This is not the way – how not to hold a conversation

~by: Joseph Teo~

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was interviewed by CNN's Fareed Zakaria on 26 January. In response to questions on the election results and the need for political openness, he said, “We are in a new situation, and we must govern in a new way, but we can’t do it by just going with the tide.” Singapore must find its own way.

The rest of the interview offers a few hints on what this way might be.  When Mr. Zakaria said, “…you need more political openness.” He responded, “If only it were so simple.” He is then quoted saying, “You need more openness, you need more engagement, but at the same time you need people to pay more attention to what is happening in their lives and think about what is happening to their country an us as Singaporeans.”  These words, however, contain no specific vision or actual changes in behavior that can lead to “more openness” and “more engagement". The lack of specifics, and the lack of evidence of a change in the PAP’s engagement behaviour, have led to authors like Catherine Lim to conclude that the PAP is incapable of re-inventing itself – something which was promised by the Prime Minister. 

I am writing this article to share some ideas on how we can have more openness and more engagement: by having a conversation, using examples of what not to do from the comments made on the recent ministerial salaries' review..Having a conversation requires both parties to have open minds, objectivity and trust.  There are certain actions which do not facilitate a healthy conversation and should be avoided, including


Even before the debate started in parliament proper, labels were applied to people with contrary views.  In an article published in the Straits Times on 5 January 2012 :

“One is the mere fact that the peg remains - the pay of political office-holders will still be pegged to that of top earners, all of them presumably in the private sector. Idealists, for whom the very notion of linking political pay to the private sector is anathema, will continue to find this irksome.”

And later on:

“But opposition parties will continue to milk the issue. They will stoke the sentiments of those who are ideologically opposed to benchmarking pay to the private sector by suggesting more populist benchmarks, even when the outcomes - in terms of quantum of pay - are the same.”

Why people who object to pegging ministerial salaries to the private sector should be “idealists”. Or why other benchmarks are “populist”.

Labelling or stereotyping is one of the symptoms of groupthink.  It attempts to dismiss arguments without engaging them, by branding them not worthy of consideration. Labelling also tends to annoy those being labelled, thus shutting out their openness to listen to your ideas.  It also shifts the focus away from discussing the ideas to discussing the people involved, and whether the labels are appropriate.  In this instance, views counter to the establishment were dismissed even before the debate was fully engaged. This cannot be conducive to a productive discussion?

Fudging the data

The formula for ministerial pay is complex, and thus difficult to communicate. However, saying only that the benchmark pay was $1.1 million without saying that the monthly salary was $55,000 (so that it can be compared to the median monthly income of $2,588) creates more confusion. 

Worse is not clearly including the MP’s allowance of $192,500 as part of the minister’s pay package.  No fewer than twelve articles in the Straits Times were written assuming that $1.1 million was the total pay package for ministers[iv] when, in fact, it should be $1.3 million.

This tendency to hide or fudge inconvenient data has continued after the last elections. In other areas, such as housing policy, data on cash-over-valuations (COVs) were removed in August and October 2011, and no longer published because it was “misleading”. How can actual transaction data, not interpretations of the data be “misleading”?  The data reflects what is happening, and it is only “misleading” because it doesn’t suit the story that the government wishes to tell.

The non-announcement of the arrests of our heads of the Singapore Civil Defence Force, and Central Narcotics Bureau is another example of “hiding” behavior.  The arrests were made on 19 December 2011, and 4 January 2012, yet no announcement was made until 24 January 2012, more than a month after the first arrest.  By MHA’s own admission, it would have delayed the announcement to 25 January, if not for the leaked news.  It is not clear if the headline to MHA’s response to a query on the delay - “MHA: No delay in releasing news of CPIB probe” - was drafted by MHA or by the editors of the Straits Times. In any case, it is manifestly untrue; since, in its letter, MHA justified the delay by saying “a public announcement at that point could compromise CPIB investigations”. Would a more appropriate headline be “Announcement delayed to protect investigations”?

This is extremely disturbing.  It is as if our policy makers wish to deny inconvenient truths, and do not want people know what is happening.  How can this encourage “people to pay more attention to what is happening in their lives” as the Prime Minister wants?

Hiding or fudging data, or even the perception of doing so, creates a feeling of being cheated.  It creates a deep distrust towards the government, and hence makes it much harder to win support for difficult policies. This feeling applies to unrelated issues, "If you can choose not fully disclose things to me on one issue, why should I trust you to tell me the complete truth on another?"

Using selective comparisons without basis

Singapore is supposedly unique and has to “find its own way”. And yet supposedly has to adopt “international standards”.  This use of selective comparisons upsets the audience.  It is as if the government officials and Ministers use international standards to justify their actions when it is in their favour, but just as readily discard them when they wish to be unilateral and act without justification.  In this regard, the Committee to Review Ministerial Salaries remained true to form.

In justifying why ministerial salaries should not be pegged to foreign leaders’ pay, the Committee said:

“We studied in detail whether we should peg the salaries to those of foreign leaders. In the end, we decided not to adopt it as the conditions in other countries are different and so are the compensation principles.”

Yet in justifying why appointment holders also get an MP allowance, it said:

“As is international practice in Westminster Parliamentary systems, all political appointment holders will also receive MP allowances as they have the dual roles of being MPs which involve looking after the needs of their constituents and raising their concerns in Parliament.”

Why the discrepancy? 

Worse, when confronted with conflicting observations of the environment, we should not cling on to “international standards” as a justification for not using or collecting more appropriate data.  An expert panel found evidence of increasing rainfall (15mm per year) in Singapore, which based on data collected from 28 data collection points in Singapore.  This differed from the National Environmental Agency’s (NEA) own conclusions of “no discernible trend”..  Despite the expert panels’ conclusions, and the overwhelming evidence of repeated flooding at Orchard Road, the NEA refused to change its stance, “…the method, and not using rainfall figures for the whole island as the panel did, fits [World Meteorological Organisation] guidelines”.

Nothing wrong using international standards to bolster an argument.  However, it should not be the main argument. And, the basis, origins of, and reasons behind the international standard must be clearly understood. And how those reasons apply to our unique Singapore circumstances must be clearly explained.  Otherwise, any decision which only cites international standards as its justification is weak, and undermines the credibility of the government. People will continue to view such decisions as arbitrary and perhaps self-serving.

Not incorporating good ideas into policy

One of the greatest dissatisfactions of the whole ministerial salary review process was the inability of the government to incorporate a single idea expressed in Parliament into policy.  These include some pretty good suggestions such as differed bonuses proposed by the Worker’s Party, which are in use by some private sector companies like Keppel Corporation, and according to consultants, increasingly popular.  The suggestion to trim the total bonus package was also ignored. Not a single change was made. Why waste all that time?  The vote in Parliament was also a forgone conclusion.  The inability of the government to incorporate any changes to the policy reinforces the view that Parliament is just a “rubber stamp”.

So let's hold proper conversations if we want "openness" and "engagement".