Straits Times, April 5th, 2007

By Catherine Lim

I HAVE followed with intense interest the current debate on increasing ministerial salaries to match those of the highest earners in the private sector. And I have noted the impassioned arguments from both sides: the Government insisting on its necessity if top talent is to be recruited to ensure good leadership, and the public expressing its reservations, doubts and unhappiness.

I would like to go beyond the emotion and the rhetoric, and see the issue in the larger context of the PAP model of governance, in particular its special brand of pragmatism in solving problems. It is a hard-boiled pragmatism which even the severest critic will concede has contributed greatly to the Singapore success story. And one which, paradoxically, even the strongest supporter will concede is liable to harden into inflexibility.

In the case of ministerial salaries, the PAP leaders' thinking seems to have gone along these lines: Singapore needs a good, strong government if it is to prosper or even survive. Hence, it needs to recruit top talent. Since there is competition for this from the private sector, it has to offer equally attractive salaries. It has to act quickly and decisively, otherwise the country will face a serious crisis of leadership, which can occur in three increasingly dangerous stages:

-Talented people will not be attracted to government service.

-Even if they are, they will soon be enticed away by the private sector.

-But even if they are not enticed away, they will resort to corruption as compensation for their inadequate salaries, and thus bring ruin to society.

Rounding up the austere dialectic is the urgent plea to doubting Singaporeans: Do you want Singapore to go the way of corrupt societies?

I would like to point out, respectfully, a basic flaw in this rationale. In keeping with the overall, hard-nosed realpolitik that has characterised PAP rule, it fails to take into account the affective factor that is present in any relationship, whether between individuals or ruler and ruled.

This factor comprises that special constellation of emotions, moods, attitudes and ideals which somehow elude being quantified and reduced to monetary terms. I first analysed its role in the relationship between the PAP Government and the people over a decade ago in a political commentary titled The Great Affective Divide, noting the emergence of a serious emotional estrangement despite the country's stability and prosperity.

Subsequently, I variously described the conflict in terms of the people's wish to see a greater role for Heart as opposed to Head, EQ as opposed to IQ, Heartware as opposed to Hardware, etc.

The policy regarding ministerial salaries illustrates this conflict. Its definition of the talent that is eagerly sought as ministerial material does not appear to take into account attributes beyond those of intellect. It assumes that what is good for the corporate world must be good for government, and that therefore there is a common target of talent out there, which both will compete fiercely for.

But in reality, the commonality of talent is only in those attributes of mind and personality such as great intelligence, far-sightedness, boldness of vision, creativity, determination of purpose, etc, that are the hallmarks of today's high achiever. Beyond this overlap, the emotional aspect comes into play.

And here, there is a dramatic parting of ways. For while the ideal political leader is imbued with nobility of purpose and altruistic instincts, the ideal CEO is impelled by the very opposite - raw ambition and ruthless drive. The first set of qualities is desirable for a life of public service; the second would be disastrous.

Indeed, a brilliant achiever without the high purpose of service to others would be the worst possible ministerial material. To see a potential prime minister as no different from a potential top lawyer, and likely to be enticed by the same stupendous salary, would be to blur the lines between two very different domains.

Next, the rationale goes against the very spirit of the social contract that it is supposed to protect. There is a compact, largely implicit, that governs the government-people relationship in every mature society in the free world, and it has as much to do with what is felt deeply in the heart as with what is worked out logically in the head.

By this compact, political leadership is less a salaried job and more a vocation, with all that this implies of selflessness and sacrifice on the part of the leaders, and trust, respect and regard on the part of the people. It is this reciprocity that defines a social compact and confers upon it a sort of sacrosanct quality. The ultimate reward for the leaders, whether or not they consciously seek it, is a revered place in the nation's history, in the hearts and minds of future generations. Hence, material reward is only secondary.

Nevertheless, no Singaporean with any practical sense of the real world would want to see a minister denied a salary commensurate with his status and dignity, or living less well than any prosperous Singaporean. If the average Singaporean still aspires to the famous '5Cs' representing the good life, he is only too happy to see a minister already well in possession of these.

But, at the same time, no Singaporean would expect a minister to feel disgruntled if he is paid less than the top CEO. If the disgruntlement actually causes him to leave his job, then he was not cut out for public office in the first place. Thus, to offer him a matching salary to enable him to stay would be to demean that office.

There is clearly a need to balance material needs and public service. The balance, in the view of many Singaporeans, has already been achieved with the existing ministerial salaries, if benchmarked against those of high-earners across a broad range of professions, and also against the salaries of ministers in countries such as Sweden and New Zealand, consistently ranked among the foremost, corruption-free democracies in the world.

The policy of increasing ministerial salaries may have the effect of upsetting this balance and, more seriously, doing away altogether with the compact of trust and respect. It will create a new affective divide, or reinforce any existing one, between the government and the people, and reduce their relationship to a purely impersonal business contract.

Even in a society often described as aggressively materialistic and coldly efficient, there are, fortunately, Singaporeans who believe idealism has a place, and that the fire, passion and commitment of the Old Guard, who saw Singapore through the difficult early years with little hope of financial reward, are still alive in some young Singaporeans.

The policy on ministerial salaries will, at the least, breed weary resignation in Singaporeans: What's the use of giving one's views at all? And, at the worst, give rise to toxic cynicism: What's the use of teaching our young such values as caring and selflessness and sacrifice if each carries a price tag?

Catherine Lim is a freelance writer.

Read also: Singapore Bigger Than The PAP – an interview with Ngiam Tong Dow and “Ministers’ Salaries – The Missing Link?” by The Hammersphere.

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