~by: Howard Lee~
With the long and extensive debate on ministerial pay – in traditional media, online media, and most recently in Parliament – the last thing I want to do is discuss whether the cuts that will most likely be implemented were suitable.
If you examine the arguments thus far, you will realise that there are three camps. The first says that the cuts are sufficient and the formula used in their computation is generally good. The second says the proposed package is still too much and the cuts can be deeper, particularly when benchmarked against other countries. The third says the cuts are irrelevant because the formula used in the computation is not right to begin with.
Notice that there is no camp that currently says the cuts are too much. Apparently, even the ruling People’s Action Party has to acknowledge that a perceptibly sizeable pay cut to a ludicrously high pay package is necessary, for what ever the reasons.
Roughly, the second camp (argument for even deeper cuts) represents the voice of the ground, which is clearly the direct opposite position to the first camp (cuts are adequate).
The debate between these two positions is pointless, as some have pointed out. The cuts will never be deep enough to make sense to citizens, nor shallow enough (no pun intended) to satisfy our government’s insistence on adequate compensation.
But what more interesting is the discourse practiced by these polar camps. I want to discuss these narratives because in them lies the root of an important question: What on earth is all the fuss and dissatisfaction about?
Those supporting the cuts almost always use the following terms: Sacrifice, not a priesthood, value for money, talent acquisition and retention, ability, clean wage, no perks. Camp One champions are members of the ruling party, but also include voices like those of Calvin Cheng and Eugene K B Tan.
And those demanding deeper cuts use these terms: Privilege, service to nation and citizens, intrinsic value, fair wage, accountability, international benchmark. Camp Two champions are, well, pretty much everyone else, with a possible overlap into Camp Three.
Read the narratives again, and you will pick out that where the first two camps are coming from are at such polar ends that it almost seem like they are arguing on totally different planes.
If we take these terms of reference, we begin to see why this round of ministerial pay cuts have failed, but not because of the quantum of cuts achieved. The failure lies in the fact that there seems to be no intent, deliberate or otherwise, on the part of the political elite to address the real reason behind why citizens are unhappy about high ministerial pay.
In other words, the PAP is still clueless, or appears to be so, about the political culture that has swept over this nation leading up to GE2011: A growing desire for social justice and fair play.
As such, it would seem that the political divide that existed before and during the election year is still entrenched. It would be too much to expect a single stroke of ministerial pay cuts to mend the divide, but this particular exercise is not doing anything to help either. If anything, it has thrust into the limelight affirmation that the PAP is elitist, through the various incantations of its, unfortunately, more vocal members, such as Grace Fu and Chan Chun Sing.
But perhaps the last nail in the coffin came from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong himself. In his Parliament delivery, PM Lee prattled on endlessly about the importance of bringing in good people (i.e. narrative of talent acquisition and retention), scarcely paying attention to citizen angst about whether said people have performed once they have been brought in (i.e. narrative of accountability).
For sure, PM Lee dedicated a segment of his speech to touch on accountability, and indicated that he would not hesitate to sack ministers of they do not perform. But his definition for performance is conditionally couched in two terms – corruption and long-term policy failure. It is thus discernable that our office holders enjoy a high level of tolerance on failure, while their pay is pegged to the private sector, where there is a low tolerance for failure.
Worse, PM Lee dragged out the old warhorse on how citizens can hold their ministers accountable – at the polls every general election. In this political climate, such a narrative calls all of us fools. It is clear that such a system of accountability remains impotent, so long as we retain the GRC system, or we do not get to vote in the Cabinet as a team, as what is done in the US. Yet PM Lee conveniently defers to the value of his ministers as one team.
The plain reality is that no straight-thinking Singaporean will begrudge our politicians their exorbitant pay, so long as the government matched it with extraordinary performance, or else. Have they? And if not, what measures are in place to ensure that those who have failed are taken to task and punished with the same high risk mentality that has justified their high pay? Where is the transparency on ministerial KPIs?
To those who are given more, more will be expected of them in return.
As such, those who scoff as irrelevant the use of international benchmarks to determine our ministerial pay, are grossly missing the point. Citizens see an injustice, but are given little more than a one-sided, “we are unique” argument to justify our ministerial pay. Their only way of protest is to draw on known examples that speak in opposition to that. They do not mind, even, that these countries have flawed systems to pay and reward their office holders, because they see our current system as flawed also, only at a higher price tag to tax-payers and with the designer label that claims it to be the best.
Now, if at this point you think that I am being partisan and trying to discredit the PAP, let me be clear that I have thus far stated the polar positions between PAP and citizens.
What of the opposition voice? Again, if you look at the narratives, you would realise that their emphasis aligns with Camp Three – discomfort with the formula used by Gerard Ee’s committee and a desire to propose alternatives. These include those of Lina Chiam, Gerald Giam and Chen Show Mao.
None of these proposals would be absolutely useful on their own, and none might actually satisfy citizens in the long term. But it is perhaps more important to note that the narratives used contain terms of reference similar to what Camp Two has been using. In other words, the opposition parties have been trying to fulfill their election promise of voicing out for citizens in Parliament.
Camp Three narrative also demonstrated that they have a better connection to ground grouses than the PAP. They are speaking the same language, even if some of their proposals are no less exorbitant than Ee’s formula.
The PAP has everything to lose if it remains disconnected from these sentiments, both in their narrative and the actual implementation of policies. They have yet to realise that a cut, any cut, is less important than the approach to formulating ministerial pay, preferably with a lot more pre-consultation with the ground, and a lot more humility.
Ironically, this ministerial pay cut debate has clearly made it worse, even if there is arguably a pay cut in sizeable terms. We might not even want to call it a debate, because a debate suggests an argument on agreed terms of reference, to which there is none here.