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A good start

Andrew Loh/

credit: chinadaily.com.cn

The setting up of a committee to review ministerial salaries is a good start-off point of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s promise of change. The move is an acknowledgement that ministers’ salaries have been a sore point for many Singaporeans since its implementation in the 1990s. Over time, it has also raised questions about the government’s moral authority, given that a large segment of society has seen stagnant wages or even wages decreased.

“[It is] wrong to think that a bigger pay would undermine the moral authority of the government,” Minister in charge of the Civil Service, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said in April 2007 during the debate on increasing civil servants’ pay. (Channelnewsasia)

Four years on, it is clear that DPM Teo was wrong.

Each time any minister of government policy failed or perceived to have failed to address certain concerns Singaporeans have, the finger would be pointed at the remuneration ministers were receiving. Indeed, at times these accusations verged on the irrational and unreasonable. Just because someone is paid such generous salaries does not mean he can or should be expected to solve all problems. But the government shoulders part of the blame for such perception too.

When raising their own salaries, ministers cited their achievements or their integrity and non-corruptibility as justification. In the process, we have ministers who are earning more than world leaders such as President Barack Obama of the United States (US), German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron.

In the 2007 debate on civil servants salaries, ministers were effusive in praising themselves and the government which they are a part of as “special”, “extraordinary” and “unique”. Such accolades lead to higher public expectations which are not unjustified. And when expectations are not achieved, questions are raised about the high remuneration, forked out by tax payers, of the office holders.

Mr Gerard Ee has now been appointed to head the review committee announced by PM Lee at the swearing-in ceremony at the Istana on Saturday. Mr Ee is best known for his handling of the fallout from the National Kidney Foundation saga in 2007, the same year ministers upped their own salaries, and for his chairmanship of the Public Transport Council which guards over public transport fares. What formula Mr Ee comes up with for ministers pay will be closely-watched. What is important is that any such formula must be easily understood by the public. Otherwise, more unhappiness may result. Ambiguity will do no one any good. One therefore hopes that Mr Ee does not conjure up some obscure, hard-to-understand formula like the one for public transport fares which few can make sense of.

Me Ee will have to address concerns and unhappiness over not just the basic salaries of ministers but also other components such as the very generous bonus aspects (both performance and GDP bonuses). The 8-month bonuses which ministers received last year was met with disbelief by a public which included many families struggling to make ends meet.

What Mr Ee and Mr Teo may also want to consider is to require salaries of senior civil servants be disclosed to the public, along with their personal assets, on an annual basis. This is what even the US President is required to do.

The Prime Minister should be commended for highlighting the issue of ministerial salaries in his speech at the Istana. That he chose to do so indicates that he is fully aware of the deep disquiet over the issue. And for him to set up the review committee shows he is serious in addressing Singaporeans’ concerns about it.

The recent retirement of nine ministers, including very senior ones, gives PM Lee the freedom to relook this issue and others from a new perspective. With a younger and leaner Cabinet, PM Lee has taken the first step to address specific issues.

Singaporeans welcome such a move – and await the same determination from the PM and his team in looking at other areas of concerns.

After the 2001 General Election, several ministers vowed that there would be “no sacred cows” and that all policies would be given a relook and any which does not measure up will be done away with.

The same pledges and promises have been made after the 2011 General Election. The language is the same, the promises are not new.

The only difference now is that PM Lee has a freer hand in setting the agenda and holding his ministers accountable. By reviewing their salaries, PM Lee has also signaled that public service should include a measure of sacrifice, and that those who want to serve must be willing to accept this.

Former Minister Mentor, Lee Kuan Yew, once put his own reputation – and his “40 years of experience” - on the line when arguing for ministers to be paid salaries pegged to the private sector. After 20 years, it has resulted in the erosion of the government’s moral authority, as could be witnessed in the recent elections.

credit: My Sketchbook

PM Lee is seeking to correct such perception and sentiments. Indeed, his reputation too is on the line, and in the coming weeks, we shall see if the review throws up more unhappiness or finally puts the matter to rest once and for all.

In the meantime, kudos to PM Lee.