Friday, January 06, 2012

Time for leaders to find the 'fire' again?

ON WEDNESDAY, a committee commissioned by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to review ministerial pay issued a report recommending a raft of changes to how salaries should be calculated.
By Andrea Ong

This is the second major report since the White Paper in 1994 that brought about the system of pegging ministers' pay to the private sector.

What has changed since 1994 and 1970, when ministers got their first raise? Insight looks at four burning questions over the years.

Does high pay = the best ministers?

ONE key principle behind paying ministers wages that are competitive with the private sector is the need to get the very best of Singaporeans to form the Government.

This principle has not budged over the years. Singapore's three prime ministers have emphasised repeatedly that good government - the nation's most precious asset - did not come about by chance.

It came about by getting capable and committed people to become ministers, a job more challenging and complex than being a CEO or doctor.

The Government believes that the opportunity cost for such talent to enter politics should not be too high. Besides sacrificing privacy and family life, they should not have to suffer financially too.

And as ministers need time to grow in their jobs, they must cross over to politics in their prime.

The review committee headed by Mr Gerard Ee emphasises this point in its report. 'While money should never be the motivation for anyone becoming a politician, the financial sacrifice should not be so large that it discourages outstanding and committed Singaporeans from devoting the best part of their lives to political office,' says the report.

However, detractors over the years have argued that the pay was just too high. Writer Catherine Lim argued in 2007 that the high pay contributed to the 'affective divide' between the People's Action Party (PAP) government and the people.

Others have warned that the idea of paying for the best to join politics may encourage people to join for the 'wrong' reasons, as PAP backbencher Denise Phua argued passionately in 2007.

'The lure of personal prestige and monetary gain can produce a dangerously intelligent and self-interested class of political elites who will readily compromise the national interest to satisfy their own needs,' said Associate Professor Kenneth Paul Tan from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in a 2008 article.

However, then-Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong made it clear in 1989 that men who are in it for the money are unfit to be ministers. 'If you think that the salary is so attractive that you want to be a minister because of the salaries, you are unlikely to pass our screening test.'

Government leaders have also argued for 'a sense of proportion' by comparing ministers' pay to the size of the national economy that they are in charge of.

Does high pay prevent corruption?

ANOTHER reason for competitive ministerial pay is to prevent corruption and maintain transparency.

The committee's report highlights the need to pay ministers a 'clean wage' with no hidden perks.

While other countries may pay their ministers less, the ministers may in fact get much more under the table in benefits.

This argument has been used by government leaders to counter those who compare Singaporean ministers' salaries with those of their foreign counterparts.

A commonly cited example is the US President, who earns less than PM Lee on paper but whose expenses, including housing and his own plane, are borne by taxpayers.

In 2000, then Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew said that only 'constant vigilance' had allowed Singapore to escape the corruption, collusion and nepotism problems which have plagued the region.

'Our market-based pay and allowances will give no excuse for any slippage,' he said of Singapore's good track record.

However, in a 2010 book on Singapore's public administration, political scientist Jon Quah points out that the PAP government had put in place stringent anti-corruption laws even before it began raising pay for ministers.

Former Potong Pasir MP Chiam See Tong argued on several occasions that high pay would not satisfy a minister bent on being corrupt. It would 'make him only more greedy for more money', said the opposition MP in 1994, citing the late minister Teh Cheang Wan who committed suicide in 1986 after being investigated for accepting bribes.

Should ministers' pay be benchmarked to private sector?

THE decision in 1994 to peg ministerial pay to the top income earners in Singapore has been one of the most controversial aspects of the debate over the years.

MPs have argued that the benchmark is unfair as the top earners in the private sector change every year, while ministers stay put in their jobs for years. The formula could also be skewed upwards as many of the top earners are extreme outliers.

Opposition parties have suggested pegging ministers' pay to the income of the poorest 20 per cent instead.

Other MPs, however, accept that pegging ministers' pay to the private sector is part of the 'market reality'.

The committee's report goes some way in addressing these concerns. It has widened the sample size of top income earners from 48 to 1,000.

Another point of disagreement is how much variable pay ministers should get.

A high variable component means larger swings in salary from year to year.

In line with private sector practice, the variable component of a minister's annual package increased from 30 per cent in 2000 to 47 per cent in 2007.

However, the committee has recommended cutting it.

A 'GDP bonus' introduced in 2000 was seen as an inducement to ministers to focus on economic growth at all costs. The committee now wants to replace the GDP bonus with a National Bonus which includes additional indicators like real income growth of the poorest 20 per cent.

What do we look for in our ministers?

THE debate over ministerial pay boils down, ultimately, to what Mr Lee Hsien Loong asked in 1993: 'What sort of men do you want to hold this job?'

On one side are those in favour of the spirit of public service and moral authority - two commonly used terms. Serving the people should not be about dollars and cents but about being honourable and sacrificing for the nation.

In the other camp are the more pragmatic PAP leaders, who question if it is realistic to expect to get a dream team of ministers without paying them more competitive rates.

The three prime ministers have all dwelt on the changing aspirations and nature of Singaporeans since the 1950s.

In those 'tumultuous times', Mr Lee Kuan Yew once said: 'Asia was in ferment: the shape of our lives was being altered irrevocably. In that revolutionary ferment, any man with any courage, any fire in him, would respond to the challenge.'

Times and the people have changed since. As PM Lee reiterated in 2007, the Government cannot expect everyone to be like that.

Still, the benchmark for ministers' pay has always included a discount from the private sector to signify the personal sacrifice involved in public service. The committee has now recommended increasing the discount from a third to 40 per cent.

Under the terms of reference given by PM Lee, ministers' pay has been reviewed and cut independently of that of the elite Administrative Service for the first time - a signal that elected political leaders should have a calling of their own.

The titles of the 1994 White Paper and the new report are also telling. Where the former emphasised 'competitive, competent and honest' government, the latter speaks of a 'capable and committed' one.

Perhaps it is time for Singapore's political leaders to find that 'fire' in them to shape Singaporeans' lives once more, as the Old Guard ministers did.

Additional reporting by Janice Heng