Andrew Loh / Deputy Editor

I want to acknowledge that the Government has done the right thing to defer the last installment of the pay increase and also to take a salary cut of 19%,” said Mr Tan Kin Lian in a posting on The Online Citizen. “I also want to acknowledge that PM Lee has been magnanimous in not taking his salary increase during the past years.”

I too would like to credit the Government for taking a pay cut for 2009. It is a good move as it shows leadership – something we haven’t had for a while it seems. In a year of lapses, flip-flopping and, most recently, arrogance, we should applaud the Government for finally doing something worth praising.

Of course, there will be some (perhaps many here) who will see this pay cut as well, “grandstanding”, “inevitable” or just plain pre-election politicking.

Damn if you do, damn if you don’t.

In an earlier article on TOC, I asked if the People’s Action Party government would choose to “stay together” with Singaporeans, or “move ahead” with the third pay rise which was scheduled for the end of this year. Apparently, the government has chosen to “stay together” with Singaporeans and have deferred the third pay hike. In doing so, the salaries will be at 56 per cent of the benchmark come 2009. Presently it is at 77 per cent. If a third hike had taken place, salaries would be at 88 per cent of the benchmark.

Critics will look for holes in this and lambast the government and particularly Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong – for the fact that he, as leader of the government pack, is ultimately responsible. Perhaps critics will point to the fact that the lower pay next year is due to the formula which reflects the sluggish economy rather than any voluntary reduction by the ministers. But one should not forget that the deferment of the third pay hike is a voluntary move. We, of course, can argue that “it is only right that their salaries are cut because they already are the highest-paid public servants in the world”. But lets not confuse the one with the other. Whether they are the highest-paid is a separate matter. I, like Mr Tan, agree that they should not be so highly-paid.

What is more important now, however, is how the average Singaporean, and especially the lower-income Singaporean, is going to cope in the next two or three years of recession. “I am not so worried about the high salaries of the government ministers,” said Mr Tan. “I am more worried that the low income people are not earning enough.”

Whether the cut and deferment for ministers’ salary is a political move does not really matter at the moment. What will matter – to the PAP as a political party and Singaporeans in general – is whether the government will be able to help Singaporeans through the next two or three years when unemployment is expected to double and when thousands start having difficulties living day to day – how they will cope with mortgage loans for their homes, paying their utilities bills, sending their children to school, keeping their own jobs, etc.

If the PAP government is unable to provide solace and leadership in this, disenchantment with the situation will cost it politically – and it won’t be because Singaporeans think ministers’ pay is too high.

The economy is the key and not the pay cheque for ministers.

But for now at least, let us give credit where credit is due. The government has done what many of us have said they should do – forego a salary hike in these bad times.

As for PM Lee, well, his announcement in April that he will donate his increment to charity for the next five years should also be applauded, though some (like me) believe that he did it to take some heat off the debate in April.

Whatever it is, now that they are not going to get the increase, lets focus on the issues and problems which many Singaporeans are facing.

We can revisit this issue of ministers’ pay when it comes up again.

And for sure, it will.

All eyes will now be on the upcoming budget.


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