Image of a golden peanut from

Golden peanuts doth not golden monkeys make

by Dr Lee Siew Peng

We have all heard that saying: pay peanuts, you’ll get monkeys. In Singapore taxpayers pay through the nose for million-dollar ministers and CEOs and what do we get?

At first, I was unsympathetic. Singaporeans, stop complaining about everything. MRT breakdown. So what?

Here in London we face problems on the Tube every day. The MRT is not a brand-new system any more. There will be maintenance issues. Suck it up.

Then came Singapore Press Holdings (SPH). Apparently, they have another scholar-military type at the helm. Having sunk NOL he was drafted into SPH. How? Why?

Is this a symptom of an evolving culture of rewarding failure? Clearly, big fat pay packets for CEOs do not always translate into a healthy balance sheet for some companies.

Fat or wool?

I am not an expert on human biology. I do remember Dr LY Tan, then a medical student, lamenting how cold the sheep looked in the freezing British countryside. “Why doesn’t someone give them jackets?”

“Why?” I replied, “The sheep won’t produce wool if they are nice and warm, would they?” The young ladies ‘up north’ in England are well-known for wearing very little on their nights out despite the low temperatures. I’ve noticed that they are invariably on the heavy side.

If they were sheep, they would have grown a layer of wool which is very useful. Being mere human, the same cold only causes the body to lay down fat, which is medically and aesthetically undesirable.

Monkey work

Monkeys in laboratory experiments work very hard to be rewarded. They soon learn that repeating an action will release a supply of food.

Could the Singapore problem be that our CEOs have not been made to work hard enough for their rewards? The ability to organize an army – a monopoly, note – which has never been to war does not make this person a Richard Branson who will, die die, fight off any competition. Business is also about taking risks. What financial risks have our ex-military scholar class ever taken?

You could create artificial competition within monopolies to get the workers stay sharp and focussed. Still, it is not the same as when you have to fight tooth-and-nail to keep your business afloat despite strong competition.

Worse, all you might get is petty jealousy and energy misspent on political games. I don’t think giving laboratory monkeys more peanuts, posh nuts (cashew nuts, macadamia, pistachio, whatever), or even gold-plated peanuts would make them work any harder or better.

Corruption: institutionalised

One argument propounded was that if we do not pay our civil servants and politicians well enough they will succumb to corruption.


Surely paying in excess of the market value to prevent the temptation of corruption is nothing but institutionalized corruption. Let’s call a spade a spade. What has happened to the ideology of serving the country? For nothing, not even peanuts?

Straits Times published a letter of mine on the parliamentary debate on ministerial salaries back in 1985 (JBJ was in action) in which I quoted from the Confucian Analects:

“…  rulers should not be concerned that they have not enough possessions and territories, but should be concerned that possessions are not equally distributed; they should not be concerned that they [the rulers] are poor, but should be concerned that the people are not content.”

I also quoted from the Chung Yung:

“ …  ‘it is possible for a poor officer to give up voluntarily his position and emolument’. If a poor officer can give up his meagre salary, what more he who has 30 times that to spare?”

Over-extravagant rewards take away every incentive to work. Here in the UK we see people refusing to get out of bed to work. Why bother when sitting at home doing nothing will reap welfare benefits of up to £23,000?

The same argument goes with these stratospheric pay levels. If I am to be rewarded with millions, with a secure retirement, and my children can all be educated overseas, what does it matter whether or not I put in the hard grind?

In the end, one cannot argue with what economists had known for years: the law of diminishing returns.

Silence is golden

I do not mind if million-dollar public servants – whatever titles they bear – can make good things happen and bad things disappear: have the vision to give a newspaper/engineering/food production company a new direction, anticipate the maintenance required in an ageing rail/shipping/hospital system, create a happy and safe ‘culture’ for all workers so that productivity in manufacturing/education/babies can be improved.

If they cannot, then it’s time to recalibrate.

If, all things being equal, the same cold can make sheep grow a good wool or scantily-clad ladies grow a bad fat, then let us find the balance point where there are enough incentives for public servants, but not so much that they don’t feel the need to get out of bed in the morning. It is far easier to say nothing. Be warned if anyone thinks it is good to keep status quo: gold-plated peanuts won’t give you golden monkeys; they will only reap (social, political, economic) constipation, and not just for monkeys.

Here the Tremeloes sing Silence is Golden. I keep thinking “her” can refer to Singapore as my heart breaks:

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