Ministerial pay review: Why our political leaders are dooming us all

Posted on 18 January 2012

Clearly, something is missing in our society: The notion of public service, sacrifice, and the relentless pursuit of ideals.

By Terence Lee

Sacrifice? What sacrifice? More memes at MemeNationsg.tumblr.com

After observing the debates centering around the ministerial pay cuts, I came to some conclusions about our political leaders — those whiter-than-white, elite of the elitist, thoroughly incorruptible members of the PAP.

Many of them are opportunistic corporate types who don’t see political office as public service, but merely a stepping stone to further enhance their burgeoning careers. To them, political representation not a calling, but simply a job that draws a pay.

You may think I sound harsh, even unfair.

But how else am I supposed to think?

Our most esteemed ministers conceded that we can’t draw top political talent if we can’t offer them a salary that is competitive with the private sector. A supposed political rising star and future Prime Minister gave us another bad analogy about food. And when the Worker’s Party MPs suggested lowering the salaries even further, howls of protest came from the PAP camp.

I can imagine how some of these well-to-do, whiter-than-whites are making back-of-the-envelope calculations and sweating. No more eating out at Three Michelin Star restaurants. No more dream yacht, at least for another year. No more vacationing in Mauritius (we’ll do Europe instead).

What a gut-wrenching struggle.

As for the lone dissenting voice from the PAP, Member-of-Parliament Denise Phua? She is a social worker who gave up a cushy corporate job. Just sayin’.

Seriously, is it really that hard?

I will concede that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong may be right — the ethos of sacrifice must be balanced with pragmatism. The cost of entering politics is high (poor Tin Pei Ling), and unless the pay scheme is sufficiently matched up with what the private sector CEOs earn, the elites will be deterred from entering politics.

I will further concede that the current ministerial pay proposal is a step in the right direction. The pay cut is somewhat substantial, although the formula of pegging salaries to the top 1,000 wage earners is sending the wrong message and should be revised.

However, what I cannot accept is Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean’s assertion that we cannot compare Singapore’s political salaries with other countries.

In what universe exactly do you live in, dear sir?

He suggests that the salaries of politicians in other countries contains many hidden perks, while Singapore practices total transparency. Okay, maybe a UK Cabinet Minister enjoys a free round of golf or two. But I challenge DPM Teo (or anyone) to prove that these hidden perks, when totaled up with the base salary, will tower over our Cabinet Ministers’ pay scheme.

And besides, many of our foreign counterparts have more complex job scopes. Lee Hsien Loong’s jaws would drop if he understands what President Barack Iron Balls Obama goes through on a daily basis: Stabilizing the Middle East, taming Iran, preventing an oil crisis, shoring up the US economy, fending off crazy Republicans, prodding Europe to address its debt woes, and preventing the End of the World.

Our Prime Minister, by comparison, has it easy.

What made my jaws drop, however, is how he justified his astronomical salary.

“The (US) president is paid less than me, yes,” Lee said during a debate in parliament Tuesday. “But the high level residents in the White House travel in Air Force One, live in the White House and vacation in Camp David.”

“All they have to do is to turn up for an appearance, make a few remarks (and they receive) a hundred thousand dollars a time,” he added rather shamelessly.

Well, I think these perks are certainly justified if your job scope involves fighting two wars simultaneously in Iraq and Afghanistan. Throw in an extra vacation for nailing Osama. And some wrinkles from getting worried about being assassinated.

Our own Prime Minister couldn’t even keep Mas Selamat under wraps.

His excuses are enough to make my ears bleed. But on a deeper level, what this points to is a damning lack of moral leadership among the Singapore elite. I don’t hear of politicians in other countries complaining about their ridiculously low pay as compared to CEOs.

While PAP MP Denise Phua pointed out rather disapprovingly that Singaporeans expect our politicians to be like Superman, I don’t see anything wrong with that expectation.

