Ministerial salaries: A bottom-up approach?

Many Singaporeans are happy that the government will review ministerial salaries, partly because they finally feel that their voices are being heard and their votes making a difference.

Sadly Mr Gerrard Ee and his review committee will still be using old methodologies, such as benchmarking salaries to the private sector. That is a shame—this is a wonderful opportunity for a fresh, novel look at the issue, and a chance to set a good precedent for the government’s approach to other thorny challenges in the coming years.

For instance, Mr Ee’s team could consider a bottom-up approach. Instead of trying to figure out what discount from the private sector ministers should stomach, how about thinking about how much money a minister actually needs to live very comfortably?

Let me take an unscientific stab at it. I believe that in order for Singapore’s president to live very comfortably in Singapore today, every month we should pay him/her:

$20,000 housing
$20,000 family (including children’s education)
$10,000 food and beverage
$5,000 household miscellaneous
$5,000 IT miscellaneous
$5,000 entertainment miscellaneous
$5,000 car

That comes up to S$70,000. Since there are many more things, unbeknownst to us, that a president might need, let’s add an extra 20%, bringing it to S$84,000. That equates to around $1m a year. At the moment, our president earns more than four times that.

By any measure, our president can enjoy a luxurious life in Singapore on that salary. Our president will also be able to provide the very best education and upbringing for his or her children.

What are the merits of this approach? First, it actually ensures that every minister will be well taken care of, regardless of the vagaries of the free market. In the wake of the global financial crisis, there has been much soul-searching in the private sector—mostly in the developed world, but also elsewhere—about levels of senior executive compensation. Imagine that within five years time, the private sector has decided to lower senior executive compensation across the board. Does that mean our politicians should take a pay cut? I hope not.

Our politicians should be shielded from these free-market fluctuations. On the other hand, if house prices climb rapidly, I hope that our politicians are not affected. I would rather they spend their time thinking about policies for Singapore rather than watching the housing market (unless, of course, they are formulating housing policies).

With a bottom-up approach, they do not have to worry. If housing costs climb 10% in a year, we will adjust their incomes appropriately—using a crude calculation on the above figures, the president would get an extra S$2,000 per month.

Second, this methodology has a symbolic benefit—the electorate is basically telling the people we elect to lead us, “Hey. Don’t worry. You’ll be taken care of. You will enjoy the same wonderful standard of living today, tomorrow, and in four years time.”

Third, it ensures that the gap between ministerial salaries and median salaries is not determined by external events—the going rate for, say, an accountant in developed Asia—but by local, internal cost-of-living measures. Unlike accountants and lawyers, a minister cannot suddenly pack his bags and say, “You don’t want me? I’ll go be a minister in Hong Kong.” Why should we benchmark their salaries to people who are mobile and whose salaries are generally determined by regional trends?

What are the downsides of this approach? Well, ministerial salaries will probably not keep pace with top private sector ones. But so what? Do we really want as our president somebody who’s only willing to serve the country for S$4m, rather than S$1m?

I dare say that by encouraging this sort of thinking, we have unwittingly inculcated a certain degree of selfish money-mindedness in society. We are all prone to this—at the extreme, it produces cases like that involving Susan Lim, a surgeon under investigation for overcharging.

In any case, this is but one of many approaches. There are people much wiser than I who have suggested alternatives. The salient point is that Mr Ee and team should be generating fresh, novel ideas about ministerial salaries. If that is not the brief they have been given by the prime minister, well then, they should ask him for it. I believe he’s in the mood to listen.

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TPL

Though it has taken some time for me to gather my thoughts on this complex, polarising figure, I think I’ve finally made up my mind. I believe it’s important that we come together to support Tin Pei Ling–in the same way we should support every parliamentarian representing our country. The only exception: if she’s found guilty of breaking cooling-off day rules, as discussed below.1

When I first heard that the PAP had recruited a 27-year old, I was delighted. Finally, I thought, we have our breath of fresh air, somebody who can represent the younger generation, and brighten up the party with new views.

That initial excitement quickly turned to amusement, as she was shown in all her Kate Spade glory. Had the PAP, in its mammoth effort to scour Singapore for political talent, just unearthed our first ever Hello Kitty Ambassador? From then on, it seemed as though she’d be less suited to the rigours of political life than to the dainty cutesiness of Japanese retail.

That tomfoolery was just simplistic pre-election humour, which we all happily indulged in (and why not?). But it was also a bit unfair in that it didn’t tell us who TPL really is. The vast majority of people I know on FB–myself certainly included–could have also been as easily embarrassed by online photos.

(aside: I am actually quite sad that TPL’s FB profile has been whitewashed. Gone are the cutesy photos. Will the real TPL please stand up? I fear that we will never get to know the real person now. I’d prefer if I knew more about our politicians–their knowledge and wisdom, for sure, but also their softer sides. Might make them seem more mortal, less aloof.)

Then a stream of TPL video clips were aired. One had her stomping up and down like a spoiled child at a loss for words. But the clincher, for me, was her comment about the greatest regret in her life. Remember: that was a proper, government-sanctioned, mainstream media interview, and she had just said one of the silliest things I’ve ever heard in local politics.

In a heartbeat, she went from Miss Hello Kitty to Miss Teen USA disaster reel.

