Dr Wong Wee Nam /

In 1996, when the formula for the ministerial pay was introduced, my friend Dr Patrick and I wrote a letter to the Forum Page of The Straits Times.

In it, we said:

“It is indeed very disturbing that our success, material progress and prosperity have driven our present leaders to resort to using financial incentives to induce potential leaders to come forward to serve in public office.

“Unfortunately, in doing so, they have transformed the office of political leadership from a noble calling into a highly paid bureaucratic job. It will also erode the high respect which our people have of our leaders as exemplified by our past and present crop of ministers.

“To create the perception that our office-holders are there just for the high pay is a gross injustice to the dedication and commitment of our present crop of ministers, who had come forward to serve before the pay revision.

“It will also cast a dark shadow over the motives of our future leaders, even if they enter politics out of a sense of mission.”

On leadership, we said:

“Leaders who do not recognise their special obligation and duty to society, which has invested so much in them and helped them to attain a high status and position, and need to be rewarded handsomely by very high salaries, are no longer extraordinary leaders……..We are not asking our ministers to make sacrifices a la Mother Teresa, but we would be much better off without leaders who are more interested in their pay cheques than in serving the country……We need leaders who are not only visionary, upright and capable, but who also have the wisdom and compassion coupled with an acute sense of social responsibility.”

When the letter was published, a retired minister, one who entered politics without regard for pay or personal safety, immediately called me up and commended us on the letter, saying it was “an iron fist in a velvet glove”.

In introducing a formula to calculate ministerial wages, the PAP government thought it would remove the need to justify pay revisions every few years. Indeed, it would be rather embarrassing, every time the salary is reviewed and raised, to tell Singaporeans that these would only amount to about five plates of char kway teow per person.

The formula however did not remove the people’s resentment to the humongous salaries that were paid to the office-holders. It did not help that the salaries were pegged to the top-earners and winners which means that the salaries would perpetually remain high irrespective of the state of the economy.

Before the Internet, the resentment was simmering beneath the surface. With the advent of the Internet, it all came to a boil. Every time a new minister was introduced, we were told that he could easily get many times his salary in the private sector. In other words, we were told that we were really getting a bargain. Unfortunately, because the office has become so commercialised, the people do not see it as a bargain or a sacrifice on the part of the minister. Rather, the message we get is: we should be grateful and stop whining. This merely increased the level of anger.

It is just like a doctor telling his patient, “Look I am undercharging you. I could see Mr Z and he’ll be happy to pay me five times the price. If you are not happy with me, just change doctor.” Totally cold, business-like and lack of compassion.

Unfortunately this is how people have come to see their politicians.

The use of money to get leaders into government also reduces their sensitivities in dealing with people, something that politicians need most. If a politician doesn’t have that he can’t empathise with the people. If he can’t empathise with the people, how can he serve them well?

Imagine a union leader telling the workers that he feels rich every time he looks at his Central Provident Fund statement! How would the worker who doesn’t feel rich looking at his own CPF statement feel? How would an impoverished taxpayer who is paying the salary feel over such public display of elation? It is just like a rich kid who brings an expensive toy to show his less-than-unfortunate classmates and not it sharing with them.

It looks like such mindset is not going to change soon. Recently a Member of Parliament told the Lianhe Zaobao in Chinese, “If the annual salary of the Minister of Information, Communication and Arts is only $500,000, it may pose some problems when he discuss policies with media CEOs who earn millions of dollars because they need not listen to the minister’s ideas and proposals. Hence, a reasonable payout will help to maintain a bit of dignity.”

If money is the only way to measure the dignity of an office-holder, a politician or any other person, then this is very sad indeed. Mother Teresa then would not be worth a cent.

Dr Tan Cheng Bock, a potential candidate for this coming General Election, showed the way when he resigned from the Board of Jurong General Hospital on moral principles. He believed that a national institution should not be renamed just because someone had donated a sum of money (a fraction of its building cost) to it. The name of a building should not be for sale but given to a citizen who has made a significant contribution to the country.

It is time we get our moral bearings right. This is even more important when a young generation has grown up thinking only of themselves.

It is, therefore, important that our politicians lead the way.

I was amazed to read that Ms Tin Pei Ling had said that income gap is not the responsibility of the government. It shows a lack of political understanding and social concern. I would advise Ms Tin to read Du Fu’s poetry as they offer great sympathy with the common people and reveal the sharp line between exploiters and exploited.

Ms Tin, if you don’t have the time to read the 1000 poems by the Sage of Poetry, then at least read 500-Character Poem, A Reflection on the Road from Capital to Feng Xian Town ( 怀 ). If you can’t read the 500 characters, then at least remember these two famous lines from it:

When translated it reads:

“Wine and meat rot behind vermilion gates, while on the roadside, people freeze to death.”

It means: “In the houses of the rich, there are so much unconsumed meat and wine that they are left to rot while on the roads are strewn with skeletons of the poor frozen to death”.

If a government is not concerned with the great disparity in income gap, this is what will happen.

It is, therefore, good to see that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has now acknowledged that unhappiness over high ministerial pay must be addressed if they are to renew the compact between government and people.

It is good to hear Mr Lee saying ‘politics is not a job or a career promotion. It is a calling to serve the larger good of Singapore’.

However, until the Ministerial Salary Review Committee comes out with its recommendations, it is too early to say if there is genuine reform.

It has been said that when you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. However, it does not necessarily follow that if you pay a bomb, you will get something better.

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