The Ministerial Pay Revisions: What Are We Really Valuing?

I have hesitated commenting on the ministerial pay cuts but after watching the news and reading the Straits Times (5 Jan 2012), I needed to BLOG.IT.OUT.

‘In principle, we agree’
In the Straits Times article, ‘How benchmark model is picked’ (ST, 5 Jan 2012), it was reported that while the review committee ‘agreed with the principles’ behind the former model of basing ministerial salaries, the model ‘turned out to be complex and difficult for the public to understand’.

Not only does this perspective not challenge the former model and its moral reasoning, its premise is that the previous model was not flawed, just that we (‘the public’) were unable to grasp its ‘complexities’. Public rage at the hefty pay rise for ministers in 2007, pegged to the top earners in the private sector, has therefore been reduced to confusion – a general public too simple-minded to ‘get it’.

Meanwhile, in ‘The million-dollar question on fair pay’ (ST, 5 Jan 2012), the author deems the recent recommendations ‘fair’ but believes ‘opposition parties will continue to milk the issue’. She ends by asking: ‘Will sentiment or reason prevail with the electorate at large’?

In one lazy but effective stroke, she has divided us into two camps: those who think the recommendations are fair, and those who do not. Among the former, it is presumed that reasoned deliberation has resulted in the reasonable conclusion the current outcome is ‘fair’. As for the latter dissenting voices, you are either trying to stoke the flames for your own selfish political gain, or you’re just being sentimental (thinking with the wrong organ again, i.e. not your brain).

This is thoughtless and dishonest characterization. Between the congratulatory backslappers and the ‘I-will-object-to-anything-and-everything-the-government-does’ naysayers lies a continuum of diverse concerns. Here, I add to the medley of voices by sharing mine.

On principle, I disagree
The entrenched perspective that ministerial salaries must remain ‘competitive’ in order to attract ‘top talent’ from the private sector sends a very clear signal who the ruling party views as worthy and desirable to run this country (to prevent it from social chaos and irreparable financial ruin). Persons of ‘good calibre’ are assumed to only subsist in the million(s)-dollar stratosphere, a rarefied and ‘limited talent pool’. Such persons – ‘the best and the brightest’ – must not be deterred from joining politics because of the potential economic hardship they will suffer.

This is unapologetic elitism framed as national necessity.

What does this mean for other (much) lower-paid individuals who have leadership qualities and a desire to serve the community through political service? Is it inconceivable that salaried employees in other respectable – but much less lucrative – professions such as social work, nursing, teaching etc. etc. could be interested in running for office and capable of doing a commendable job? Though perhaps it is really not about who is interested and capable of serving constituents, but who the People’s Action Party desires to fill its party ranks – and they have a very narrow and strategic focus.

Yet, as a writer in TODAY pointed out, ‘historically, many ministers have come from professions which are unlikely to figure among the top 1,000 earners, including career army officers, academics and trade unionists’.

So the argument is not just elitist, it is shown to be historically untrue (at least partially).

Another unchallenged assumption: that the salaries of top earners in the private sector are uncontroversial and should be adopted as ‘objective’ indicators of ‘reasonable’ salaries for those deemed deserving and capable. But why did Occupy Wall Street happen? Globally, there is overwhelming public dismay and disgust over excesses in the private sector – apparently, the ratio of pay for CEOs versus the average worker in the United Kingdom is 22:1 and, in the United States, an alarming 475:1.

While our Occupy Raffles Place movement did not happen (physically), I don’t believe there aren’t similar sentiments here too. And where does that resentment spring from? The intuitive sense that NO ONE, no matter how capable, deserves to be paid in such gross disproportion to the plenty of other honest and hardworking others who are consistently undervalued and paid so little. These escalating ratios mock the reality of our interdependency, for the CEO of any company is reliant on the constant hum and drum of its many employees – from its lowest rungs to more revered tiers – to keep the company thriving and drawing profits.

Empirically, there has also been little evidence that the ‘pay better = attract quality leaders’ equation works. After all, there was a boost in ministers’ salaries in 2007 and, well, look what happened during the last General Election in 2011.

Surely that should have been a wake-up call to examine the other factors that are deterring persons otherwise suited to come forward and ‘join politics’. The reluctance to do so, the insistence on prioritizing high pay in practice while paying lip service to ‘service’, contributes to the persistent and cynical conclusion that it IS all about the money. [And until fundamental flaws in our top-down political system, which can be oppressive and unkind to political plurality and vibrancy, is addressed, competitive salaries will continue to be limited in its ability to draw talent – or, at the very least, the sort of diversity of talent a growing number of Singaporeans appear to yearn.]

Additionally, how was this whole pay package review conducted? The process should be placed under as much public scrutiny as the outcome. This particular pay system – of pegging salaries of government ministers and top civil servants to the top earners in the private sector – was created, defended, and entrenched by the PAP since 1994, despite vehement public disagreement. After the so-called ‘watershed’ election of 2011, which showed the ruling party in no uncertain times it was losing its popularity, a review of this pay package was called for – by the Prime Minister. More importantly, the terms of reference for this review was set – by the Prime Minister (and they went unchallenged by the review committee, who worked only to the terms of reference. See Siew Kum Hong’s post ‘Answering the wrong question on ministerial salaries’] Within this new package, heralded as dispensing a ‘clean wage’, the performance bonus, which could possibly go up to six months, will be ‘determined by the Prime Minster’ (according to the Straits Times, ‘What goes into a minister’s pay’, 5 Jan 2012). The mentality that ‘we will makes changes when we want to’, ‘how we want to’ and in what degree we feel is necessary, remains unchanged.

So the mercenary asks: ‘Are we being too idealistic’?
I caught snatches of BlogTV today (5 Jan 2012), where the topic was the ministerial pay cuts. A ‘political observer’ expressed the view that politics is ‘not priesthood’, that it was unrealistic for members of the voting public to expect politicians to make drastic financial sacrifices for the heavy responsibilities they undertake simply out of passion or a desire to serve.

Such hyperboles unhelpfully exaggerate what are not unreasonable ideals people the world over generally expect and admire in leaders – integrity, empathy, fairness and a heart geared towards service. Yet expressions of such expectations of potential office bearers tend to be pooh-poohed as ‘idealistic’, as if some inherent incompatibility exists between capable, caring and committed public servants and any pay packet below $1.1 million dollars+++. Plus, Singaporeans, generally noted for their pragmatism, are not advocating Minister Martyrs who undergo severe deprivation in order to prove themselves worthy to run the country. (That said, an entry-level minister under the revised scheme will earn about $55, 000+++ a month. If someone cannot budget a comfortable living on $55K a month, would I want that person to be my Minster? If anything less than this is considered financial hardship for our leaders, then how can they continue to reject, without any sense of irony or shame, calls to institute a living wage in this increasingly expensive city?)

It is frustrating how advocating a principled approach, when it runs contrary to the ruling party’s approach, tends to get you framed as ‘idealist’ – in a derogatory way. Idealism has become a careless smear thrown at anyone who finds distasteful the dehumanizing lens our government has cast on every aspect of our lives here in Singapore.

I oppose this representation and think it’s time we reclaim our right to champion values we collectively agree are important, without fear of ridicule or retaliation when the actions of those in power contradict these values.

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