Public service, in my opinion, embodies a set of ethos that rises above the materialism of our free-market economy. The art of politics, while involving a lot of grandstanding, is ultimately a battle of values. Which is why politicians are expected to carry themselves with moral dignity, and any sort of serious misbehavior is bound to doom one’s political career. The public scrutiny comes with the job.

So I grew a bit uncomfortable when people liken our politicians to CEOs, using the euphemism of ‘benchmarking’.

Our politicians should embody the notions of sacrifice and selflessness. Accepting a massive paycut from being a CEO of a major corporation to becoming a public servant is something that should be second-nature, not second-guessed.

If our Prime Minister has problems finding adequate talent from the elite class to make that sacrifice, which, by the way, is a sacrifice that still enables a more-than-comfortable standard of living, then there is something wrong with Singapore.

We’re a selfish, materialistic lot, and our top leaders are no different. Which is sad.

Recently, I had dinner with a bunch of social entrepreneurs. They are not rich brats who are fed with a silver spoon. Being decidedly middle class, they have to choose between idealism and pragmatism, a classic struggle.

They picked idealism.

For two years, they shuttled between Singapore and Philippines, helping Filipino university graduates find employment, at no pay.

Yes, no salary whatsoever.

You see, for a startup social enterprise like theirs, every penny counts. Their parents, of course, were unhappy. But they’ve managed to strike out a compromise, for now. Which means they have time to make their endeavors more financially sustainable.

I am impressed not so much by their business, but rather by the passion and sacrifice they put into the project to make it work.

So I wondered: If a bunch of middle-class kids can disregard finances and pursue their ideals, why can’t the wealthy elite do the same and join politics, even if it means leading a more humble, less flashy lifestyle?

And if our leaders aren’t willing to make the sort of sacrifices needed to pursue their ideals, what sort of example are they setting for the rest of us?

This post was written by:

- who has written 81 posts on New Nation.

Terence is an online media nut that is obsessed with writing and publishing on the Internet. Recently, he took up photography to expand his repertoire, and hopes to learn videography soon. He has worked in both online and print publications such as The Straits Times, Today, Mind Your Body, The Online Citizen, and Funkygrad. He is currently the assistant editor with SGEntrepreneurs, a website that covers entrepreneurship in Singapore and Asia. Terence can be found on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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  • Mary-Anne Lee

    Well said, sir. 

  • Daniel

    “While PAP MP Denise Phua pointed out rather disapprovingly that Singaporeans expect our politicians to be like Superman, I don’t see anything wrong with that expectation.”

  • terence

    Interesting perspectives you have there regarding this issue. Much of the article expresses your personal opinion. Opinions, as such, are normative issues that cannot be objectively verified. There is no right and wrong to opinions. Therefore debating on opinions is a (almost) neverending process that will have no convincing conclusions. There is one thing in your article, though, that is verifiable and I want to shed light in.

    ” But I challenge DPM Teo (or anyone) to prove that these hidden perks, when totaled up with the base salary, will tower over our Cabinet Ministers’ pay scheme.”

    Let me attempt this. Tony Abbott, the Australian Leader of the Opposition (note: only Leader of Opposition, not PM), drew A$590,000 in entitlements in the first half of 2011 (see, http://www.theage.com.au/national/no-expenses-spared–or-explained-20120116-1q3ai.html). If you allow me to assume that a similar sum will be claimed in the second half of 2011, that will be A$1,180,000. The official salary for the Leader of the Opposition is A$303,060 (see: http://www.aph.gov.au/Library/pubs/BN/pol/parlremmap.pdf). This works out to A$1,483,060 (S$1,927,978). This is still lower than S$2.2m that our PM would typically draw post-review. But he is only Leader of the Opposition. The Australian PM, Julia Gillard, draws A$405,534. Being the PM, it seems reasonable to assume she will draw more in entitlements than the Leader of the Opposition. Summing up, that will make the Australian PM draw a total salary very close or even higher.I am not versed in the intricacies of media and communications. But the tone of the article and the quote above suggests an air of confidence. Such confidence that will make a more time-pressed reader feel that it is indeed true that there …is no country whose ministers, with base salary and hidden perks added up, have a pay comparable to our Cabinet. This possible, I believe definitely unintended, misguidance can be avoided with some research.

