Tuesday, April 03, 2007

10 more thoughts on the ministerial pay hike

Much has been already been said about the issue, but as I read through the blogs, they all seem to make the same points over and over again. Here are 10 thoughts (not all original) that are perhaps, not so commonly found in other blogs:

1) Progress or Regress?

Like Aaron and KTM, I found the various issues raised to be unoriginal, recycled and boring. Blogs all say the same thing until I became quite sian to read another blog post on ministerial salaries (two notable exceptions). Why are they boring? Because we have talked and THOUGHT about such issues before, and this recent commotion offers little, if any, new insight. Hence boring.

Yet, the others do not seem to be as bored. If bloggers are bored, they wouldn't be blogging so much about the issue, and there would not be such an uproar. In fact, Inspir3d (of Intelligent Singaporean) claim this is the first time the blogosphere has reacted so strongly, and hence it is a sign of progress towards further liberalization of the political scene of Singapore. This issue is also enshrined in IS as a major blogosphere event, just like the WSM affair.

Why are others not bored? In fact, they seem excited even. I would like to suggest a hypothesis: the blogosphere at large is not really thinking about the issue. What most of us are doing, is mere cow-beh-cow-bu. If you got a gripe against something, do you get bored complaining about it? I know I don't. Now, I think there is nothing wrong against voicing disagreement. In fact, I think it is good and necessary to do so. What I think is not so good is the that perhaps in being so eager to voice discontent, we fail to think. And when there is mass-unthinking on the plogosphere, this is not progress, but regress.

2) Good Articles in Mass Media

There has been little or no mention of two articles written by the traditional media which I thought were quite good. The first is an article by Chua Mui Hoong in the Straits Times on Saturday March 24th, "Beyond knee-jerk reactions, hard issues remain". Ms Chua criticized knee-jerk reactions (rightfully, in my opinion) but also stated that there are "hard issues" which need to be answered, such as the appropriateness of the formula used to calculate salaries, as well as the KPIs of ministers. The second article was by PN Baliji in TODAY, and again talked about KPIs. Baliji was willing to grant that our ministers do a good job, but unless they can produce some tangible and transparent KPIs, they cannot hope to convince the general population.

I thought the two articles were worth mentioning not just because they made valid points and contributed to the discussion, but also because the blogosphere often holds the perception that the traditional media does not have a mind of its own and never criticizes the government.

3) Separating Politicians from Civil Servants

In Yawning Bread's article, Alex Au drew a distinction which I thought was quite important. Ministers are political office holders, and strictly speaking they are not civil servants, yet they are on the same pay scale. [Civil servants are apolitical, they cannot be affiliated to any political party.] This current pay hike will affect both ministers and senior civil service officers. However, the jobs of both are quite different. I personally think that the pay hike is slightly more justifiable for senior civil servants than for ministers. Does having justifiable reasons for raising the salary of senior civil servants justify raising the salaries of ministers also? So perhaps there is a need to de-conflate the salary scales of these two groups.

4) Why Be Minister?

I wondered aloud in my previous article if there were people whom the PAP approached but rejected the offer to enter politics. To my surprise, WANG replied to that, but on Kitana's blog instead. I thought he made a good case why being a minister (in Singapore) might not be an attractive option, and here are his points, paraphrased:

a) Being paid a large yet highly scrutinized salary upfront results in much negative publicity Take this current commotion over minister pay hikes. Are prospective politicians more or less likely to enter politics now? (Ironically, the whole idea of increasing pay was to attract talent, but the uproar might just cause the opposite effect.)

b) Being under constant scrutiny and public attention, and that means constant criticism. True for all politicians (and celebrities), but perhaps especially true in Singapore's case.

c) Success in other vocations and careers is better recognized, and more greatly "praised", than doing a good job as a minister. When is the last time someone, other than the press (or young PAP), praises a minister for anything at all?

d) The burden of being responsible for the welfare and the lives of over 4 million people. This compared to the burden of being responsible to only the bottom line of a company.

e) Engaging in philanthropy is praiseworthy for a non-politician, but the same act for a politician is doubted of its sincerity. Your character gets doubted, by virtue of the fact that you are a politcian.

