Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Salaries - I'm Simply Not Making Enough!

Salaries have managed to sneak their way back on the political agenda again. The rising star of the opposition - Dr Vincent Wijeysingha decided to make a public proclamation that Ministers salaries should be pegged to that of ordinary workers rather than to the super scale earners. Dr Wijeysingha who works for an NGO has hit on a sore spot for many people - namely the fact that we the tax payers seem to have stagnant wages that fall behind inflation while the powers that be seem to have awarded themselves mega huge salaries that seem to get larger as the days go by. The justification of this system is this - when you need ten cents a year more, it's called stroking inflation but when the other chap needs a million an hour more, it's called talent retention. Somehow you never win and its frustrating the system seems to say that you have to accept that its your lot in life to slog to feed the other bugger.

While I do applaud Dr Wijeysingha for bringing the issue of Ministerial salaries out into the area of debate, I feel that the man is a little misguided in his solutions.

Let's start with the obvious - the issue that most of us have with Ministerial salaries is not so much the amount earned but the work done in return for that very high salary. Most of us accept that well paid government servants are better than badly paid ones who have the power to shake you down whenever they feel like it. We can also accept that government is like any other business - if you can accept your banker being well paid - why can't your President or Prime Minister be well paid. It's acceptable that certain professions pay more than others.

The real issue about Ministerial salaries is more complex but you can sum it up as this - Ministers get business like pay without business like risk - in other words - its unfair.

Let's start with the first problem - the issue of pay and competence. It's often argued that you need to pay high salaries to get the best people into profession. Politics is like any other job - bright people should have comparable financial incentives to careers like banking, law or industry.

However, we have to ask ourselves if Singapore has really got itself the best and brightest despite paying top-dollar. Unfortunately, the answer seems to be no. We got ourselves Mr Wong Kan Seng - a Home Affairs Minister who allowed a limping man to waltz out of a secure facility, then spent an entire year telling the world that our intelligence had it that the said limping man was in the country - only to have it announced a few days later that he had been caught elsewhere. A year later, we got ourselves Dr Yacob Ibrahim, the Minister in charge of water resources who allowed a plugged drain to provide us with floods that one usually finds in places like Bangladesh.

You could say that this wouldn't be so bad if the ministers showed a little bit of contrition. People can accept that Ministers like other people do make mistakes. However, instead of being contrite - we got arrogance. When the limping man walked out of a highly secure facility - the Minister in charge was "sorry that THIS HAPPENED" and the entire cabinet decided to talk about "Our track record" and then we had a Minister Mentor started lambasting us for being complacent because we expected the government to do its job. The Prime Minister went missing for the better part of the incident and only appeared to defend the Minister who screwed up.

What other job in the world allows you to stay in a job when you perform blatantly incompetently and more importantly you get the chance to scold the people who pay you for doing a job?

It is the accountability that we don't like. If you are good at the job, nobody will make your salary an issue. If you foul up, make a come back and rectify your mistake and somehow people will forgive you and be happy to let you have your salary. However, our Ministers only discover their humility during election time and seem to think that their salaries are theirs by divine right.

It's the assumption of entitlement and lack of accountability rather than the actual salary that people have an issue with. The public has to face competition from foreigners. Like it or not, this is the age of globalisation and competition for a few thousand dollars a month comes from people willing to work of hundreds of dollars.

While this is a fact of life, its hard to accept the message from someone who's basic salary a month is more than what you make in a year and more importantly, has somehow protected himself from things like foreign competition. It becomes even harder to accept when that person is praised and protected at your expense for displaying a level of incompetence that you'd be not only fired for but sued into bankruptcy.

Then, I can't help being cynical. Dr Wijeysingha is in opposition. Attacking Ministerial salaries is good for the political fight. However, we have to ask ourselves if Dr Wijeysingha and other members of the opposition would be so opposed to high ministerial salaries if they were on the receiving end. Let's look at South Africa as an example. The ANC was a socialist party to begin with. It looked at nationalising the mines. However, once it entered office, it proceeded to raise official salaries. FW De Klerk made more as Deputy President to Mandela than he made as State President. Who is to say that the same thing can't happen in Singapore? Will the opposition reject receiving the the salaries that today's Ministers earn if they were ever to get into power?

Dr Wijeysingha would be better off focusing on increasing accountability. Since the Singapore tax payer is paying "top-dollar," who can he or she ensure that the money is being used to get the best available talent? This should be the focus of the debate rather than the actual salary itself.

1 comment:

kotengu said...

I would like to add a point. The problem with ministerial salaries is, as you correctly said, not one of amount alone. But I do not think it is only the lack of accountability that we do not like.

A fundamental problem is the peg of ministerial salaries to the country's GDP, as opposed to median income or some other measure of country's well-being. The reason is that by pegging to GDP, ministers now have a clear profit motive to introduce policies that increase GDP, without regard to social consequences or how such policies benefit Singaporeans in the short-to-medium term. As things stand, ministers have a self-serving, profit-driven motive to increase GDP without regard to anything else except the potential loss of votes. And there is a sense that this has happened for the past five years, and will continue to happen if the peg is not changed.

As for whether Dr Wijeysingha and other opposition members would reject their salaries, of course not. But they have pledged to donate 50% of it to their needy constituents (I may be wrong about the specific target of their charity here, but they did say donate half to somewhere, of that I am sure) and they have also pledged to raise the issue of reducing ministerial salaries across the board.

Incidentally, I don't think the example of what happened in South Africa is convincing, because it is just one instance of somebody breaking a promise. We are talking about different individuals here. Of course, it is possible for the Opposition candidates to do the bait-and-switch. But unless you have some reason to believe that Wijeysingha et al are untrustworthy individuals, I think they deserve the benefit of the doubt in this case.