Monday, March 26, 2007

talent, salaries and a greater cause for concern?

As expected, the announcement of the increase in ministerial salaries caused much commotion in the plogosphere. Many bloggers talked about if we use higher salaries to attract people into public service, we might attract self-serving individuals. Others might have talked about the formula used to peg the salaries and asked if that was the appropriate formula. These are important issues that need to be thought through, but I will not be talking about such issues in this discussion. Instead, drawing from the views of MM Lee and Ben, I want to first discuss the issue of "talent".

Let this following view be called "Assumption T":

"Talented individuals are those individuals who possess great intelligence, critical thinking and decision making skills. Possible manifestations of talent include good business acumen, success in professions such as law and investment banking (and perhaps engineering, medicine, and scientific research). One metric of identifying talented individuals at a young age is academic success."

Assumption T (or similar versions) seem to be the main view of "talent" when SM Goh was talking about Singapore "leaking talent". Some bloggers questioned if Assumption T was elitist and claimed that it ought to be debunked altogether. When talking about justifying ministerial salaries, what constitutes "talent" comes into question again. Not just mere "talent", we are talking about the very "top talent" or "the best". Again, assumption T seems to be called into play here, and some bloggers are already starting to question if "intelligence and brilliance" alone makes up "talent" for the case of ministers, if certain "values" are found lacking.

The purpose of this post is not to debate Assumption T. Personally, I am not certain about what makes a good minister or a good policy maker, and for the purposes of this discussion, I'm willing to accept that talented (Assumption T) individuals make good ministers and civil servants. And we don't just want a "good" minister, we want the "best". In fact, according to the views of the young-PAP bloggers (currently running amok all over the plogosphere), because Singapore is so difficult to govern, we need nothing short of the VERY BEST to do the job, or else we are screwed. I personally think part of the reason why Singapore is so difficult to govern is due to both internal and external forces, and part of the internal forces could possibly be blamed on the government for trying to have their cake and eat it. Nevertheless, I'm willing to buy the argument that the future of Singapore (think aging population, competition from China and India, etc) does not look quite as rosy and hence we want really really smart people at the helm at such a difficult time.

Given so, does this justify raising the salary of ministers who are already earning $1.2 million per annum? I personally think it is difficult to make the case, but something else caught my attention: the timing of such an announcement. Why is this announced so close to the GST hike, which already cost the government much political capital? Is this not political suicide? Why could they not wait, and announce it, say, one year later? What did they have to lose if they did that? Cynics might say: implementing one year earlier is one more million dollars earned (or whatever the raise in salary is), and the money grubbing ministers are just being greedy in implementing it now. Maybe the government is confident in its ability to manage public opinion, and hence see no need to delay the salary raise. But perhaps this is a sign of something else, which could be a greater cause for concern that even the millions involved in raising ministerial salaries.

What I'm thinking about is that there could be a problem in successorship, not just for ministers and politicians, but also for important positions in the civil service. I suspect that the civil service is facing a huge HR problem
(or projecting a HR problem in the near future) in the leadership echelons and is, heh, leaking talent into the private sector and overseas. Incidentally, the bond-breaking problem is related to this. Our most talented (using Assumption T) individuals are lured to the public sector via scholarships, but some break their bonds and leak away. Even if they serve out their bonds, many leave the public sector once the bond ends because they can earn much more being financial bankers, or if they work for Google or Microsoft.

I think the situation might be dire enough that the debate is no longer about "can we find talented people with the right values to be civil servants", but "can we find ANY talented people at all to be civil servants". Keeping in mind that 20 years down the road, we really want the very best, top talent, to lead Singapore through difficult times, and just "quite talented" may not be good enough. (Not to forget that MM Lee will (probably) not be around anymore then.) Other indicators which point to this could be the disappointing showing of MP backbenchers in the budget debates. Perhaps it is the ministers themselves who are the most embarrassed when the Straits Times criticized the backbenchers for only being cheerleaders.

If there is a serious HR problem, then this raise in salaries could be seen as an attempt to try and rectify that. There might be a neglected sector of talented (Assumption T) individuals who might have the desire (and the "correct heart") to be civil servants, just that they find the job prospects of Google or private practice much too attractive in comparison. Raising salaries might attract such individuals back to the public sector. [One question: how large is this sector of individuals?] Nevertheless, raising ministerial salaries seems like a clumsy move, which looks like it will cost much political capital. Perhaps a less clumsy move will be to raise public sector salaries, but NOT the salaries of MPs and ministers.