5) The Most Charitable Case

Very few bloggers explored what the most charitable scenario for the government would be (in trying to justify the ministerial pay hikes). This is my attempt (see also my previous article):

There is a great shortage of talent in the higher echelons of the civil service, including the pool of politicians, and there is a constant leak of talent into the private sector. Higher salaries is found to be a major reason why civil servants (and politicians) leave the service and enter the private sector.
The current talent pool in the civil service is so depleted that there will be projected problems in the governance of Singapore of the future, and the panic button is being pushed. After examining what are other ways to attract talent back to the civil service, they found that the only easily adjustable parameter is salaries, and increasing the salaries was the only route to take. In other words, there is no choice. If we don't increase the salaries now, talented people are not willing to take up our leadership positions, so we are stuck with crappy leaders to lead Singapore through a potentially dangerous era ahead. This spells disaster for everyone in Singapore.

This is the most charitable case for the government that I can come up with, and I have to admit that IF this is truly the scenario, then I do think that the raise is salary is quite justified. However, there is little evidence that the situation is indeed as dire as this scenario. Furthermore, if such is indeed the scenario, why doesn't the government just come out and say "look, we don't have any more good talent left. If we don't try to attract them back, we're all screwed"? Or perhaps they have tried to say that in their politically correct ways, but their PR is just not good enough? Or is such a statement too politically costly to make bluntly? More politically costly than the current attempts at justification for the pay hike?

6) Necessity and Fairness

Consider my most charitable case mentioned above. I mentioned that I think the pay hike would be justified in the most charitable scenario. But I never said that it was fair. Many bloggers have mentioned that ministers do not deserve such a high pay, and that it was unfair to receive a salary which is intuitively more than they deserve. I have intuitive sentiments along the same line. However, I admit that if the most charitable scenario is true, then it is necessary to give the ministers such pay (although some might disagree about the necessity part).

The question to ask here is, just because an action is necessary, does it make it fair? I suspect some of us will say yes, some will say no. I think this is the distinction between consequentialist and deontological conceptions of ethics [yes, again]. If you think what makes something right or fair is the consequences, then you probably think that it is fair to raise the salaries, despite the obscene amount. If you think necessity and fairness are two different issues altogether, then you are probably a deontologist. But if so, it might be useful to note that criticisms on deontological grounds carry little weight if the government is going to make a decision on consequentialist grounds, especially where the potential consequences are very grave.

7) Gahmen VS Bloggers

Ben laments that he cannot find one, not even one, supporter of the pay hike. This is not exactly true, since in some ways (see point 5 above), I can be considered rather sympathetic towards the reasons for the pay hike. Nevertheless, it is true that practically everyone in the blogosphere is against such a move. On IS, Inspir3d categorized the views as "The Government's Case" and "The Blogosphere's Reply". It is as though the blogosphere was in total agreement as a whole, and stands in unified objection to the government. The truth is probably that there is a variety of views on both sides (but perhaps the opposing views within government ranks are silenced by the party whip).

But rightly or wrongly, there is clearly a perception of "us" against "them". Again, this appears to be yet another manifestation of the famous "great affective divide". That the "gahmen" just cannot identity with the rest of the general populace, and is simply clueless about the ground. I agree that communication between the government and the ground leaves much to be desired, and the government has much room for improvement, especially in the PR department. Nevertheless, I think many may people fail to see the symmetry of the divide: the gap in understanding may not just be the fault of the government failing to understand the ground, but also the ground failing to understand the government.

8) Emergence of Young PAP Blog

There is one notable exception to the blogosphere's united objection to the ministerial raise, and that is the Young PAP Blog. Due to the work of a spammer, apparently unrelated to Young PAP, the blog shot from obscurity to become one of the most visited blogs overnight. I had previously mentioned that I welcome the Young PAP Blog into the blogosphere. In fact, I think the emergence of this blog is pretty much the only sign of any progress being made in the blogosphere (see point 1) during this period of time.

