When the proposal to benchmark ministers’ salaries to those of the top six highest earning professions was first mooted in Parliament in 1994, then-Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew defended the largely unpopular move by
"I say it (the ministerial pay increase) is necessary ... in five to 10 years, people will acknowledge that it works, and this formula will be accepted as conventional wisdom.”
Admittedly, it was before he established himself as the forecaster extraordinaire, but a cursory glance at comments on any popular socio-political websites would suggest that far from being accepted as ‘conventional wisdom’, the issue continues to rankle many Singaporeans.
A video of a 2007 Parliament speech by Worker Partys’ Chairperson Sylvia Lim is only the latest potshot taken at the high salary Ministers and senior civil servants are drawing that has gone viral.
Clearly, the Minister Mentor stands corrected. But 17 years is nonetheless a very long time. It begs the question – why does the issue continue to matter so much?
A short answer would be- because the arguments for it were never convincing in the first place.
Among the justifications was that it would prevent corruption. But even when the proposal was still being debated, people were already questioning its logic.
Mr David Ng, a shipping superintendent told the Straits Times on October 1994:
"Nobody can say for sure that people with low incomes will be corrupt, and those with high incomes will not be. Look at footballer Michal Vana, he was paid so much and yet he took money."
Not to mention that there always had been relatively few cases of high-level corruption.
Since the proposal was approved that year, the total amount paid to ministers had increased from $17 mil a year to $21 mil in 1994, to a staggering $75 mil this year, leaving some to wonder at the rationale of paying so much money to prevent the occasional pilfering.
Then there was the argument of attracting and retaining top talent.
Teo Chee Hean, then-Minister for Defence and minister in charge of the civil service, said in 2007:
"We don't want pay to be the reason for people to join (the government). But we also don't want pay to be the reason for them not to join us, or to leave after joining us."
(In that he was spot-on – few from the private sector wanted to join despite the handsome pay; the latest slate of PAP
newbies new faces was largely made up of ex-military men and unionists, and few have left, even though some are way past their retirement age.)
But if the latest rise in the number of people leaving the public sector were any indication, it is that high salary does not necessarily translate into loyalty. And even if it were true that those who left were attracted by the marginally higher pay of the private sector, the question remains as to whether those were the kinds of people who should be in the civil service to begin with.
The Minister Mentor was more apocalyptic. If the ministers were not paid astronomical salaries, poor governance would result.
“Your security will be at risk and our women will become maids in other people’s countries,” he foretold in 2007.
If only the leaders of the Philippines, Indonesia and Burma had heeded his advice.
If you can't convince them...
A survey conducted by the Straits Times in 1994 just prior to the approval of the proposal showed that 32 people felt that the benchmarks were too high as compared to 25 who felt they were valid. Some members of Parliament also felt uneasy. (Then) Nominated MP Walter Woon suggested putting the issue to a referendum, but the older Lee stuck to his guns.
According to a Straits Times report, he said that most Singaporeans “were not in a position to judge as they had not experienced the difficulties of drawing top men into political office”. (“Will S'poreans back SM Lee's judgment on White Paper?” ST 2 Nov 1994)
The latest round of
increases revisions which saw senior officials, including ministers, receiving up to eight months’ worth of bonuses was also debated in a similar manner. DPM Teo brushed off WP Chief Low Thia Kiang’s observation of a 30-per-cent increase in FY2010 in the estimated salary for political appointments:
“All this was fully explained and debated in this House when the Government last made major salary revisions in 2007 and there has been no change to the system since then.”
If it’s decided, that settles it. Unfortunately, the public disagreed till this day.
In the four years since the last major pay hike in 2007, few Singaporeans see a corresponding improvement in the quality of their lives. The city-state now faces a multitude of problems brought about chiefly by a lax immigration policy – rising housing prices, traffic jams, overcrowding of public transports. The government is perceived to have run out of ideas with regards to the economy. There are also shocking blunders, such as the Mas Selemat fiasco, the Orchard road floods and the Youth Olympic games
splurging overspending, which leave many convinced that the ministers’ performance do not match their fat paychecks.
Part of the reason is the criteria on which the pay and bonuses are pegged, The bonuses are based solely on GDP growth, which is poor indicator of a country’s well-being. John Tan of the Singapore Democratic Party puts it succinctly:
“In a good year, even if every minister does nothing, the GDP would go up. In a bad economy, a government would typically pump money to stimulate it. That act in itself would contribute to the increase in GDP.”
In other words, the house always wins.
However, for so long as bonuses are pegged to GDP growth, there will be little incentive – other than altruism – to focus on improving the other key social indicators of a healthy society.
Public Service is sacrifice
But perhaps the most important reason that it still matters, and will continue to matter, is what public service means to ordinary people. There is a near-universal and timeless appeal of the idea of the public servant being one who works tirelessly for the welfare of the people, and who sees service as privilege, not a burden. While his pay may not be commensurate with those of highest earners, he is rewarded nonetheless with similarly important intangibles like respect and reverence from the common folk. It is the kind of respect that many rich people have tried, but failed to buy.
In many instances, the establishments’ pointed defense and frequent complaining that Singaporeans are not able to see the pay increase in perspective come across as unbecoming of people in the high echelons of public office. But really, it shouldn’t act so surprised to be met with scorn if it chooses financial rewards over respect and admiration.
It is thus a vicious cycle - the erosion of public service as a a calling, leading to a higher turnover rate, and fewer people willing to join, hence the need to further increase the salaries, resulting in even more negative public perception.
The impact of continuing down this road isn’t merely an economic one. The social contract between the government and the governed is a delicate balance that has been increasingly upset by the government’s insistence to reward itself the way it deems fit. Already we see increasing cynicism towards even the most well-intended policies, and stinging rebuke for even the slightest blunders (which has often been attributed to a more ‘sophisticated’ public, as if education is to be blamed).
It is very hard to convince people that ‘everyone matters’ when on one hand the government is stingy with social benefits but on the other hand generous with rewarding its own ‘sacrifices’. It is a perception that no amount of baby cuddling, hand-shaking with cleaners and dressing just like residents can change. This cannot be good for the nation.
In Mary Shelley’s famous novel, Dr Frankenstein’s unearthly creation was never far from him wherever he went. Likewise the abomination that is the obscenely high ministerial pay will seldom be far away from people’s mind whenever they think of the PAP.
But the difference I guess, is that the PAP loves its monster.
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