Tuesday, 17 January 2012

We not stupid, ok?

The Straits Times ran a story on PAP MPs' rebuttals of Mr Chen Show Mao's speech on ministerial salaries. [note: the ST story is completely available for free, but it may not stay fully available for long]

Below is the text of what I wrote on Facebook about these PAP MPs' so-called rebuttals.

I am posting this instead of working because this article made me so fed-up. It is ok for politicians to engage in politicking, and it is entirely expected that PAP MPs would line up to try to rebut Mr Chen Show Mao (and probably told to do this, when they were scheduled to speak after him). But I cannot stand poorly-reasoned arguments, which are replete here.

1. "'The difference between the proposal accepted by the PAP Government and the WP's proposal is that the latter leaves out the principle of sacrifice (and the) discounts to reflect service to the people,' [Zaqy] said."

An odd conclusion, because the PAP-accepted proposal pays more (on an annual basis) to ministers than the WP proposal. How you get there (the formula) is important, but where you end up (the amount) is also important. If the WP proposal omits sacrifice, then how much more so the PAP-accepted proposal which pays even more?

2. ""It would be 'more transparent' to peg ministerial salaries to 'the competitive salaries that the calibre of people we are looking for in ministers earn, or have the potential to earn', said the Minister of State for Health [Amy Khor]."

Surely Dr Khor is not suggesting that the WP proposal is non-transparent. Whether or not you agree with it (I myself am not completely sold, because we would probably see the MX9 benchmark creep upwards), it is simple and transparent. The WP proposal was constructed using a bottoms-up approach, based on principled reasoning on how ministerial salaries should be determined. You may disagree with the approach, but calling it "less or non-transparent" is misconceived.

3. ""Such excitement 'was not because Mr Chen was considered to be a 'median-income' sort of guy, or somehow an emblem of the lowest income quintile of society', observed Mr [Alvin Yeo]. "Rather, with his 'sterling qualifications', Mr Chen 'was proof that opposition parties could also attract the sort of top talent, that one day perhaps may form the Government'."

Actually, the excitement was because Mr Chen gave up a big job and a big salary to join the Opposition (no parachute for him, no near-guarantee of a win) and then become a regular MP -- with nary a whine or moan about his pay-cut. Until the PAP understands that Singaporeans loved that because it exemplifies the spirit of public service (and the uncomplaining sacrifice that the PAP likes to talk about so much), they will NEVER get it.

4. "'Pay should not be the reason for entering politics, but neither should it be the reason for losing talent,' said Mr [Sam] Tan (Radin Mas) in Mandarin."

Actually, it should be, if the so-called talent in question is so overly-concerned about money, that a salary that can support a very comfortable lifestyle is not enough.


sgcynic said...

"We must remember that in our system of government, ministers ae first of all MPs elected by the people as their representatives. Not (first) selected by the Prime Minister from the private sector into the Cabinet, and then also MPs."

The above principle underpins Mr Chen Shao Mao's proposal on pegging the ministerial salary. I would LOVE to hear the PAP MPs rebut that.

The current controversial high pay arose precisely because the PAP turned our electoral system on its head. The PAP needs to dangle such a carrot in order to entice the talent that they have identified to join the party. To them, elections are merely formality, an inconvenience that is overcome through the GRC system. Well, that is no longer a sure bet.

The PAP can and will continue its current path and game the system. They WILL fail. Cherian George points out the crux.

The Observer said...

If I recall from my years in the civil service, salaries of the Civil Service (without regarding the elite Admin Service) is tagged onto the private sector's pay. This means that the entire private sector is taken into account, not just the top 1000 Singaporean earners. Civil servants are NOT paid a PREMIUM over their private sector counterparts, but actually taking either EQUIVALENT or slightly LESS than them (especially in terms of bonuses). This means that the benchmark is closer to the median income of the ENTIRE private sector taken into consideration.

People forget that government consists of the elected as well as the civil service. I personally think that civil servants may be more motivated if their political leaders share the benchmark as them. For now, ministers are like gods in terms of their pay in the eyes of the common civil servant.

I think the lineup to rebut was essentially a politically planned strategy to undermine a rising star, albeit not on their side of the camp. PM has already indicated that political survival is high on his agenda after GE2011, you just have to read between the lines.

SM said...