I have actually been rather impressed by Ms Elaina Oliver Chong, one of the primary bloggers behind the Young PAP Blog, although she had made some very careless mistakes which perhaps, betrayed her n00b-ness to blogging. For example, when giving examples of what kind of sacrifices a minister makes for his country, she listed carrying babies. Any of the points I already mentioned in point 4 above would probably have been better. In a reply to a comment, she pasted a whole ST article ("What's this place worth to you?" by Paul Jacob), which was generally an eloquently articulated piece of rhetoric, and will hardly be convincing to her detractors, who would (and did) accuse her of just repeating government propaganda. Chua Mui Hoong's article, (see point 2), located just next to Paul Jacob's one, would have been a slightly better choice, if she wanted to quote an article.

Boo-boos aside, I am quite eager to see how the Young PAP Blog develops and continues to engage the rest of the blogosphere from now onwards.

9) Just like GST?

Many bloggers, including myself, noted that the announcement of the salary hike was very close to the announcement of the GST raise. Some bloggers, cynically postulated that the real rational for raising the GST was to line the pockets of ministers. Myself, and others like KTM, noted that announcing so close to each other is politically costly. Ms Elaina Olivia Chong, on the Young PAP Blog, quite cleverly argues that the GST hike helps to stimulate economy, and actually makes the ministerial raise more justifiable.

There is another sense which I think the GST hike and raising ministerial salaries are linked. They way they were announced is very similar. The GST hike was originally announced last October, and promised to reveal an offset package during Budget (in February this year). Note that this announcement was made 4 months before the Budget and the revealing of the offset package, and 9 months before the actual implementation of the GST hike (this July). Why was the announcement broken up into two parts (the first part, the announcement and the justification, and the second part, the actual facts and figures) which were announced 4 months apart? Similarly, it is only now announced that the salaries will go up and why, but by how much, that will be announced later. Why did they break up the announcement into two parts again? Will we wait 4 months before they give the actual figures?

I am not very sure why they break up such "bitter pill" announcements into two parts, but my guess is that this is a PR related move, and has something to do with helping to dissipate negative opinion. True enough, when the GST hike was announced in October, there was a huge commotion in the blogosphere. But when the offset package was revealed during budget debate this Feburary, there is much less noise heard. Have bloggers, and the general populace, simply got bored of the issue because they ranted enough about it 4 months ago? Are discontenting views that easily pacified?

10) The Peculiar Nature of our Domestic Politics

How would this situation look like if it occurred in another country, where instead of a single dominant party, there are two strongly contending parties? No doubt, the opposing party would be taking full advantage of this negative publicity to try and deconstruct the ruling party as much as possible. Yet, our opposition MPs have been largely quiet, except for NCMP Sylvia Lim, who criticized the "insensitive timing" of the announcement.

Usually for democracies, the mandate of rule is determined by vote. This means that if we find our leaders lacking, such as being corrupt or self-serving, we can vote them out and replace them with their competitors. Because there are opposing parties, politicians will try their best to convince the voting population of their sincerity and the honesty of their servitude. Although technically we voted in the ruling party, and hence we are a democracy, this model differs slightly for Singapore. Our opposition parties are just too weak to be considered a serious check and balance against corrupt or self-serving policies. As a result, anti-corruption measures need to be built into the parliamentary system (tough anti-corruption laws, independent investigative body which reports directly to the PM Office, etc), perhaps so as to convince the voting population that a single ruling dominant party can still be free from corruption, and unquestionable in character.

I am not criticizing the fact that our government has belonged to a single dominant party since independence. In fact, much of our progress and achievements today would not be possible otherwise. Nevertheless, the fact that you a single dominant party and there is a lack of a strong and credible opposition, sometimes means that it is difficult job to convince the population that you are not in a carte blanche situation. That really, you are not increasing your own salary just because you can, but because you have no choice. Just how are you going to convince the population when there really isn't any real check and balance against you? This is a difficult task, but such is the rules of the game when you are a single dominant party. I do think however, that the PAP have dug themselves this hole, so they probably will not receive much sympathy in this area.

[I thank Cognitive Dissonance, for much of these ideas were formed and shaped during a recent conversation we had over coffee. I also thank KTM for being the inspiration behind some of these thoughts. Lastly, if you have not done so, do drop by Perspective Unlimited to congratulate Bart and his wife on the birth of their first child =)]


kwayteowman said...