This leads me to suspect that maybe the PAP has already asked several individuals to drink tea and they have all replied "I am flattered but I would rather remain a lawyer/CEO/doctor, because I get better pay and perks". And of course we're not not going to hear about these individuals because they might change their mind in the future, but if information that these folks rejected the offer was leaked out, then they will be much less willing to enter politics in the future. And if these folks are really talented (Assumption T), then perhaps Singapore loses out.

I believe ministerial salaries is a cause for concern, especially since the raise in salary is probably not an insignificant amount, and perhaps could be better spent in say, workfare. But if there really is a talent shortage in the leadership (or future leadership) of the public sector, and for the nation, then perhaps this is a greater cause for concern.


kwayteowman said...

"Why is this announced so close to the GST hike, which already cost the government much political capital? Is this not political suicide? Why could they not wait, and announce it, say, one year later?"

The KTM asked the same question before and again when they announced the GST increase.

The KTM's current view is that the Garmen is perfectly rationale and knows exactly what it is doing. It is banking on the poor memory and general apathy of the population.

Bart asked the KTM if he was going to write about the pay rise. The KTM asked Bart, "what's there to write about? What smart things are there left to say about the pay rise that less than two million have not already written about?".

People are perhaps getting a little de-sensitized over this issue of Ministerial pay it seems.... while MANY bloggers have written about it, does it really excite anyone? When we click on a link that takes us to a blog lambasting the pay rise, do we expect to read something we don't already know or haven't already read?

This strategy is actually not unreasonable. Is it politically wise? We will know in GE2011.

YCK said...

The lack of talents willing to join the service, granted that they are attracting the right kind, cannot be solved only with attractive salaries pegged to the top earners in the private sector.

As you pointed out there are people not joining the service by breaking the bonds and there are those leaving soon after serving them. The money is attractive at the outset but not enough to retain them.

Are there aspects of the job that should be examined that may contribute to overall satisfaction that the salaries are not able to account for?

Fearfully Opinionated said...


Alamak, I link to your blog left right and center. Of course I know you asked the questions first lah!

I've been thinking about desensitization also. Actually someone commented to me that there was much less blogging activity than expected, considering this is such a "hot" issue. However, as I previously noted, the blogosphere is not a good sample size when it comes to sentiments of the "ground".

My gut feeling is that the vast majority of the population is not pleased with raising ministerial salaries, regardless if the blogosphere is desensitized or not. But the governement ought to have a better idea than my gut when it comes to what the actual ground sentiments are like.

Like you, I also hold the view that the governement is rational (although it may make bad judgements). This is what led me to speculate that there could be an impending HR crisis in the public sector. But you are quite right. Perhaps by 2011, everybody forgot liao, so this is not an unreasonable strategy at all.


You may be quite right that lack of job satisfaction is a major factor why the public sector cannot retain talent. I'm no HR representative from the public service, so I cannot say on their behalf. But I think if it is a real issue, then they would be quite foolish if they are not looking into it.

Anyways, IF there is a sizable number of talented individuals who have always wanted to be civil servants but found the salary just a tad too low, it is quite possible that these individuals could be lured to join the public sector just by virtue of raising the salaries. These individuals could be the targeted "market", instead of those individuals who were not interested in civil service anyway and are going to break bond at the first opportunity.

~[z][x]~ said...


What do you think of the proposition of Low Thia Kiang wrt the salary of our ministers - to be pegged to the salaries of the bottom 20% of the population X 100?

Sounds rather intriguing to me, and to be honest, am not too aware what is so inherently wrong with this proposition, if you assume of course, that a Minister wants to be a Minister so as to put the welfare of the people before himself/herself. Or is this view simply too naive and idealistic?

YCK said...

Yes IF they are barking up the wrong tree it could be costly on the long run.

Fearfully Opinionated said...


Have you read the views of KTM and more recently, daikor on MP Low Thia Kiang's suggestion?

I don't think it is a question about what's fundamentally wrong about such a formula, but why SHOULD the government implement this formula?

If the main rational behind this currently discussed raise is to try and stop a talent leak out of the public sector, then how is changing the formula to MP Low Thia Kiang's going to help?

Actually it would make the talent leak worse, since the wages of lower income individuals are projected to go lower inevitably as a result of globalization, and at the same time the salary of professions which these talent are probably leaking to, will increase.

palmist said...

I think part of the problem is not the money but the flexibilty. There is no 'autonomy' to vote against the party. People who are talented are not yes man. They need to have a say and be convinced of the ideas.

Ideally we should attract people who put serving the country before their own monetary rewards. I am not sure what kind of leader you want but I would definitely like a leader who put loves singapore and put singaporeans first.

using money as the carrot is certainly the wrong type of reinforcement to attract talent.