Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Clean wage versus pay with perks

THERE is no doubt that the issue of ministerial pay is an emotional one, but in the midst of heated debate, it is still useful to reason with cool heads.
By Calvin Cheng

First, not enough attention has been paid to the principle of 'clean wage'. This principle is not only at the heart of the report by the committee to review political salaries, but it is also the premise on which the entire system of ministerial wages is based - from the beginning, when Mr Lee Kuan Yew implemented it, right up till now.

The wage that office-holders in Singapore get is the totality of the remuneration they receive - there are no hidden perks like hospitalisation benefits, housing benefits and tax exemptions. With the exception of the president, the prime minister and the speaker of Parliament, no office-holder or MP is given a car for personal use. And even then, the use of the car is a taxable benefit rather than a perk. This is exceptional compared with in most countries, especially at the ministerial level.

This point cannot be emphasised enough. Much has been said online, in the local press and in the international press about our leaders being the best-paid. The benchmark for this is the salary, specifically the cash component of an office-holder's income. This is not a fair comparison. The most quoted example one sees repeated ad nauseam is the United States president's salary of US$400,000 (S$520,000). But this does not take into account all his other benefits, which include free accommodation in the White House, use of its army of servants and staff, official transport and a whole range of other perks and non-cash benefits.

It is also interesting to note that the reported salary of the president of China is US$11,000. Without being facetious, one wonders how such a salary could possibly allow him respectable accommodation of any sort, even if he were just to rent a home in Beijing. It was also the 'benefits' part of remuneration that led to the scandal involving expense claims, specifically housing claims, of British MPs.

The strength of our clean-wage system is also its weakness. The transparency of this system allows us to know exactly how much our political office-holders get. But the difficulty is that we alone implement this system. When nobody else in the world has a clean-wage system, and all comparisons are made purely on cash income, then our leaders will always look like the highest-paid.

The crucial question then is whether it is foolhardy for the Singapore Government to stand alone in a world where nobody else offers a clean-wage system. As an emotive issue, and with continual unfair comparisons being made purely on cash income, a good system has become a public-relations disaster. No amount of explanation will defuse the issue when the stark contrast keeps getting emphasised in salary league tables. The Singaporean voter could, in the end, be no different from and no less human than any voter or citizen anywhere else in the world, and a remuneration system with perks and benefits could prove more politically palatable than a clean-wage system.

Second, to poll the man in the street about what he thinks of a million-dollar salary is pointless. The problem is one of perspective, and the perspective of top income earners anywhere in the world is something no man in the street can empathise with - whatever method one uses to arrive at the pay is irrelevant once that number is large enough.

To the average man, a pay cut of a third from $1.5 million to $1 million still leaves an unfathomable sum. But the $500,000 difference could lead to a real impact on one's standard of living as it could mean the difference of meeting that mortgage payment on one's house.

We cannot possibly expect our office- holders to sell their houses and downgrade to take up their appointments. By the time some of these potential office- holders reach their 40s, they would have settled into a certain lifestyle that requires a certain income to upkeep. To expect these people to sell their houses, their cars, or forgo their children's education overseas is just an idealism that bears no relation to reality.

In the end, we will end up only like other countries, where only people who are financially independent and secure will enter politics seriously.

Third, while we appreciate and value the ethos of public service, it is unwise to overplay it. The generation of Mr Lee and Dr Goh Keng Swee were born in a time of chaos, revolution and change in a post-colonial world. Even then, it was pure luck that we got these people rather than the rapacious leaders who impoverished many countries that became independent at the same time as Singapore.

We could thus pay low wages and hope that some able, altruistic men and women would step forward, or create a system that increases the chances that we will still get able leaders, altruistic or not.

At the end of the day, we are looking not only for servants but also leaders with specific skill sets to govern our country, manage our economy and make policies that would affect our country's future. Beyond a calling, there is thus also a job to be done, and to get people with the right technocratic skills to get this job done well, there is no shame in paying for it. We must not confuse political governance with charity work.

Finally, in the heated and emotional debate over ministerial salary, it is disappointing to see the often rude and offensive criticism of Senior Minister of State Grace Fu on the Internet in response to her honest reaction to the ministerial wage cuts.

Respect may have to be earned, but surely civility does not.

The writer is a former Nominated MP.