    My comments will probably not be read by many, and will soon be flooded over. But your article, with the unintended, possible misguidance will continue to be prominent in the web and be read by many. Therefore, may I suggest that there be more careful research.

    • Wilson

      Solid, well balanced analysis backed up by cross-references. Sadly, a skill lacked by many supposedly intellectuals or discerning political commentators.

      Continue to voice out! The online community needs more of the brave and rational to step up and voice out.

      • Kengtp888

        yes yes….apples are same as durians…The GREAT little red dot is the same as those strine speaking people down south

    • Xavier Dawes

      terence, I checked your claim on the opposition leader of australia. The article is no longer available. Though you are trying to rationalise the cabinet’s high pay, you arguments only prove that you are ignorant of changing winds in Singapore. As the article suggests, more and more educated Singaporeans are giving up a few years of accumulating wealth to serve the needy, why should not our political leaders supposedly being standard bearers of everything that is just and right moderate their expectations for public service. In creating these artificial benchmarks, they have taken away the dignity and honor of public office and have become mere public employees not unlike career civil servants. This is why political talent is now couched in the opposition and not in the ruling party. If one takes a closer scrutiny at the last hustings, it seemed the bold visionaries for our nation are emerging from the political wilderness of the opposition parties. If this issue of cabinet ministers pay has not been dealt as one concerning public morality, then we as a nation have chosen Gold and Silver as our foundation and so is it little wonder that this country has earned labels like ‘success without a soul’? 

  • talk kok

    Oh please. Obama is a leftist who is selling out America. America needs a more right wing president.

  • Tattersyuen

    Public eye and scrutiny my left nut!  Until recently, the state controlled media limited public scrutiny and MP’s were seen only when it suited them.  Only now are they scrutinized by new media and they are uncomfortable?  Before they were not?  What has the spot light revealed that makes them anxious?

  • Anonymous

    “Notions of self-sacrifice and selflessness” are inspired by a spiritual calling. Do you think that Singapore would be better governed by the Catholic Church? Would Singaporeans be better served by a religious theocracy? Idealism works only inside our heads, not in the real world.

  • barney

    I think it’s dangerous to expect our MPs to be like superman. It creates this myth that they can solve every problem, or at least, they should serve till they drop dead, exhausted. More dangerously, it creates the wrong type of expectations that an otherwise less politically informed person might have, when just perhaps, one doesn’t need to be an MP to help his or her neighbor who is in need, that we all should behave more like neighbors to others and lend a helping hand. Attaching our political issues to a wealthy-poor divide possibly neglects the wealthy who are doing a lot to help our county, at the same time, it excuses those with lesser from having any responsibility to help those around them in need. More worringly, the frequency at which an issue such as this is written about not only distracts from other more pertinent issues (e.g. our transport system, lionsXII not performing that well etc.), but it also entrenches a wealthy-poor divide and can build increasing resentment and mistrust all around.

    The news media, both state and social media, seem swarmed with ‘bad’ news. Are we as a society really unable to accommodate and recognize our common future? I remembered very early on, there was a real touch of class from both the PAP and WP with that football match being played. Can things not have built on from there? Rather than focusing on MP Denise Phua’s seemingly dissenting view from her own party, and lauding her courage, it seems like that didn’t have any significance, and attention was cast on her ‘past’ as a social worker. Really? I would have thought social workers would get more plaudits than most other occupations. Her stance was cheapened and sidelined, for what might seem to be due to her status as a PAP MP.

    That being said, running for parliament should be both a calling, and a sacrifice. That’s being real about it.

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