Next Monday (9 April), Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will announce in Parliament the salary revisions for himself and his ministers. There is little doubt that we will be seeing a whopping increase in their salaries, perhaps by as much as $1 million a year (which is the current shortfall from the so-called “benchmark” against the 48 top earners in Singapore).
I highly recommend reading a Straits Times forum letter by Ng Kok Lim (2 April 2007), titled “Strength of S’pore rests on people not just govt”. Amidst all the self-congratulatory statements to justify the high salaries, Ng pointed out that the commendable achievement of bringing Singapore from “Third World to First” was done by the previous generation of leaders, not the present politicians who are benefiting from the million dollar salaries (with the exception of MM Lee, of course). He added that “paying my politician top dollar may not dent my pocket, but it angers many ordinary Singaporeans who have to pay more for everything without having the freedom to write their own paycheck”.
I do not oppose high salaries for ministers, senior civil servants, or even heads of charities and religious organisations. I think all of the aforementioned generally make a very valuable contribution to our nation, and they should be rewarded for their hard work and, in many cases, sacrifices.
However, we need to distinguish between acceptably high salaries, and extravagant salaries. I concede that the US$170,000 salary that the British prime minister draws is slightly on the low side, given the tremendous weight of responsibility that a leader of a country needs to bear. But I would say anything beyond S$500,000 a year is not fitting for a public servant whose salaries are drawn from taxpayers’ hard-earned money.
The government’s public line for paying its leaders such high salaries is two-fold:
1. To prevent corruption
2. To retain talent
I won’t elaborate further. The SPH and MediaCorp newspapers do a commendable job explaining the official reasons for the wage hikes.
I have a slightly different take about the reasons for the extravagant salaries that our leaders pay themselves:
Firstly, it’s an issue of status. In our East Asian culture and particularly among the ministers’ generation, your status in society is — rightly or wrongly — determined primarily by the salaries you draw. If you are drawing a high salary, you must be very important, and vice-versa.
Our political leaders’ paramount concern is how Singaporeans view them. This explains why they do not tolerate any slights against their integrity and their right to rule by opposition politicians, political commentators or the media, as this, in their view, will lower the esteem that Singaporeans have for them. Therefore, paying themselves salaries that are benchmarked against the top earners in Singapore reinforces their status at the pinnacle of society.
Secondly, the PAP is “looking for love in all the wrong places”. It’s definition of “talent” is extremely narrow. PAP grassroots activists, no matter how loyal and passionate, almost never make it into the ministerial ranks nowadays, because political savvy and familiarity with the ground are not considered to be as important than technocratic know-how. In our political leaders’ eyes, “talent” is broadly defined as people who have successfully helmed huge organisations, be it listed companies or government ministries (as reflected in the qualifying criteria for the presidency).
For high-flying civil servants, political office is simply the next step in one’s career progression in the public service. It is not hard for them to make that transition, even if the money is not fantastic. But for private sector head honchos, it is a different issue altogether. They may not have that same passion for public service and common citizens, nor the experience in dealing with the government bureaucracy. They are usually already earning very high salaries, which they see as their right given their contribution to their companies’ profits. So in order to woo these corporate high-flying millionaires, the PAP government is trying to lower the opportunity costs for them. It is no secret that many of today’s PAP MPs are reluctant politicians.
It baffles me how someone would need to see a $2 million dollar carrot before accepting a call to lead one’s nation. Are these the kind of leaders we want leading our country? I sure hope that none of our current batch of ministers made their decision to enter politics based on the salary that was offered. And if they didn’t, what makes them so sure that they need to hike ministerial salaries even more to attract the next generation of leaders?