More thoughts on ministerial pay revisions
Written by Ng E-Jay
06 January 2012
The ministerial pay revisions is primarily a political exercise aimed at pacifying the large number of Singaporeans who over the years have become disgruntled at what they deem to be exorbitant compensation for political appointment holders.
It is clearly just a cosmetic exercise. First and foremost, the Terms of Reference (TOR) under which the Committee headed by Mr Gerard Ee operated clearly specified that the Committee was to devise a formula for ministerial pay based on private sector compensation. In other words, the Committee was already handcuffed in its approach — it had to adopt a private sector benchmark and it was not permitted to choose another approach.
That explains why the Committee only came up with token revisions to the salary scale, but without changing the underlying premise of using top private sector compensation as the deciding factor.
Whether the salary is based on the wages of the top 48 private sector professionals (as was the case previously), or the top 1,000 private sector professionals (as what is proposed), the fact remains that only the very top echelons (0.03%) of the working population are taken into consideration. This was pointed out succinctly by Ms Hazel Poa of the National Solidarity Party (NSP) in the party press release.
The PAP government has previously argued that this is the correct model to use, because the political talent it recruits is drawn from this pool of top business executives.
However, in the past, a good number of those rising to the positions of minister or minister of state do not come from the private sector. In addition, we have seen very clearly that in the recent general election, the PAP was literally scraping the bottom of the barrel in drawing up its slate of candidates.
Next, the salary revision may look substantial on paper, but in actual fact they merely decrease ministerial salaries to what they were in 2007 — a mere five years ago. In 2007 itself, there was a 27% salary increase for ministers, followed by a further 15% the next year. And mind you, 2008 was the year in which the financial crisis struck.
As the Singapore Democratic Party puts it very nicely, “This is the classic sales tactic. Jack up the price and then tell your customers that you are giving them a discount. This is the same stratagem that the HDB and Restructured (public) Hospitals have been using on us all these decades. Prices and fees are first raised with the Government stepping in to announce that the payments will be subsidized. The upshot is that the state still comes away with a tidy profit.”
And finally, there is a very good reason why Singaporeans as a whole should not be expected to embrace the salary revisions positively. I shall quote directly from Mr Siew Kum Hong:
It is clear from the report, and subsequent public comments, that the Government, and the Committee, continue to think about ministerial salaries in terms of private-sector salaries and sacrifice by office-holders, especially financial sacrifice.
I think that is a completely incorrect approach to the question, which as I have said is a political one. This approach will never get true buy-in from the majority of Singaporeans, because they see the Government and ministers in completely different terms.
The Government and the Committee see public service as a sacrifice, as if it is some sort of burden or imposition. But I, and I suspect most Singaporeans, see public service as a calling, as an honour and a privilege. It is something to be proud of, and not something to bemoan and begrudge. That is what the spirit of public service is about.
The Government and the Committee also see private-sector jobs as being closely equivalent to ministerial posts, as if running a company is very similar to running a country. I think most Singaporeans disagree, because they instinctively understand that running a country is a political undertaking that is fundamentally different from running a company, requiring as it does political sensitivities and skills that are not always or usually needed for corporate success (and here, I am talking about popular politics, not office politics).
(Read more here.)
To sum up, the ministerial pay revisions is but a cosmetic exercise that does not address the underlying political problems our country faces. The credibility and standing of the PAP government has gone down over the years because of its skewed policies and its increasingly outdated approach to politics. Its image cannot be repaired simply by adjusting the pay scale of political appointment holders. Only change at a fundamental level can reverse the trend and enable the PAP government to again attract good people into its ranks.
Our political landscape has been hollowed out and made bare by the PAP’s stranglehold on the mainstream media, its illiberal laws and restriction of civil liberties, and its unrelenting grip on civil society, grassroots bodies and all public avenues of expression.
The best and brightest that our society has to offer are deterred from entering politics because the reputation of the political elite has been tarnished, because the honour and dignity of public service has been eroded. Until this changes, the PAP government will be fighting a losing battle in attracting talent.