Moving forward from salaries

Since the new pay structure for ministers were unveiled on Wednesday, views have been mixed. Some criticise it for not going far enough, while others welcome it. The truth is that each person will have his or her own expectations, which is evident from the different views from the opposition parties, and from online comments so far.

I am afraid there will never be universal consensus on a matter such as this which is not only a politically sensitive one for the government, but it is also one which throws up visceral emotions. 

It doesn’t help things that the salary cuts come after 17 years of what has been seen as a grossly over-generous and unwarranted, undeserved pay formula for ministers. Sentiments against the previous formula is no doubt exacerbated by certain issues which have cropped up the past half decade or so – crowded public transport system, spiralling HDB prices, job insecurity, regular floodings around the island, the perceived arrogance of a ruling elite, and so on.

But here we are now with a new formula for salaries.

What should we make of it?

I think there are several things which are important which should not be lost in the rhetoric and reactions. And these are:

  1. The important re-orientation of the formula towards placing more emphasis on the ethos of public service.
  2. The consequences of such a change, that is, whether the new formula will be a hindrance or an appeal to those who intend to commit to public service.
  3. Will Singapore be in good hands, going forward, a question which can only be answered years from now.

To me, these are the more important matters. Of course, how much ministers are paid is important too. The last formula which resulted in the Prime Minister being paid some S$3.76 million was just insane, and the President (who perform a largely ceremonial role) being paid some S$4.2 million was just obscene. Former President, SR Nathan, took home between S$30 million and S$40 million during his two terms in office.

Lets be clear about this – this is unacceptable and thoroughly undeserved.

The new formula brings some sanity to the whole runaway, bloated sense of self-worth of our ministers and the president. So, in this sense, it is a good step forward.

We can argue whether S$2.2 million is still too much for a prime minister, or if S$1.1 million is still obscene for a entry-level minister. The truth is that we will never reach a consensus on either or any of these.

The re-orientation of the formula to reflect the spirit of public service by Mr Gerard Ee and his committee is very much welcome. Indeed, this has been the rallying cry of those who were critical of the previous formula. And rightly so.

How will this emphasis on the public service ethos impact the recruitment of potential office holders? Of course, no one can be sure. But it is worth noting Ms Grace Fu’s remarks on the new salary scale.

On Wednesday, she posted the following on her Facebook page:

“When I made the decision to join politics in 2006, pay was not a key factor. Loss of privacy, public scrutiny on myself and my family and loss of personal time were. The disruption to my career was also an important consideration. I had some ground to believe that my family would not suffer a drastic change in the standard of living even though I experienced a drop in my income. So it is with this recent pay cut. If the balance is tilted further in the future, it will make it harder for any one considering political office.”

Not surprisingly, she was lambasted by some for her comments. At the time of writing, her note has attracted some 875 comments.

It is worth noting that Ms Fu started her career in the United Overseas Bank (UOB) and later joined the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) where she held various posts. (Wikipedia.) She entered politics in 2006 and became MP for Jurong GRC.

In the same year, she was appointed Minister of State for National Development. In 2008, she added the Education portfolio to her work. Ms Fu is currently Senior Minister of State in two ministries, the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts, and the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources.

Her comments give an insight to what someone like her considers when approached to take up office. And hers are honest comments, in my opinion. There is no reason for her to do otherwise, especially knowing that salaries for ministers is a very sensitive issue at the moment.

But lets take her remarks as they are and leave behind the accusations.

There is no doubt that what Ms Fu said in the first part of her remarks is what many will consider when considering public office. Loss of privacy, public scrutiny of not just oneself but also on one’s family, and the disruption to her career. Politics, as they say, is or could be a short-lived career.

But it is the second part of her comments which have riled some: “If the balance is tilted further in the future, it will make it harder for any one considering political office.”

I do not think Ms Fu is saying that she entered politics for the money, even though naturally finances would be a consideration for anyone with a family, as she has. She was making a more general point – that finances, for anyone in fact, is a consideration. It may not be the most important consideration (Ms Fu didn’t say it was) but nonetheless it is one aspect which will affect one and one’s family.

Some have argued whether she should have made such a comment at all. I feel this is just being facetious. Do we not expect our politicians to be honest? Yet, when they do, we question if they should have opened their mouths? Are we expecting to hear them say what we want to hear them say? Or to just shut-up if they are to say what we do not wish to hear?

It would also be naive to expect that anyone who wants to enter politics will not have considerations, including financial ones. To expect one to not do so is to expect an utopian ideal.

But the more important point is this and lets be honest: Salary and finances is what virtually all of us consider when we take up a job or when we change jobs. So, why the hullaballoo over what Ms Fu said? It may not be politically correct (although I do not see how this is so, in this case) but isn’t honesty important?

And if indeed others feel the same way as Ms Fu, with families and do consider monetary remuneration before taking up a job, then shouldn’t we consider it and factor that into our own consideration before we react in a knee jerk fashion?

What she is driving at is that salaries must be balanced and not be too far to the extremes. It is a point which is not disagreeable.

The truth is that all of us do consider financial incentives or remuneration when we take up a job.

Anyway, back to the point of the re-orientation of the salary formula.

What the government should do next is to look at the other factors which could be potentially preventing Singaporeans from stepping up. For instance:

  1. The vague and wide provisions in our defamation laws, especially when it comes to political cases or which involves politicians.
  2. The fairness and independence of the mainstream media.
  3. The electoral system which has many flaws which should be reviewed.
  4. Fairness in government policies and practices when it comes to certain things – such as HDB upgrading for opposition wards, the disbursement of CIPC funds, the appointment of “grassroots advisers” especially in opposition-held wards, etc.
  5. The independence of our various state institutions such as the police, the judiciary, the civil service.
  6. Abolishing the Internal Security Act and replace it with another law to specifically deal with terrorists and terrorism.

The prime minister, having convened the Ministerial Salary Review Committee two weeks after the May General Election, should now go further and look into these.

Salary revision is just the first step.

The government must also realise that it will no longer have monopoly of the scale of the past when it comes to Parliament, or in the people’s trust. Thus, as a responsible government (which the PAP government claims to be) it must ensure that Singapore’s system is fair, transparent, robust. A system which is fair to all – whether PAP or opposition.

Once such a system is in place, perhaps then we will be able to attract national leaders who will truly indeed do it for our country, for they will know that the system is fair and that their intention to serve will not be curtailed by unfair political manoeuvres (by the ruling party in power) or worse, by dubious political shenanigans by those who wield power.

At the end of the day, all Singaporeans want good leaders, fair government, and a sustainable Singapore.

And this is, in the core, what this whole thing is about, isn’t it?


2 thoughts on “Moving forward from salaries

  1. Generally, I am in agreement of what you wrote about the recent pay review – universal consensus is a pipe dream. In my opinion, a million is not necessarily excessive and we certainly do not want a situation where only the rich are able to join politics.

    I also thought the hypocrisy exhibited towards Ms Grace Fu was quite apparent in the sense we demand our politicians be honest yet lambast them when they speak their minds. In this case, Ms Fu was not even talking about herself but the unintended consequences of excessive pay cuts now might deter future political aspirants. I also thought you understood her point that salaries must be balanced and to a point which is not disagreeable.

    The salary revision is a good first step and at the very least shows the government is responding to the people’s wishes of paying our ministers in a fair and transparent manner.

  2. If most of our political leaders claimed that their pays are somewhat reduced or deteriorated after joining the political office, let all MPs and Ministers declare their salaries before and after joining the office. In that way, people can see clearly the financial sacrifices these leaders have made!

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