She never really recovered from that. In the days that followed, more comical clips and reports emerged, some of which were also downright worrying–like her thoughts on income inequality in a 2007 speech. My current favourite TPL clip is a 2008 National Youth Forum video.

She has quickly become the most complex character in Singaporean politics. I do not think there is any other person who elicits such a range of visceral feelings and emotions.

Her supporters, however, seem to believe she is a Gen Y messiah. Meanwhile, some long-time PAP supporters have been completely disillusioned–a friend of mine, a smart, hardworking finance chap, says that he has always voted PAP, but now, for the first time, feels intellectually insulted by the choice of TPL–“They really take us for fools”.

Similarly, I have friends who have been PAP grassroots volunteers for a long time. They also feel a bit aggrieved that she was chosen over many other talented young people. Some now contend that it’s nepotism–her husband, after all, is PM Lee’s private secretary. But I don’t think that’s possible, since there is no nepotism in Singaporean politics.

She has also become a lightning rod for criticism over the GRC system. She has also drawn in unlikely people to political commentary–a friend who’s a teacher related a story of a Primary 4 student in her class. “Teacher, I don’t believe she should be carrying branded handbags”.

I personally don’t have much against her. I just don’t think she’s very smart. She strikes me as fairly mediocre–not somebody of the highest calibre (what our politicians are supposed to be). As with almost everybody I speak with, it grates that a bit of every tax dollar I pay from now on will be going to her bumper S$15,000 salary. In a pre-election Op-ed piece I wrote for TOC, I expressed my dismay at her perceived shortcomings.

Almost as soon as she was elected, there have been calls and petitions to have her removed. However, now that I have read some different viewpoints, I feel that it is only fair and right that we support her.

There are several reasons for this. First is the need to develop a constructive political system, not a disruptive, unhealthy one. I hope that everybody in Singapore, including the PAP and its supporters, pay the utmost respect to the opposition politicians in parliament today. Similarly, I think that whatever your political inclinations, it’s important to support TPL now that she’s been elected.

Second is that in a democratic process, we must respect voters’ wishes. We can dispute the GRC system. And we can argue till the cows come home about whether Marine Parade voters really wanted TPL in parliament. But the fact of the matter is that a majority of them voted for a team with her in it. That is important. They have chosen this team, and everybody should respect their choice.

Third, do we really know who she is? I’m not sure Singaporeans have really gotten a chance to know her. There’s been so much noise and furore around everything she does. If anything, she’s handled the criticism with admirable aplomb. I’m keen to see if there is something smart inside there.

All this is not to say that we should not criticise her words anymore. Every one of us should follow and scrutinise the words and actions of all our politicians, including TPL. If she makes any more mistakes, we must point them out. If we disagree with her mooted policies, let her know. However, criticising her just because of who she is seems pointless.

In the lead up to the next election, we should all again examine her record closely, and see whether we want her back in parliament. I no longer believe that she will be a breath of fresh air to Singaporean politics. If anything, she seems to be eerily similar in ideology to her predecessors. But that’s not to say that she won’t make a good politician. For the moment, at least, I’m giving her the benefit of the doubt–hopefully that doesn’t become the greatest regret of my life.

1 If she is found guilty of breaking cooling-off day laws, then she must be punished appropriately. If she is found guilty of lying about who posted on her FB page–even worse. I hope the police conduct a full and thorough investigation into this. I’m sure there is a way to track FB activity though the IP addresses. Or something.

By George!

For me, the saddest thing about the elections is the loss of George Yeo.

(Just to be clear on this point, I am delighted that the opposition won a GRC, and I’m pleased that Low’s team got in. But I am still sad that George is no longer around. as do many others, I blame our flawed GRC system for this.)

George is eloquent and smart, somebody who can represent Singapore in any corridor in the world. George is friendly and down-to-earth, engaging on Facebook, and discussing issues at McDonald’s with us regular folk. most of all, George just seems like a genuinely nice guy. Sadly, I can’t say all those things about all of our ministers.

When I was in grad school, I attended a class taught by Michael Porter, a strategy ‘guru’. Every week, we would discuss a different country’s development. During each, we had the good fortune of either listening directly to a senior politician from that country–Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, for instance, actually came for the class on his country–or watching a video of a politician from that country.

When it was Singapore’s turn, the discussion was fairly predictable, with lots of talk about rapid economic development, and rises in standards of living. as an international student amongst many other international students, it was stuff to feel rather smug about. But the best part was when George came on the screen.

Amongst many other wonderful things, he said, “the difference between Singapore and many other developed countries is that other countries measure their success by how well the people at the top do. In Singapore, we measure success by how well the people at the bottom do.” (I am misquoting, I’m sure, but it’s something like that)

Of course, this statement probably applies more to early Singapore than Singapore of the past 15 years, during which time the people at the bottom haven’t really seen their standards of living rise much. Income inequality has spiked. That is probably one of the major reasons why more people have been voting for the opposition.

In other words, George lost his seat partly because the PAP has recently failed to raise living standards of those at the bottom.

The great irony in this story is that George is probably one of the ministers most concerned about this issue. Nobody will ever know this for sure, but it’s just something I have a hunch about. Other PAP politicians do not seem as bothered about income inequality as George.

Adieu, George. You will be missed.