Do the world’s highest paid politicians deliver world class performance?

by Augustine Low

The world’s highest paid footballers are now playing at the biggest stage, the World Cup in Russia. The likes of Ronaldo, Messi and Neymar are expected to deliver world class performances befitting their status as the world’s most expensive footballers. It is a heavy burden but one they have to shoulder.

What about our politicians? They are also getting really, really big bucks – in fact, they are the world’s highest paid by a long, long mile. Do they deliver world class performance?

Ask any Tan, Lee or Teo out there. Costs of living keep going up, and so will taxes, we are told.  But standards of public services (like the sluggish SMRT and the short supply of hospital beds) keep slipping.

The Auditor-General has in recent years been rapping government agencies for lapses ranging from inefficient and inadequate financial controls and unauthorised investments to poor management of public funds and irregularities in contracts and procurement of services.

Government agencies have been cheated and scammed, it seems, far too easily. Not only has performance been compromised, so too integrity  – public servants and government-linked corporations have been been nabbed for corruption.

Ironically, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Minister Chan Chun Sing have in recent months been talking about building trust and keeping promises. Speaking at the inaugural S R Nathan Hard Seats Lecture, Chan said that the key to building and maintaining trust is for leaders to be accountable and responsible, stressing: “That means making good on promises.”

Must Chan and his boss PM Lee be reminded of the greatest of the promises not made good, the one that rankles the most, the one that ought to have consequences for the PAP? The promise is this: If we get paid what we want (i.e. the world’s highest salaries) we will deliver clean, efficient government, corrupt-free institutions and men and women with the highest integrity and performance.

They got exactly what they wanted. Ministerial and Civil Service salaries have been benchmarked against the top private sector earners since 1994. For a quarter century now, our politicians and top civil servants have been the world’s highest paid – the numbers show that wages at the very top (around $2 million annually) are equivalent to about 50 times what a graduate makes and 70 times what a factory worker makes.

Over the years, the PAP has made very robust defence of the policy of paying such astronomical (even obscene) wages. None more robust than the speeches by Lee Kuan Yew. It’s worth revisiting what he said in Parliament in 2000, in his final very impassioned defence of the policy:

“Our market based pay and allowance give no excuse for slippage. It is the duty of Ministers and MPs of all parties to be alert, to report incidents of KKN (Corruption, Collusion, Nepotism), and to set the example by maintaining high standards in protecting the integrity of our institutions. And you need two things for Singapore’s continued well-being: strong institutions and good men to run them.”

The thrust of the promise: with such high wages, there is no excuse for slippage and Singaporeans can be assured of top notch integrity and unblemished performance.

Lee Kuan Yew put in no uncertain terms what Singaporeans get in return for paying their leaders top dollar. But today not even the PAP can argue that there has been no slippage. If fact, Singaporeans can turn around and say there has not only been slippage but dearth of accountability and dearth of solutions to problems.

Yet Ministers continue to see salaries befitting their performance. As Ng Eng Hen said: “I will tell you squarely in the face that you’re getting a bargain for the Ministers you get.” While Grace Fu warned that cutting salaries “would make it harder for anyone considering political office.”

Singaporeans ought to tell them squarely in the face: We are definitely not getting a bargain, and those who enter politics because of the high salaries are in the wrong profession because they do not have the heart and the passion to serve.

The day politicians started chanting “we deserve to be the world’s highest paid” was the day the music died in Singapore. Greed becomes a bottomless pit from which there is no turning back.