Politics of envy & ministerial pay

The lobby against the existing pay policy for government ministers has at long last won a hearing.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last night announced a committee to review the basis and level of political salaries. National Kidney Foundation chairman Gerard Ee will chair the committee.

Although I’m one of many Singaporeans who have many things to bitch about the PAP government, the pay for ministers and civil servants isn’t one of them where I’m concerned. I may be in the minority, maybe even a minority of one!

I know why many of my compatriots grouse about the issue. It’s often a case of envy. Most  feel that they are as qualified as — if not more qualified than — any of the holders of political office. Yet pay and prestige wise, they aren’t enjoying the same benefits or recognition in their chosen fields.

Worse, many critics believe that if the office holders had remained outside politics, they won’t have made it anywhere in the private sector to draw the sort of pay of the likes of Choo Chiau Beng, to name but one.

Of course none of these pay critics would admit to that four-letter word beginning with “e”. Instead, they would argue from the moral high ground. Serving the country isn’t like any old job; so that ugly five letter word — money — must not come into it.

By putting a price on political office, they aver, is to cheapen that office and diminish, if not destroy, the authority to govern.

Where i’m concerned, the critics aren’t necessarily any better or worse than the highly-paid office holders they lambast, whether in mind, body, intellect, skills, EQ, IQ, no-cue.

It’s just that A chose or was rail-roaded into becoming a lawyer, B a banker, C an entrepreneur, D a media specialist and XYZ a politician in the PAP ruling the best of breed city-state.

So, if the guardian of a multi-billion $ shipbuilder is considered to be worth an 8-figure emolument, why shouldn’t 7-figure sums be paid for posts to run a country with hundreds of billion $ worth of assets and a population that’s larger than any of the workforce that’s being managed by our captains of industry, banking and finance?

Thus I’ve no quarrels with the quantums our government ministers are being paid. Nor do I expect to have any quibbles should Mr Ee come up with a formula that cuts ministeral pay. That’s something for Parliament to decide and would-be politicians to weigh up.

What i hope however is that Mr Ee and Parliament won’t be swayed by asinine arguments like those I’ve received of late.

One email in my inbox quoted Mr David Marshall who it was claimed received just $6K a month when he was chief minister. Another citing President Harry Truman of the US said he was awarded an annual pension of US$25K a year.

What these low-pay for high-office disseminators forgot to add was that all that happened in the 1950s.

That was be4 man went to the moon. Britannia still ruled the waves, more or less. Television was in its infancy. Most people who went overseas, other than Malaya, went by boat. My parents bought a terrace house for all of $10K (Straits dollars). I went to kindergarten with just 20 cents for pocket money. My mom’s hair-dressing apprentices were paid $10 a month and there was a queue waiting to join.

Today, you probably can’t buy even a paper house for $10K. There would be no takers, even the hungriest of foreign workers, for pay of $10 a month. TV is so yesterday. The Straits Times Pocket Money Fund won’t be seen dead doling out 20 cents a day to the needy kids it sponsors.

I rest my case.

7 thoughts on “Politics of envy & ministerial pay

  1. I don’t think the majority begrudge ministers being paid *highly*. Rather the question is, how high? Should PM Lee and each member of his Cabinet earn many times what the likes of Barack Obama, Angela Merkel and Donald Tsang do? They all run countries with greater GDP and population than ours (or, for that matter, many Fortune 500 companies whose CEOs earn far more).

    Running a country is not like running a corporation. The level of job security in a private corporation is far less than the corresponding public sector job. Also, being the Prime Minister carries with it great power, much unlike being the CEO of, say, General Motors. Denise Phua made a similar points in her speech on the Parliamentary debate on ministerial salaries a few years back.

  2. Que pasa? 😛

    I’ve no problem at all if Parliament makes our ministers take a vow of poverty. 🙄
    Neither do I have a problem if the ministers continue to get $1-$3million per annum per person.

    Sure serving the country is an honour etc etc but the reality is I doubt even if a handful of those who can do a really good job would want the job, for all the $3m or more, honour, prestige, power, etc be hanged!

    As for this constant comparison with Obama et al, do u know that in the US, after the pressie retires he gets a library built in his name, he gets life-long security services, book deals, book n lecture tours etc etc. While he is in the job, he speaks and the world listens, more or less. That’s the sort of power no Sg PM/ESM/SM/MM will get. Worth more than $3m, no?

    As for private sector jobs being more insecure than Parliament, how long do you think Choo Chiau Beng has been in his post? U may also want to check how long many of our listco chiefs have been in their jobs be4 stating categorically that a political job is more secure than a corporate job.

    But since u and others are so fond of bench-marking/comparisons, why don’t we take David Marshall who is said to have drawn $6k a month as chief minister. A terrace house in those days cost $10K. So he could have bought a house every two months, with some change to spare too! Tell me which Sg minister today can buy a property in Sg on one or two months’ pay? Also, think how small the population in Sg in the 1950s was! And how much bigger it is today.

