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Ministerial Salary – It’s not (just) about the Money

~by: Tan Yin Hoe~

The Ministerial salary issue, says PM Lee, should not be just about the amount of money. That is precisely the point – For as citizens of this nation, how many of us would be concerned about exactly how much our politicians are taking home, if life were all well? Given our politically apathetic nature, how many of us would even bother to ask, if each and everyone of us were able to find his own rightful place in a fair and just society, earning a decent living and having a roof over his head?

If everyone of us felt that we have been respected and well taken care of by a benevolent government which puts the welfare of its citizens ahead of all other concerns, if we felt secure, happy, not having so much to worry about the future, how many of us would be so unreasonable as to suggest a pay cut for our truly talented politicians? It is not just yesterday that our leaders are getting so highly paid. If we were really that money-minded, our protests would have surfaced long ago.

That is not the case. We, the citizens of Singapore, are not concerned with the money. It is only the priviledged few, those ‘talented’ and ‘good’ people at the top, entrusted by a meek electorate to run the country, who are concerned. And we all know the reason why.

The Irony of ‘Sacrifice’

While we would all agree with the committee that the ethos of political service entials making sacrifices, the way their report talks about sacrifice eludes the common sense of every man-on-the-street. Chen Shu-chu(陳樹菊), a seller of vegetables at Taitung County’s central market in the east of Taiwan, has donated nearly NT$10 million, which is nearly SGD$427,000, out of her modest living. This sum may seem like peanuts when compared to the gargantuan amount our politicians are receiving. But everyone would agree that she is noble for her selflessness and all the sacrifice she has made.

"Money serves its purpose only when it is used for those who need it," said Chen. Her story spurred Lee Ang to write an article about her in Time Magazine, raising her to the ranks of ‘The 2010 Time 100’, in which the people who most affect our world are named. It also lead Forbes Asia to list her as one of the ‘48 heros of Philantrophy’. Here, is what can be rightly called a ‘sacrifice’ – Sacrifice that truly reflects upon the ethos of a person.

The ‘sacrifice’ made by our politicians, on the other hand, is proclaimed as a discount from a sum that has been arbituarily set to a benchmark that is outrageously high to begin with. While it is up to anyone’s discretion to dispute whether our office holders are truly worthy of their pay, the formula has taken the assumption as a given: All talent who is fit for the job must be capable of earning huge sums of money. Conversely, we would necessarily need to pay a huge sum of money in order to attract the ‘right talent’ to the job. The catch is this: Even before they take up office, these ‘good people’ are already concerned with whether they would be paid the ‘right amount’ to match their self-professed ‘talent’.

Any sum less than that may have caused them to seek for greener pastures. Assuming the original sum which the formula generates is indeed the ‘right amount’, the self-inflicted discount is claimed to be a ‘sacrifice’, that ‘reflects on the ethos of political service’. In other words, these ‘good people’ up there are already making a ‘sacrifice’ for Singaporeans without even lifting a finger. Singaporeans must really be ‘daft’ to believe in such a thing!

Perceive an employee who is already begrudging over his loss of time, space and freedom – not to mention the pitiful salary – even before starting up on his job. Which employer, in his right of mind, would hire such person? Yet, this is exactly the kind of mentality which, by the genius of the review committee and all the ‘talented’ people at the top, openly endorses and seeks to perserve!

It is not my concern to speculate whether our current office holders do indeed carry out their jobs with such mentality. We would be in a really sorry state if this were true. My concern is this: Why would we, as a nation, adopt a salary formula that condones or even encourages such mentality in people no less significant than our politicians? How could we, if that predicted by the formula were true, entrust these people with our country and our lives? What good does it do for our country? What good does it do for the people of Singapore?

This is no longer about the ‘ethos’ of political service. This is about being sincere and taking pride in one’s work; deriving satisfication just from doing the job itself and doing it well. Anyone who upholds such attitude and performance deserves to be respected – no matter how much the job can earn him, no matter how insignificant the job may be. Such are the universal values which ought to be promulgated in a salary formula. Such are the virtues we ought to look for when picking the right man to run the country. Not some self-proclaimed ‘talent’ which only God knows whether it is true or not.

In a nutshell, one has to enjoy the work – not (just) the money – in order to perform well. One who views his job as a burden that needs to be compensated can never do well, no matter how talented or well-suited he may be. A salary formula that overlooks these facts can only erode work ethos while serving the pockets of the political elite.

It is quite unbelievable that such simple facts would have evaded the minds of our leaders, talented as they profess to be. As Upton Sincliar would have put it, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”