The Special Forces in the Military are the elite soldiers. All of them volunteered for the selection and only the best are chosen. After which they are paid slightly better than the rest. Why is that so? Because pay must not be the motivating factor. If it is, they are called mercenaries not elite soldiers.

Joseph Chun said...

Further proof that high salaries have failed to attract the sort of qualities we want to see in government.

Gary said...

When LKY first moved to up the pay of ministers' decades ago, he called himself a 'kept' man (reported in the ST) in reference to his wife who ran Lee & Lee the family's law firm earning more than he did.

No surprise therefore that for the govt ministers' pay comes first before deciding to serve.

LKY, never accept the fact that some real talents had refused to serve when approached not because of the pay but what they perceived as his dictatorial style and even acts of tyranny. Francis Seow said on Youtube how everyone of his ministers (except for those who were his peers like GKS, EWB, TCC) practically became 'jellified' when he confronted them. They would otherwise not have made it into his cabinet

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7-8 said...

I'm agnostic about the situation. I believe they should be paid well, but just not to the present level which is pretty obscene.

There is just one point about Chen Show Mao. Before you say that he is an examplar of public sacrifice, you did point out that he gave up a big job and a big salary. Giving up a big job and a big salary is not really that big a sacrifice. CSM is more than 50 years old, he's made a nice pile - enough to retire on, probably.

The real sacrifice of a person spending his whole life in the civil service is never having made that money in the first place, not having what people call FU money to have an early retirement and pursue one's own interest, and not having to worry about money.

And ministers do have to work their way up to the top through the civil service. Most of them, anyway.

I don't take anything away from CSM over this, he's still a great guy to me, but CSM is CSM and your potential minister is another thing.

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Chee Wai Lee said...

Kum Hong, a somewhat orthogonal question. I had an interesting discussion with a person who asserted that MP allowances are really intended to be "expense accounts" for the running of a constituency. Of course, quite naturally, he cannot seem to point me to a statute that describes the legal intent of that allowance. I'm wondering, since you've been through it all, if you can.

Siew Kum Hong said...

@Chee Wai: I don't know that there is a "legal intent" behind the allowance; there may or may not be, I just do not know. What I do know is:

- MPs typically pay a %age to the party, like a tithe. Actually, it does seem exactly to be a tithe -- ST reported that PAP takes 10%, which is quite significant given the number of PAP MPs.

- the allowance is treated as taxable income. Assuming MPs are already in the top tax bracket, that means the ~SGD190(?)k annual allowance attracts an incremental tax burden of around SGD38k.

- regardless of the "legal intent" if any, it does seem that at least some of the PAP MPs do use the allowance for "MP expenses", e.g. paying for food and drinks for volunteers, etc. Of course, these are expenses that perhaps the party itself should foot, at least sometimes. However there is no legal requirement to do so.

- when I was a NMP (and received 15% of the elected MPs' allowance), I used the money, at different times, to (i) pay for some NMP-related expenses incurred (not often and not very much), (ii) fund some of the expenses incurred by MARUAH for its activities, (iii) donate to charity, and (iv) offset my increased income tax bill. Basically the PAP's money-focused conception of public service made the NMP's allowance feel dirty to me, and I didn't really want to profit from it.

Chee Wai Lee said...

Thanks for the quick and detailed response! I was just mildly annoyed (but not really surprised) that rationale was brought up and used. It did not seem to square with many aspects of reality in Singapore politics - that somehow taxation (and previously a pension) was applied to what are presumably "expense accounts". As if it was a salary but not a salary.

And then there's that whole (imho, flawed) reasoning about it as a way to defray the cost running a constituency and discharging MP duties. I know the parties contribute to the funds for running a Town Council (and consequently, I assume the administrative costs of managing the constituency as an MP). What I do not know is if public funds also go into that purpose.

Frankly, I'm getting quite sick of what I consider a severe laziness in accountability and transparency. I have no data on whether this erodes public trust in Singapore. It does for myself and any other democracy doing the same would suffer a loss of public trust. I am disturbed that the person I discussed this with, was perfectly satisfied with a $14,000-a-month expense account paid for by the public and could be used for anything, public or personal, for efficiency reasons. Such flexibility certainly isn't applied in general to (actual) expense accounts in any other organization I know of, even the Civil Service.

Sherry said...

wah lao, the government never stops making questionable and outrageous statements...

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