Perhaps the most disheartening thing about the debate over ministers’ salary is the end-result. Many have spoken, some very passionately. Most, as far as I can discern, are against the increase.
Yet, in spite of all this, nothing changed the government’s mind about the pay rise.
Catherine Lim’s analysis of what she termed “the skill of the strategy” – made in her article in 2000 – succinctly summarises what transpired recently.
“The skill of the strategy is apparent in an analysis of its stage-by-stage operation.
First, the Government, having made a major policy decision, throws it open for public discussion, allowing, even encouraging the people to voice their views freely through the permitted channels such as the forum pages of the newspapers and the face-to-face feedback sessions with their Members of Parliament.
The people accordingly respond, often with much spirit and candour.
The Government next waits for the noise to reach a certain level, then steps in to say, with business-like briskness: “Enough. Let’s get back to work.” Following which, the media duly wrap up the debate, and the people withdraw and return once more to the concerns of their busy lives.
Soon, the issue is forgotten or allowed to die a natural death.”
- Catherine Lim, “PAP and the people: A return of disaffection?", 2000
It would seem that the whole purpose, as determined by the government, of this debate was nothing more than an exercise in catharsis. “Let the people express outrage, anger, even disillusionment but we will ‘move on’ once it is over and the people will understand”, the government seems to believe.
And perhaps they are right. After all, we’ve had such “debates” since 1994 when benchmarking ministers’ salaries to the private sector was first introduced. We’ve had 3 elections since and the PAP is still the government, without much damage to their percentage of votes or number of seats won.
13 years on, with the same intensity of public outcry and facing the same problem of a brain drain in the civil service, the people has not changed, or been able to change, the government’s mind.
What does this do to our national psyche - as far as effecting change to policies we disagree with? There are a few possibilities.
One, Singaporeans begin to feel helpless. Indeed, some of my friends have expressed such sentiments. “What’s the point? They will never change their minds. All we can do is make some noise but nothing will change the pay rise.” Letters to the media, blog articles, internet forums, coffeeshop talk, office chatter, etc all seem unable to hold back the arm of the government, so to speak.
Two, some may feel strongly enough to do something about it. They might join an opposition party, for example, but I do not think many will. Politics, sadly, is still a very much-feared endeavour for Singaporeans – especially opposition politics.
Three, some may just be turned off engaging in national issues altogether. Apathy would have won the day and nonchalance will have become more deeply rooted.
An almost palpable cloud of disenchantment now hangs above the national psyche.
The people’s voice?
This is not just because of the pay rise but also other issues where Singaporeans feel just as helpless – the GST increase, means testing for hospital admission, foreign workers, rising cost of living, the widening income gap, and so on.
In short, Singaporeans feel that their voice is useless or powerless. Indeed, some may feel that they do not have a voice at all. The government’s argument is that Singaporeans do have a voice, and a very powerful one – the one they speak with once every 5 years when Singaporeans go to the polls.
It’s a very clever retort – but one which is viewed by the public with even more disdain because it would mean that the government is saying that Singaporeans (citizens in their own country) can only speak once every 5 years.
Short of having public protests and demonstrations (which are illegal and which I suspect not many Singaporeans would want, anyway), it would seem that there isn’t much anyone can do, except to wait for the next elections.
The PAP would of course be happy with this, as they’ve publicly declared on more than one occasion that they do not govern by popular sentiments on particular issues. They want to be judged on how they have performed overall.
And perhaps that’s where Singaporeans are “caught” in a bind. How do you vote against any one issue you might be unhappy with, without risking voting out the PAP as the government altogether, something which you may not want to do?
I guess that depends on how much value Singaporeans place on having a real voice.
And of course, it also depends on how well – overall – the PAP has performed the preceding 5 years.
By paying themselves such astronomical salaries, Singaporeans have a right to expect the government to solve most – if not all – the problems they face. And to do this by the next elections.
In the meantime, Singaporeans would just have to accept that they were unable to effect any changes to the government’s decisions on various issues.