Can only the top 1000 earners in the private sector take up political office?

~by: Adrian Ng~

I read with interest the PM’s speech in parliament with regard to the recent ministerial pay issue. There were some things he mentioned that jumped out at me and stirred an uneasiness within.

“If you have the wrong system of pay, you will have the wrong team,”

This phrase, in my opinion, has got the fundamentals all wrong. Most leaders will tell you that the most important thing to get right in any team is the value system in the team. Only if you can find people with the same values can you drive the team effectively forward in the same direction. If you get the values right, you will get the right team. If you get the values wrong... well, everyone knows the answer to that one. What the PM seems to imply is that pay is of the utmost importance in finding the right people for the job, that at the end of the day, everything boils down to dollars and cents. That, from his perspective, might be true, considering the way the government has measured and defined success in this country.

This might be why we are in this situation today, where every mistake made by a minister or a ministry is greeted by a chorus of disapproval and calls for greater accountability. How else can the people react when they have been conditioned that everything boils down to results and dollars and cents? What the government has effectively done is to equate monetary rewards with talent and if that is so, then it is no far stretch of the imagination for the people to extrapolate that this also means that there can be no room for error in judgement on the part of the minister (not when you are supposedly the best talent that a 7 figure salary can buy). Whether this viewpoint is reasonable is debatable, but this viewpoint has certainly been ingrained in the people by the way the government has positioned their ministerial pay ever since Goh Chok Tong first brought it up.

PAP is literally a victim of their own success in moulding a people from whom perfection is demanded of and as a consequence put them in an unenviable position where any mistake on their part can no longer be tolerated. The PAP has a hard time justifying and explaining their increasingly precarious position because as Stephen Covey very eloquently puts it, "You cannot talk your way out of a situation that you behaved yourself into." They have behaved themselves into a position where nothing but perfection is expected of them and frankly, the slip ups and foot-in-the-mouth situations by its members are getting too embarrassingly frequent. They might already "have the wrong team".

“It is not a bidding war where if you get the cheapest [minister], you will get the best value for money,”

The opposite of this statement is also patently true. Having the most expensive minister does not indicate that he is the best person for the job. Logically, if a person joined politics because the good pay was an important consideration, it is logical to assume that pay would likely be a substantial driving force of his subsequent actions. At the end of the day, there is a danger that decisions that need to be made might potentially be clouded by this nagging thought of whether this decision he is about to make would result in an increase in his pay. The public service is certainly not the place where such thoughts should be allowed to surface. Having someone come into public service because he is attracted by the high pay certainly provides a fertile ground on which such thoughts can easily germinate.

However the PM stressed that the government’s approach has worked well for Singapore as the People’s Action Party has governed effectively, cleanly and fairly, and have improved the lives of Singaporeans.

Just a couple of questions to put PM's statement into perspective:

  1. Was the $300 million over budget of the YOG effective governance?
  2. Was the inability of the previous National Development minister to understand the gravity of the public housing situation, effective governance?
  3. Was the inability of the country's infrastructure to keep up with population growth (due to immigration policies), effective governance? (This must certainly be the most glaring example of how the PAP has NOT governed as effectively as they would like to believe)
  4. Was the changing of electoral boundaries fair? (It might be allowed for in our constitution, but that does not therefore imply that it is fair)
  5. Was the implementation of GRCs (a uniquely Singapore phenomenon) fair?
  6. Was making veiled threats to the people staying in opposition wards that they might be denied the right to use public funds for upgrading fair?
  7. Has the government improved the lives of low wage earners? (According to MOM statistics, this group has seen their real income stagnate in the past 10 years.)

On the issue of accountability, the PM stressed that Singaporeans cannot expect ministers to never make mistakes, but when they do, they must acknowledge their mistakes and fix things.

In this case, might I ask what happened in the previous points mentioned above.  Did Vivian Balakrishnan or Mah Bow Tan make amends or at the very least acknowledge their mistakes? How can one vigorously defended his position, even going so far as to say that given another chance, that he would do it all over again; while the other was blissfully unaware of the real situation on the ground? These two prime examples that illustrate that maybe the words "accountability" and "mistakes" are not understood the same way by the PAP compared to the rest of us.

The government has stressed that we cannot compare the remuneration of our political office holders with those in other countries because these leaders receive other perks like private jets, holiday residences, lucrative writing and lecturing tour career after their term in office. This is an argument that is wearing thin and certainly reeks of double standards. How can our leaders set their salary benchmark to the top 1000 earners and then in the same breath tell the people that we cannot compare their pay to those other countries? If this comparison is not relevant, then the benchmarking to the top 1000 earners is even more tenuous for a number of reasons.

The top 1000 earners in the private sector can be removed from their positions if they do not perform to expectations. Compare this situation with the number of times in the short history of Singapore the government took the initiative to remove, or at the very least publicly censure a political office holder for performing below expectations?

What is the point of a benchmark if you pick and choose what you want from it? This is literally a case of reaping all the benefits without the corresponding responsibilities that comes with it. It is a misnomer to call it a benchmark as it appears to be a convenient explanation to justify a stand that already taken.

In the PAP's opinion, the top 1000 earners in the private sector would have the necessary skill set to take up political office. However, this assumption omits the one most crucial factor that every great leader in history has in common, that is, empathy for the people that they lead. That is the difference between good and great, a leader and an administrator, the right person that would take up political office and someone in the top 1000 earners list. This is the one defining quality of a great political office holder.

The PAP is of the opinion that only the brightest, smartest, most capable individuals make good ministers. Nothing could be further from the truth. At best they would be good administrators, but not necessarily good ministers. Ronald Regan was a radio broadcaster and an actor before he took the post of the highest office in USA. Winston Churchill's academic failures were legendary. Despite their lack of academic success, one was instrumental in ending the Cold War and the other was PM when Great Britain literally stood alone against Hitler's mighty army. Both accounted themselves spectacularly, but neither were the brightest, smartest or most capable individuals and both would sadly have fallen through the net of PAP's mould of a good minister. Singapore needs good leaders with moral courage, understanding and empathy for the people. The PAP must understand that academic results and business acumen do not necessarily a good political leader make.

Despite going so far as to peg political salaries to the top earners in various professions, the PAP has failed miserably to attract "talents" from the private sector. This is a clear indication that pay is not the predominant issue. Perhaps re-thinking of the haughty way it presents itself to Singaporeans would be a step in the right direction to attract people to public office. An exercise in humility might prove fruitful. I am certain that future policies that put the general population as their focus would go some way into convincing skeptics that they are really here to serve. PAP should learn that at the end of the day, academic smarts and earning capacity are poor indicators of a person's political office potential.

Despite these logical points arguing against it, PAP has nonetheless argued that this benchmarking is sound because they hope to attract the best talent from the private sector and thus the pay should be benchmarked against the top 1000 earners, who by virtue of their position in the private sector, would have the necessary skill set to take up public office.

Taking the same line of thought, we should be comparing with other world leaders, as these are individuals who would most definitely have the identical skill set as any local political office holders, or even an expanded skill set which our leaders have yet to possess or even be exposed to.