Singapore 2025

What of Singapore towards 2025? Thoughts of a Singaporean.

Archive for March 2011

2007 Parliamentary Debates: Ministerial Salary Hike

Ms Sylvia Lim (Non-Constituency Member): Mr Speaker, Sir, in the last two days, Members have covered many aspects of this contentious issue of benchmarking Ministerial pay to the private sector at two-thirds of M48.  The Member for Hougang has comprehensively stated the Workers’ Party’s 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 they do not seem to have run their countries aground.

Today, I would like  to examine a few points raised by Minister Teo Chee Hean in his reply speech yesterday, and also to argue why the benchmark of two-thirds of M48 for political office will ultimately be against the national interest.

First, the point raised by the Minister yesterday.  Mr 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.  This revision is presented to Parliament in the form of a Ministerial Statement under Standing Order where no vote will be taken.  Not one thing  said by any MP will change the decision of the Government.  Personally, I would very much like to hear what each individual Minister feels about taking $2 million of taxpayers’ money home each year, while fellow citizens struggle with the rising cost 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 our benchmark of two-thirds of M48, 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 all seen instances of civil servants and military personnel embark on second careers in the private sector, and find the business world a whole new ball game and some, in fact, flounder.

Thirdly, the Minister attempted to show that Cabinet salaries were not in the rarefied zone of high flyers by plotting a graph of 1,000 residents and Malaysians.  Even so, l,000 out of the resident workforce of about 1.9 million 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.

For the remainder of my speech, I would like to argue why the two-thirds of M48 benchmark may ultimately be 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, two-thirds of M48 may require us to endorse each Cabinet Minister’s pay for $3 million or $4 million 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 sentiments and aspirations and be able to fund policies and explain things plainly to people.  He must lead not just with the head but with heart. His ground feel of the need 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.  Indeed, to be effective, a Minister’s EQ may 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 political leadership should “have passion, the commitment and share the same dreams as the people.”  I agree.  The question is: how will two-thirds of M48 affect empathy, the ability of Ministers to share the same dreams as the people?

Ministers are currently drawing about $1.2 million annually, which divided by 12 will be about $100,000 a month.  How does this compare with the average person?

According to a Report of the Labour Force in Singapore 2006, the median gross monthly income of someone in full-time employment is $2,170.  In other words, an ordinary person takes a month to earn what a Minister earns in half a day.  For university graduates, the median gross monthly income is about $4,450.  This would take the Minister about one day to earn.

As we move salaries up to 88% of the benchmark, we will find that the average worker’s monthly pay may be earned by a Minister in a matter of two or three hours.  Does the Cabinet not feel a tinge of discomfort, drawing taxpayers’ money at such rates?  Can Ministers and Singaporeans share the same dream? Another reality is that our leaders may face problems in marshalling the people to make sacrifices for the country.

About four years ago, Minister 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?

Sir, 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 the money or the fact that we have not invested in creating a culture of high public spiritedness?

In some countries, there are young people who aspire to hold public office. Senior Minister Goh had previously told Parliament that we could not expect Singaporeans 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 indeed 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 its attempt to justify the pay hike.


Written by singapore 2025

19/03/2011 at 6:58 pm

TODAY online: A hub is not a home

Every once a while, a Singaporean steps up and does the country a service. On the basis of a letter sent to Today, a local freesheet last week, Vinita Ramani was that Singaporean. This line from her letter was particularly thought-provoking:

“Nations are built when its people are invited to participate in the process and are given a stake in the outcomes; not when they are handed a finished product, which they cannot, or dare, not, alter.”

I also think Today did well to publish the letter.


A hub is not a home

Vinita Ramani
Mar 04, 2011


I read with interest Professor Tommy Koh’s response, in The Straits Times on Wednesday, to Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew’s Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going. In his commentary, Prof Koh objected to three areas the Minister Mentor raised in his recently-published book. One was the state of nation-building here.

