Parliamentary Speech 11 Apr 2007
In the last 2 days, MPs have covered many aspects of this contentious issue of benchmarking Ministerial pay to the private sector at 2/3M48. The Member for Hougang has comprehensively stated the Workers' Party position on this matter. The gist of our position is that we should instead consider benchmarking based on the remuneration of political office-holders in countries which tick. They generally favour a more moderate use of taxpayers' money for political salaries, and do not seem to have run their countries aground.
Today I would like instead to examine a few points raised by Minister Teo Chee Hean in his reply speech yesterday and also to argue why the benchmark of 2/3M48 for political office will ultimately be against the national interest.
Points raised by Minister Teo on Apr 10
Minister Teo attempted to rebut the Member for Hougang's contention that this debate was a waste of taxpayers' money. He said instead that this was a hallmark of PAP's commitment to transparency.
While I do agree that this is an opportunity to have a public airing, the debate arouses a feeling of deja vu, harking back to the other transparent debate about whether to have casinos in Singapore. The revision was presented in Parliament in a form of Ministerial statement under Standing Order 44 where no vote will be taken. Not one thing said by any MP will change the decision of the government. I would personally very much like to know what each individual Minister feels about taking more than $2m of taxpayers' money home each year, while fellow citizens struggle with rising costs and taxes.
Secondly, Minister Teo mentioned that it was not right to look at how much political leaders elsewhere earn because our Ministers cannot become Ministers in other countries. But the comparison is logical because we are comparing similar skill sets and responsibilities funded by the public. Looking instead at 2/3M48, how valid is it as a measure of a Minister's worth? Is it possible that, in fact, some of our Ministers are doing better in Cabinet than they would have done in their previous careers? Can we say that each and every Minister in Cabinet now would have become a top-earning banker, accountant, lawyer, engineer or CEO? We have seen instances of civil servants and military personnel embark on 2nd careers in the private sector, and find the business world a whole new ball game; and some, in fact, flounder.
Thirdly, Minister attempted to show that Cabinet salaries were not in the rarefied zone of high fliers by plotting a graph of 1,000 residents and Malaysians. Even so, 1,000 out of the resident workforce of about 1.9 m (as at mid 2006, according to Labour Force Survey) is less than 0.1%. To be in this group of 1,000 is already to be in a very privileged few and as far as the public is concerned, is already in the rarefied zone.
Why 2/3M48 is ultimately against the national interest
Economists have noted that globalisation increases income disparity. As such, the top earners' salaries will in all likelihood move up further in the future. A few years from now, 2/3M48 may require us to endorse each Cabinet minister's pay for $3m or $4m annually. As these pay packets are funded from taxes, including poor people paying GST, how far is the government prepared to go with this? Does it have a threshold of unconscionability?
Next, what makes a good Minister? There may be differences of opinion, but fundamentally, political leadership is a different creature from administration. To add value to policy-making, the Minister must play the role of politician – he should understand the public sentiment and aspirations, and be able to front policies and explain things plainly to people. He must lead not just with head but with heart. His ground feel of the needs of the people and understanding of their plight distinguishes him from the professional civil servant who usually focuses more on efficiency and expediency in implementation. To be effective, a Minister's EQ may often be more important than for him to be part of a Mensa club. In fact, he would be better if he was wired differently from the top civil servants, to reduce the mistakes perpetuated by groupthink.
Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew previously justified why it was not feasible to have foreign talent in the political leadership. He said that the political leadership should "have passion, the commitment and share the same dreams as the people". (ST 4 Nov 2006). I agree. The question is: how will 2/3M48 affect empathy, the ability of Ministers to share the same dreams as the people?
Ministers are currently drawing $1.2m a year which divided by 12 is about $100,000 per month. How does it compare with the average person?
According to the Report on the Labour Force in Singapore 2006, the median gross monthly income of workers in full-time employment is $2,170. In other words, a worker takes a month to earn what a Minister earns in half a day! For university graduates, the median gross monthly income is $4,450. This would take the Minister one day to earn.
As you move the salaries up to 88% of the benchmark, we will find that the average worker's monthly pay will be earned by a Minister in 2-3 hours. Does the Cabinet not feel a tinge of discomfort drawing taxpayers' money at such rate? At such rates, can Ministers and Singaporeans share the same dreams?
Another reality is that our leaders may face problems in marshalling the people to make sacrifices for the country.
About 4 years ago, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan told the House that his son had asked whether one should be prepared to die for Singapore. This sparked off a heated public debate. The cynics invariably linked this question to Ministerial salaries. To quote a member of the public, and I paraphrase: "Who are we trying to kid? Before we start talking about dying for Singapore, let us look at our leaders. We are told that we cannot get good leaders unless we pay top dollar, so why expect more from the rest of us"?
Citizens should be able to look to leaders for moral leadership and inspiration. If what they perceive are mercenaries at the helm, then asking them to make sacrifices will be met with cynicism and indifference. This will not bode well for Singapore's future. What will happen when crunch time comes? Is this a time bomb planted for the future of Singapore?
Salaries and Nation Building
If we are seriously unable to interest good people into public office, we must ask why other countries can do it and we cannot. Is it just money, or the fact that we have not invested in creating a culture of high public-spiritedness?
In some countries, there are young people aspire to hold public office. SM Goh had previously said that we could not expect to behave like people in other countries because we are a young nation and people still see things in material terms. How sad. After 41 years of nationhood, national service and national day parades, what do we teach our children? Do we judge a person's worth by his salary? If so, we have wasted millions of tax dollars on these nation-building efforts, which have truly been in vain!
Public service must remain a noble undertaking for which people are prepared to make sacrifices in exchange for the benevolent power to improve the lives of others. If we corrupt this by money, we can be efficient but never a country of high ideals. As such, I cannot agree with the Members who see political office as yet another career choice. It must be more than a job, and the holder must be able to think of others besides himself.
In the popular American comic strip, the Wizard of Id, there was a public address by the King to his subjects from the royal balcony. The King began: "Remember the Golden Rule!" One of the subjects called back: "What's that?" Back came the royal reply: "Whoever has the gold makes the rules!"
If the gold is the taxpayers' money, then Singapore is not that far from the Kingdom of Id!
And it does not matter what transparency the government has claimed in this attempt to justify the pay hike.