I hate to be in possession of scoops. Having heard from a source about five days ago — around the time the new cabinet was announced — that the dropping of several ministers was not the end of the matter, a review of ministerial salaries was also coming, I had to hold my tongue and not say a word until it was announced by the prime minister himself yesterday, 21 May 2011. It’s very hard keeping an embargo on news but I had to do so otherwise my sources would not help me in future.
PM Lee Hsien Loong appointed Gerald Ee, the chairman for the National Kidney Foundation to head the review committee. A day later, a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office listed the other seven members as:
– Mr John De Payva, President of the National Trades Union Congress
– Ms Fang Ai Lian, Chairman of the Charity Council and Chairman of Methodist Girls’ School Board of Management
– Mr Stephen Lee Ching Yen, President of Singapore National Employers Federation
– Mr Po’ad Shaik Abu Bakar Mattar, a member of the Council of Presidential Advisers and a member of the Public Service Commission
– Mr George Quek, founder and chairman of Breadtalk Group Ltd, Vice-President of Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan, Chairman of Xinmin Secondary School Advisory Committee
– Mr Lucien Wong, Managing Partner of Allen & Gledhill LLP and Chairman of Maritime and Port Authority
– Mr Wong Ngit Liong, Chairman of the National University of Singapore Board of Trustees and Chairman & CEO of Venture Corporation Limited
What I notice about this list is that it is made up of people whose jobs include setting compensation for heads of large organisations. That already is a bit worrying because it seems to adopt the perspective that political jobs are tantamount to heading a large organisation. The Singapore Inc mindset is still there. You would notice for example that there is no one in the committee who is a political scientist, who can advise on what citizens expect of political office-bearers.
The Chairman of the committee reviewing ministerial salaries, Mr Gerard Ee, has revealed that his committee will adopt a very different model to assess how much ministers should be paid. Current salaries are benchmarked to two thirds of the median income of the top eight earners from six professions such as lawyers, in the private sector.However, the committee will use job specifications of ministers as a starting point.— Yahoo News, 22 May 2011, New ministerial salaries effective from 21 May
How does one arrive at “job specifications’ without involving political scientists?
Of course, this does not preclude the committee from inviting input from academics — or even public opinion. I certainly hope they do, but there it a risk that the committee may simply not understand what is being said outside the corporate or organisational field they have spent their lives in.
The other thing to remember is that the committee is bound by its terms of reference. Quoting from a Media Release posted on the website of the Prime Minister’s Office,
The Committee’s terms of reference will be to review the basis and level of salaries for the President, Prime Minister, political appointment holders and Members of Parliament to help ensure honest and competent government.
The Committee should take into account salaries of comparable jobs in the private sector and also other reference points such as the general wage levels in . [sic, as accessed 23 May 2011, 12:19h]
The Committee should also take into account the following guidelines:
- while the salary of the President should reflect the President’s high status as the head of state and his critical custodial role as holder of the second key, it should also take into account the fact that unlike the Prime Minister he does not have direct executive responsibilities except as they relate to his custodial role.
- the salary of ministers should have a significant discount to comparable private sector salaries to signify the value and ethos of political service.
There was something missing. There was no reference to political salaries in other countries. Yet, this was exactly the comparison that Singaporeans have been applying for years, with increasing rancour.
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On Denise Phua’s Facebook page is posted a parliamentary speech she made on 9 April 2007. It’s worth a look.
She stressed that the spirit of giving is still very much alive, citing examples of people giving up highly paid jobs to do something worthwhile in social service. Her point was that the argument that nobody would take a top political job without sky-high salaries is founded on a misreading of people. She also reminded the House that job insecurity at top private-sector levels is extremely high, something that cannot be said for top political positions, especially in Singapore’s case. More importantly, she noted that one key difference between a private-sector position and political office is that the latter comes with power, and a nexus between power and money is potentially dangerous.
Now, I know the general argument is this: If we don’t pay leaders high enough, we will not be able to attract the right people. I ask the House to consider this contrarian view. I say that ‘If we do not balance and we concentrate too much Power and Money in top public offices, we might NOT attract the right people. On the contrary, we might attract the wrong people.’
Sir, public office holders and top civil servants wield the most power in our country. This power to swing national policies and even power of king-making does not carry a price tag that is easily written and is a very significant component of the position.
Besides power, money is the other top motivator behind many people. Put together, power and money can be potently addictive. As responsible leaders, we must be careful not to leave behind a structure that combines power and monetary rewards to such high levels that incumbents are so handcuffed by this lethal combination that they find it hard to let go. And worse, we create an office that potential candidates are so attracted to that they may go for broke just to get there, whether they are suitable or not. This potentially can do more harm than good to Singapore – something that does not augur well for our country.
— Denise Phua, from her Facebook note (22 May 2011)
Alas, this cogent point is not reflected in the terms of reference of the committee.
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It’s too early to say what the recommendations will be, though we can guess that the President will be taking the biggest pay cut of all. Notably however, the Prime Minister promised to apply the recommendations retroactively to the date of wearing in of the new cabinet — 21 May 2011. That is a good sign.
Now, all that is needed is to remind the committee members that if they too do not want to be tarred and feathered by Singapore citizens, be bold.
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Ministers lining up for a pay cut:
Top row (L-R): Heng Swee Kiat (Education), Lui Tuck Yew (Transport), Gan Kim Yong (Health), S Iswaran (Minister in PMO), Chan Chun Sing (Community, Youth and Sports — acting)
Middle row (L-R): Vivian Balakrishnan (Environment and Water Resources), Khaw Boon Wan (National Development), Yaacob Ibrahim (Information, Communication and the Arts), Ng Eng Hen (Defence), K Shanmugam (Foreign Affairs/Law)
Bottom row (L-R): Lim Hng Khiang (Trade and Industry), Teo Chee Hean (Deputy PM/Home Affairs), Lee Hsien Loong (Prime Minister), Tharman Shanmugaratnam (Deputy PM/Finance/Manpower), Lim Swee Say (Minister in PMO)