Fearfully Opinionated,

"I also thank KTM for being the inspiration behind some of these thoughts"

Wah sei, you are too kind. Er, how in the world did the KTM manage to inspire you? He practically said nothing until earlier this evening.

Anyhow, good post. Interesting points. The KTM can see that you're dispensing charity. :-)

Ned Stark said...

with regards to the end of point 5, if the government goes out to say that they have run out of talent, then people, not only Singaporeans but foreign countries will know for a fact that the govt is facing a crisis. This could weaken Singapore's international standing and have serious repurcussions on our diplomatic dealings with other countries. Of course its all based on the assumption that indeed the government is faced with a crisis.

Ned Stark said...

Ooops, i just read the last few sentences of point 5. Yes such a statement is more damaging than the current attempts to justify the raise. The damage that the latter causes is not easily ascertained if point 10 is true.

Serendipity said...

"Ben laments that he cannot find one, not even one, supporter of the pay hike. This is not exactly true, since in some ways (see point 5 above), I can be considered rather sympathetic towards the reasons for the pay hike."

Zzz. You see I said not true then you said you prove the case. Thts not good for a philosopher. And if I read your previous article correctly, the point you essentially made was

"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."

Is that a support of a pay hike? Cannot really tell.


Champagne said...

I have a couple of interesting questions about ministerial salaries. Food for thought and open to discussion. Double posted on Aaron's blog as well. Just want to see what you people think. Food for thought ya. ^_^

1) What you think are our opposition politicians feeling when this "proposed" pay rise is announced?

I have not heard an opposition MP mention anything about the pay rise since it was proposed.

2) Is upping the salary (and causing a major ruckus on the Internet) a lesser evil than losing potential "leaders" (sorry if I use this word so loosely here)?

Well ministers ought to be self motivated to be one but seriously, I don't see such a trend in ministers lately. Perhaps "carrying babies" (to quote young PAP) is part of their "job". Being ministers is perhaps really just a "job". How bad is that? Haha, running Singapore like Singapore Inc seems to work well. Not much humanistic feelings, but it works somehow, doesn't it?

3) Ever thought why is it that politicians are paid less in other countries outside Singapore Inc.?

Was thinking along the lines of "they only serve a few years tenure (think US President), after which they will be out in the "private sector" earning much more (as 'celebrities' so to speak??!)

Or maybe those paid peanuts (no pun intended) ends up having other means to earn more, and thus the corruption that is rampant (think Taiwan and Indonesia).

So maybe indeed a pay rise "attracts 'talents'" and "prevents corruption?!

4) Be it a pay rise or not, there will still be black sheeps around. Durai who earns peanuts (pun intended) ends up siphoning funds anyway. So how? On the bigger picture do we still go ahead with the pay rise to "attract people into politics"? (I'm sure it makes sense that a "better" pay package surely will attract people to "work")

p.s. I agree with many forumers around that transparency here is AGAIN the reason for "ruckus".. KPIs, checks and balances, and etc etc.

p.s.2 Apologies for the long post and more apologies if my questions don't quite make sense. Kinda like crossed my mind ^_^

Repressive force said...

Point 5 is hardly true. On what grounds do they judge talents? Grades? Scholarships? Only those who joined from the most junior level can progress up to the perm sec level. Most leave because its a rotten place. I think they need to look at their screwed system rather than thinking of throwing money at it.

Sze Meng said...

Good article summarizing the debate in a balanced manner. I enjoyed reading it.

I wish the government can provide more data to support this sentence: "Higher salaries is found to be a major reason why civil servants (and politicians) leave the service and enter the private sector." assuming that it was true.

Pandemonium said...

Fearfully Opinionated:

Brilliant summary! It's refreshing to hear some arguments other than the rhetoric of the anti-pay hike camp.

Repressive Force:

The selection process for a minister is extremely rigorous. I've blogged about it just earlier, so you can read it if you want to find out. Briefly, the potential candidate has to go through many interviews, grassroot work, and even psychological tests.