Paying more for good people – what if it backfires?

Higher pay means better leaders?

By Andrew Loh

If you want good people in government, you have to pay them salaries commensurate with the private sector.

This is what we have been told – by the prime minister, ministers, PAP MPs, the local media and some Singaporeans.

It is an argument based on demand and supply – the demand and supply of talented people. It has also been argued that because of Singapore’s small base of 3 or 4 million people, talents are in short supply.

Thus the public sector will have to compete with the private sector for them. Namely, through financial rewards.

However, perhaps the government has not paid enough attention to an issue which such a formula will create. This is the perception that those in public service are money-grabbers.

Indeed, the recent 2nd upward revision of ministers’ salaries has had that effect, as with previous revisions. Public servants, particularly ministers, are seen as hoarding money for their own personal and selfish benefit.

Why should anyone want to serve?

The question we need to ask is this: If public servants are seen to be money-grabbers, who then will want to step forth and serve? Would an ordinary Singaporean, talented and honest, want to subject himself to such public perceptions or derision? Would he or she put himself up to serve, with all the accusations and the gossips that will come not only from strangers but also from friends and family?

Indeed, if one looks at the General Elections and the Presidential Elections of recent past, finding candidates to stand had been a problem. Even the PAP, with all its resources and its rewards, has had to deal with talented people who would rather not step forward and serve, to say nothing of opposition parties.

President Nathan was unchallenged in two Presidential Elections. Why is this so? Is it because we really do not have enough talent who would stand as candidates, or is it because talented people do not want to be subjected to the public perception that they are “only out for money”?

In view of the very stringent qualifications to even stand for election as president, do people of such stature who qualify need to be paid so much in order to attract them and retain them?


The formula to pay the president private sector salary may be counter-productive, because those with the stature to qualify may be turned off from even serving the country as president, because of the groundswell of discontent.

Who wants to be a $4m+ president and let all his friends, relatives, every citizen think that they are greedy for so much money even at that late stage of their lives – it may in a sense, tarnish their own name and reputation which may have taken almost their whole lifetime to build!

Could we, therefore, be seeing a situation whereby credible, able, talented people are shunning public service precisely because of the negative perceptions of being the highest paid public servants in the world?

Consider this:

The president receives more than $21 million for his one term in office. Here is a rough calculation of President Nathan’s salary for his 2nd 6-year term in office:

Salary for 2nd term in office:

2006 – $2,507,200 (Source: TODAY)
2007 – $3,187,100 (Source: Straits Times)
2008 – $3,870,000 (Source: Straits Times)
2009 – $3,870,000
2010 – $3,870,000
2011 – $3,870,000

Total – $21,174,300

Together with his salary for his first term in office, the president would be receiving something between $30m to $40 million in 12 years of service – an insane amount for a president whose roles are still largely ceremonial.

What then of the prime minister and ministers? What then of MPs?

I do not want to go into the debate about how and why political office holders are and should be treated differently from private sector employees. Enough has been said about that.

We must be careful that we do not be blinded so much by monetary rewards that we end up, ironically, compounding the problem instead of solving it.

Suffice it to say that it is still true that political leaders are quite a different breed from a businessman or an economist.

And that is how it should be.

Singapore’s political culture needs to change

Remember also that the problem is one of having enough top brains in public service – and not necessarily one of not paying them enough.

At the end of the day, what must change is the entire political culture in Singapore. It is in this light that I agree fully with what Ms Catherine Lim said in her open letter to the prime minister.

Unfortunately, even such an honest, open letter is rejected for publication by our government-controlled newspapers.

Is it any wonder then, that we are having problems finding people who are passionate enough about Singapore to step forward?

Without changes in the political culture of our country and people, how can we expect to find able and passionate political leaders?

Paying them such insane amount of money may turn out to be counter-productive and create an even more serious problem – the entrenchment of apathy.

Money only takes you so far.


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