Prof Koh disagreed with Mr Lee’s view that we are not yet a nation, stating instead that its people identify as Singaporeans first and as Chinese, Indian, Malay or Eurasian second. While I admire Prof Koh’s spirited rebuttals, I am inclined to agree with the Minister Mentor on this one point.

I am a Singaporean. I moved here in 1991, became a citizen in 1999 and, over the past twenty years, I have interacted with young Singaporeans and immigrants from all walks of life. Our generation – those of us in our 30s – has learnt the textbook lessons of Singapore’s success perhaps all too well. But I would hardly say that these lessons have stirred a feeling of nationhood.

Instead, the moral behind these lessons is that pragmatism is the order of the day. Prioritising pragmatism above all else appears to have resulted in the following set of attitudes about life which I have anecdotally observed.

First, that one must do whatever it takes to survive and succeed. If that means Singaporeans should leave Singapore to take up jobs and buy property abroad to carve out a second home, so be it.

Our social and economic mobility has not engendered a sense of loyalty: It has ensured that we will work hard to achieve the Singapore dream. But it has also ensured that if the going gets tough in Singapore, Singaporeans will not necessarily suffer through a crisis. They have been taught to have a back-up plan and to take care of themselves and their families first. Patriotism does not feature in this picture.

Second, I have met Singaporeans who feel disenfranchised because they do not have a stake in Singapore, their country of origin. While it is easy to dismiss these people as armchair critics, Singapore would do well to take heed of their concerns.

A nation cannot be built even if a small segment of society feels deeply disconnected from the country’s future and are unsure as to how they can contribute to meet the challenges ahead. Moreover, Internet-based social media these days has enabled such Singaporeans to realise others share their sentiments, creating a strong sense of community among them.

Third, I encounter Singaporeans I would call the progeny of the Singapore success story. They went to the right schools, acquired the right jobs and are financially successful. Yet, their interest in Singapore appears to only extend to changes that affect them individually.

I am often startled to discover that they do not care to understand Singapore’s position in the regional context, let alone in the global one. They are wary of immigrants, and frustrated by the competition that foreigners increasingly present in the professional job market, regardless of the fact that such internationalisation is inevitable.

These attitudes go hand in hand with a larger project to turn Singapore into a “hub” for everything from manufacturing and education to the arts and international organisations. Singapore is the ideal place to work and do business – it has great infrastructure, is corruption-free, is efficient and safe, and has clean air to boot. Many are migrating to Singapore for these reasons.

But calling ourselves a hub suggests that we are a port-of-call, a one-stop-shop, a base. Each of these concepts spells transience, not permanence and rootedness. A hub is not a home, and patriotism must be heart-felt. Like Singaporeans, immigrants too have come to feel that to be loyal to Singapore is virtually synonymous with being loyal to one’s own needs. But that cannot be the driving ethos of a nation.

Nations are built when its people are invited to participate in the process and are given a stake in the outcomes; not when they are handed a finished product, which they cannot, or dare not, alter.

My recent trips to Sri Lanka and East Timor were revelatory in this regard. Both countries endured over 25 years of civil strife and uncertainty about the future. When I spoke to nation-builders in both countries, I found that the Timorese and Sri Lankans have a deep love for their country. Yet, they are intuitively aware of what is wrong with the current state of affairs, and what needs to be done to include its citizenry in the nation-building process.

I met people who said they would die for their nation and with what they have gone through, I had no doubt they meant it. Coming across patriotism in its purest form is a truly profound experience.

The Minister Mentor is correct to note that a nation cannot be built in 45 years. However, for it to become one in the long run Singapore needs to closely examine its driving ethos and ask itself if, and how, it will give Singaporeans and residents a deeper stake in the country. Without this, we really are venturing into troubled waters.

Vinita Ramani is a writer and co-founder of Access to Justice Asia LLP.

Written by singapore 2025

07/03/2011 at 2:36 am

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