    Thanks for dropping by all the same.

  3. Well, that’s a tough one to respond to.

    I’m not sure how important the salary is in overcoming all the pressure and expectation that go together with being a politician. $3m, $10m, what’s enough? Have we managed to attract ministers of better calibre since 1994, when the benchmarking was changed? Perhaps it’s too early to tell.

    About Obama, I accept your point that he is more powerful than any Singaporean politician is ever going to be. Definitely worth more than any amount of cash. Not so sure about life after retirement. I think if we ever had a politician of sufficient stature who commanded the respect of a large segment of the population and the rest of the region he would probably get the book deals, lecture tours, the works. Lee Kuan Yew is probably the closest we’ll ever get, and he’s not doing too badly on that front…

    Choo Chiau Beng – are you referring to his post as CEO or on the board of Keppel? It seems he’s been on the board for very long (along with a host of other companies) but a CEO only recently. Point taken, though.

    And ah, David Marshall. Yup, no minister is going to own a terraced house on two months’ salary these days (probably a four-room flat in Yishun the way prices are going). I would disagree with you that the affordability of a terraced house or population size is a useful benchmark, however. (Perhaps median wage? Then they can pay themselves 90 times that and see how people take to it….)

    Actually, I’m shocked. How did he manage to get away with being paid so much?

  4. AL

    Totally agree that you are on the dot.
    The key issue that base should be reasonable but the bonus be highly variable linked to different KPI’s although maybe minimum 13mth etc.


    Why do you disagree with the benchmarking, used on David Marshall by AL.
    Frankly, I find it more valid than most arguments used.
    Now what to peg to for present, nobody is going to totally agree which I think that no bookie would be willing to take such a gamble/wager.
    What people who always disagree is the fact that the number of literates /educated have increase so creating the lowering of income performance as compare to supply.
    Politicians used to be among the highest paid for the simple reason that they were recognised to have a proper job, it only came about the reduction after you had self made millionaires who came to try for political office eg in the developed countries which basically skews the policies to whichever are their vote banks

  5. Qu’est, 2 continue our conversation:
    1) I donch know for sure tt DM recd $6K pm when he was CM. It came in an email quoting him lamenting against the high pay of ministers and in that lament the $6k was revealed and tt was compared to the $50-$60K ministers were then receiving pm– in the days when DM was still alive. Anyone interested in verification could try our National Archives?

    2) As for how DM managed to get that sort of pay when a meal for the hoi polloi cost abt 50 cts, I think Wang inadvertently gave the answer. In the 1950s, the highly educated in power commanded a premium because the number of those who were literate, let alone have a law degree in Sg, would probably not have filled more than a handful of A380s.

    2) LKY’s book deals: donch think he personally benefited from them. If I remember correctly, all proceeds fm high-priced auctioned n signed copies went to charity. For normal sales, authors usually get about 10% of cover price. Doubt any of his books were as hot as Harry Potter. So he couldn;t have made much. Other Sg retired politicians doing the book rounds would surely fare even worse!

    Wang: Mayb Mr Gerard Ee shld consider bench-marking ministerial pay to Sg property? If we use the latest sale of the Marq, it would take even our highest paid in Parliament more than five years of pre-tax pay to get a unit there 😛 Much longer post tax!

  6. AL

    It is correct as there was little COLA (Cost of Living Increase Given to Pensionable Civil or Govt Service ) given as under the Pensions Act is always a certain percentage of last drawn salary upto 1994.
    Think Happiness Blog had given the stated figures which does not gel if you were compare to living standards than.
    In addition, people forget at that time, the British Colonial Civil Service was one which most who prefer security would go for. Hence, it was very rare at that time in 50s and 60s to have millionaires who this days are a dime a dozen.

    For pegging to property, it is not politically viable.
    Note I did not say economically viable
    What would be viable would be a mixture of measures/KPIs

  7. Wang, frankly, if I were a would-be politician or an existing PAP minister, I would give the electorate the two fingers.

    I certainly don’t love my country or my fellow country men, including the great unwashed, that much as to want to work my fingers to the bone and then have pple less able and less willing to serve criticise and scrutinise me all hours of the day and nite, and then slash my pay, as if paying me less would make me a better minister. (Get real!)

    For all I care, Mr Low Thia Khiang could be PM and Mr Chiam See Tong could be pressie. If the majority want us to go the way of Taiwan, Indonesia or the Philippines, so be it. After all, it’s not as if only PAP Ministers have children and grand children in Sg to worry about. Why should those who have brought the country to where it is today have to bow to those who haven;t done anything much other than talk or run an SMC or two?

    But then Wang, that’s why I’m not a politician! 😀

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