Saturday, 7 January 2012

TODAY: Answering the wrong question on ministerial salaries

TODAY asked me to re-write my earlier blog post for them. I basically halved the word count and added what I read in the Straits Times about what Mr Chiam See Tong and Prof Walter Woon had said in 1994 (which Mr Chiam had repeated in 2000).

Answering the wrong question on ministerial salaries
by Siew Kum Hong

Published in TODAY on Saturday Jan 07, 2012

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ministerial review committee's report has not quelled criticism of supposedly overly-high ministerial salaries.

There have always been two types of criticisms of ministerial salaries. Many were technical criticisms focusing on the flaws in the formula's mechanics, which implicitly endorsed the pegging of ministerial salaries to top private-sector salaries.

The others, which are political criticisms, decried ministerial salaries pegged to top private-sector salaries as excessive and out of touch, regardless of the exact formula used.

I think that the committee gave a good answer, but to the wrong question. The recommendations address the technical criticisms, but do nothing to stem the political criticisms.

The committee did well in fixing many major flaws in the previous formula, but it was asked to answer the wrong question.

Its terms of reference accepted the pegging of ministerial salaries to top private-sector salaries, and only required it to answer the technical question of how to implement this principle.

But ministerial salaries is a political question; i.e. "how do we determine ministerial salaries in a way that Singaporeans can and will support". That's why we got a technocrat's answer to a technical question, when what we really needed was a political answer to a political question.

Since we didn't get that, the political criticisms have continued.

The Government, and the committee, clearly think about public service in terms of sacrifice by office-holders who would otherwise command top private-sector pay, especially financial sacrifice.

But this approach will never be accepted by most Singaporeans, because they see public service in completely different terms.

Public service is not a sacrifice; it is not a burden or imposition. Public service should be a calling; it is an honour and a privilege.

It is something to be proud of, not something to bemoan and begrudge.

And running a country is a political undertaking different from running a company, which is why Singaporeans reject the constant comparisons to private-sector jobs.

But ministerial salaries should not be so low, such that only rich people will run for office, or office-holders become distracted from running the country by personal financial needs.

One approach would be to set a salary that would enable a reasonable lifestyle. What is reasonable is open to debate, but the objective should not be in dispute.

This idea is not new; according to reports, Mr Chiam See Tong and then-NMP Professor Walter Woon had proposed such an approach back in 1994, with Mr Chiam suggesting S$50,000 per month as sufficient.

Regardless of the actual number, this approach is more politically defensible as being necessary to allow ministers to do their jobs without undue distractions, while letting them maintain a reasonable standard of living. It will not satisfy all detractors, but if properly implemented, it can win over the critical middle ground of Singaporeans.

The issue of ministerial salaries has severely poisoned political discourse in Singapore. Unfortunately, these latest changes have not sucked all of the poison out of local politics.

What a wasted opportunity.

The writer is a corporate counsel and former NMP. This is an edited rewrite of a post on his blog


Buddy said...

Hi Kum Hong,

You raised some good points, particularly on the technical-political dichotomy.

I agree that politicians (aspiring or otherwise) should be paid reasonably and a million is not necessarily excessive.

Most Singaporeans, I believe, want our ministers to come from all walks of life, rather then just the rich. And we certainly want them to focus on their jobs when elected and not fret about personal financial needs.

In my opinion, these concerns are compounded by our country's physical limitations: small talent pool and the need to attract potential politicians in their prime, not relics like John McCain.

And so, I reiterate: politicians should be paid reasonably and a million dollars is not necessarily excessive. Heck, even game show participants and singer-wannabes get more money.

Siew Kum Hong said...

thanks buddy :)

Unknown said...

The problem is while we can recognised that "Public service is not a sacrifice; it is not a burden or imposition. Public service should be a calling; it is an honour and a privilege." How many Singaporeans see it this way and is willing to step out? It is one thing to complain and comment, but another to really do it. Chinese has the tendancy to be more focused on money, prestige and building business empire than on public service. Not to mention, it is even harder for a young nation such as us that have yet to reach nationhood. A simple test is how many SG guys are proud to serve NS as compared to say, US, Israel or even Taiwan? I suspect even Taiwan is failing in this aspect but still should be much better than us.

Siew Kum Hong said...

@unknown: I think if the "calling" and "service" aspects of public service are once again paramount (as opposed only "sacrifice" which is currently the case), you will see more many aspirants to public service.

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