High pay for better talents?

High pay for better talents?

By Dr Yuen Chung Kwong

(Photo by Luis Ascui/Getty Images)
(Photo by Luis Ascui/Getty Images)

In late 1994 the Goh Chok Tong government adopted a policy of giving cabinet ministers, parliament members, senior civil servants and other public sector employees (e.g., at the time university professors were included, but they were subsequently decoupled from civil service salary scales.) higher levels of pay, on the twin grounds that salaries competitive to those prevailing in the business and professional sectors are necessary to attract managerial and other talent into politics, and better paid public employees are less likely to engage in corruption. (The old article by Catherine Lim was triggered by the action, but it then went into territory sufficiently controversial to produce a reprimand from Goh Chok Tong himself – a major event then but today mostly forgotten.)

The need to match political salaries with business levels reflects a basic feature of the Singapore “system”, namely the inter-twining of public and commercial sector careers. With the government in control of a large sector of the Singapore economy through share ownership, many civil servants, army officers, even some professors, receive board directorships and executive positions in commercial companies, while in the reverse direction business executives, professionals, and, again, academics, have been recruited as PAP parliamentary candidates. Going into politics is largely an extension of one’s previous career, like promotion from line staff into the executive circle as reward for good performance, rather than a separate calling due to strong ideological commitment to a particular set of political beliefs.

The assumption underlying the system is that the Singapore government’s main task is to manage the economy, so that parliament members and cabinet ministers need to have the relevant experiences, which are best judged by their previous educational background and management related performance. One could say that the cabinet sees itself as the board of directors of Singapore Inc, working on behalf of its citizen shareholders, with parliament acting as a kind of “nominating committee”, since you need to get its majority support to gain power. Politics is just the process by which the “system” selects economic managers, a means one puts up with in order to achieve the more important end, almost regarded as a distraction. (Recall the somewhat innocent remark PM Lee made in the 2005 election campaign, that if too many opposition members are in parliament, he would be too busy dealing with them to fully focus on management.) Underlying it all is the premise that Singaporeans would agree to a “deal”: to accept the PAP way of doing things as long as the government delivers economic benefits.

Comparing the current situation with 1983 when I moved to Singapore, the people now enjoy more housing space, car ownership, overseas travel, recreational facilities, etc. But the new generation is also deeper in household debt and faces more competitive situations in the job market; part of this change is due to global trends, part related to government policies like immigration. Feelings about the political “deal” would seem to be mixed.

Another unique feature of the Singapore political system is relevant: for over 50 years PAP has been in power, sometimes with no opposition representation in parliament at all. The opposition parties have no track record of running the country, and there is no historical comparison which voters can make to judge “which party will govern more competently?” Few opposition party members have high level managerial experience either. Thus, PAP has made a point to campaign on the premise that its people are “better qualified” to be in government, with prestigious university degrees, extensive administrative experience, and (usually not explicitly stated) better paid jobs before entering politics. Surely these people would need to be well paid to justify their new endeavours.

Like other conventional wisdoms, the high salary justifications are difficult to fault in theory but are also hard to confirm in practice. For analogy we might take for example the theory “Politicians must behave carefully; bad publicity is negative for their careers”, and then look at the extracurricular activities of Bill Clinton and Anthony Weiner, it is easy to see that logic could fail to match reality. The recent cases of two senior civil servants (plus one professor) being charged for corruptly receiving sexual favours, and one for embezzling money to gamble at the Marina Bay casino, also shows that people can succumb to other kinds of temptations, however well paid they might be.

A curious result of the high political salaries was that attractive parliamentary income has become a plus factor in opposition parties’ recruitment of parliamentary candidates, because the potential benefit relative to effort required is more favorable than on the other side: PAP has high qualification requirements and a complex process of assessing new candidates; even after one passes the hurdles, an ordinary MP has rather limited opportunities to move from the backbench into the cabinet. Becoming an opposition candidate is far easier. While for the kind of candidates PAP recruits the monthly allowance of MPs is a relatively modest sum, the situation is different for people on the other side. Further, since the introduction in the late 80s of the practice of putting MPs in charge of municipal business through town councils, successful opposition candidates control significant budgets, including procurement and service contracts that can be awarded to companies they favour. (In this connection it is interesting to recall that it was Chiam See Tong’s objection to Chee Soon Juan’s appointment as researcher by Bukit Gombak Town Council under Lim How Dong that led to his resignation as SDP leader.)

Another curious result was a form of critical complacency: someone would rant about various government doings, get challenged to come up with constructive suggestions, and contentedly reply: “Our ministers are paid all that money to find solutions; I dont have to help them”. In other words, people can now use this issue as a free pass to justify emotionalism and failure of constructiveness. In fact, one could just as easily say “Our ministers are paid all that money to understand the situation; I dont have to”. It is difficult to have a process of “engagement” and ‘national conversation” if such a mentality is to prevail.

In the mean time, the national economic managers continue to assiduously note the latest global economic and financial trends, maintaining regular information flows with wall street, economic forums, foreign consultants, and of course government leaders from the significant economic powers and trading partners. I am sure they find such business related dialogs more concrete and informative.


Dr Yuen Chung Kwong completed his PhD in Computer Science from Sydney University in 1972 and worked in Australia and Hongkong before joining NUS Computer Science Department in 1983; he was department head from 1985 to 1993 and retired in 2007.

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