Worthless words

A recent media kerfuffle has shed light on politics and society in Singapore. After decades of softball journalism and scripted Q&As, some of our politicians do not have the ability to articulate their views coherently, or answer tough questions.

As a result, when we hear the views of our leaders, as transmitted through the mainstream media, I wonder how much is true; how much is really their own view; and how much is scripted–them simply saying what they think we want to hear.

The story involves Lim Wee Kiak, a PAP MP for Nee Soon GRC. In late May, when discussing ministerial salaries, he told a Lianhe Zaobao reporter:

“If the annual salary of the Minister of Information, Communication and Arts is only $500,000, it may pose some problems when he discusses policies with CEOs of telco companies who earn millions of dollars because they need not listen to the minister’s ideas and proposals. Hence a reasonable payout will help to maintain a bit of dignity.”

Unsurprisingly, there was an immediate online backlash–why should dignity flow from a person’s income?

What followed was a series of ridiculous flip-flops that still leaves me baffled.

First, Dr Lim responded that he had been quoted out of context. OK–so he does believe that income=dignity, just that the example shouldn’t be quoted on its own.

A couple of days later, he released a statement, where he said, “I withdraw those remarks and apologise for making them. Dignity cannot be and must not be measured purely in monetary terms.”

Huh? I find it impossible that somebody can flip views on such a fundamental belief in two days.

On the one hand, I’ve always respected the fact that politicians in Singapore can change their opinions on larger policy issues–LKY on bilingualism, for instance–when new facts and evidence surface.

On the other hand, belief in income, dignity and a person’s worth are not policy ideas–they get to the very core of a person’s makeup. I doubt that some criticism can suddenly change that overnight. I am completely convinced that Dr Lim believes that dignity flows from income. Many people do, not just in Singapore, but all over the world.

That doesn’t make it right, and it worries me that our politicians think this way. Although I suppose it shouldn’t really surprise me: money-worship seems to have gotten a stranglehold on our society, especially over the past 10 years or so. At its extreme, it produces cases like that involving Susan Lim.

(to clarify: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with materialism and making money. this instinct drives many economies, after all. It’s only problematic when the pursuit, and the making, of money is immoral, unethical or excessive.)

In my mind, what probably happened is that other senior politicians told him to fall into line, and apologise. How many of those other politicians actually think exactly like Dr Lim–but simply sugar-coat their press statements to make it seem like they’re egalitarian, magnanimous folk?

What has surprised me is that speaking to some friends, and reading some of the commentary online, it seems as though some Singaporeans accept this flip-flop, and are willing to forget what he said.

In other words, we may be tempted to view his initial statement to Lianhe Zaobao as a genuine gaffe–unrepresentative of the man.

I think we shouldn’t. It is a precious insight into the thinking of a politician–unvarnished, unscripted, spontaneous, from the heart, away from the watchful eye of the PAP spin doctors.

We should cherish these moments.

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.

a migration of poor standards

I’m getting a little bit tired of Indians saying how much they like my country, Singapore.

The gushing never stops. Towering buildings; glitzy shopping malls; roads without potholes; clean, drinking water; spotless streets; safe neighbourhoods; efficient administration; incorruptible government; gateway to the world; ….they could go on forever.

(Every now and then, one of them questions the lack of genuine democracy here, while yearning for the chaos of Indian coffeeshop chatter and multiparty elections. But only for a moment.)

So, Indians love Singapore. Accountants, bankers, engineers, IT guys—no matter. They all love Singapore so much.

But what’s wrong with that? Well, I was particularly irked by a comment from a very senior Indian banker (so much so that I decided to write all this).

He said, “I don’t understand why you Singaporeans keep complaining about your Ministers’ salaries. After all, they deserve it—they do such a fantastic job! Look how well your country is run! You have no idea what corrupt government is. You have no experience of a fat, inefficient, bureaucratic administration, like we do in India. If you knew what that was like, you’d have no problems paying these guys their multi-million dollar salaries. What’s an extra million or two, after all?”

Indians love Singapore so much because they keep comparing our country to theirs. Many of them feel that we Singaporeans are ungrateful and spoilt—we’ve had it so good for so long, we know not what real hardship is.

There may be some truth to that, but I’m actually fed up with this general line of reasoning, because

1) Why are we comparing ourselves to India?

There are several different groups of people who enjoy comparing Singapore to countries clearly worse off than us. Our politicians; our neutered media channels; well-off Singaporeans who have succeeded here; and foreigners (like the Indians).

Perhaps sometimes there is reason to compare and reflect on our successes, but there’s a bit too much of that going on. In order to progress, we should be engaging in upward comparison, not downward comparison.

In other words, we should not be asking
“How did Singapore succeed economically where so many other poor countries have failed?”

But instead, we should be asking
“How come there are other countries that are more developed politically, socially and economically than Singapore? What did they do right? How do we get there?”

2) Do expatriates really know what’s going on?

My Indian banker friend may not think an extra million or two is much. But not everybody is in his shoes. There are plenty of Singaporeans who are finding it tough to keep up. The bottom 30% of households has actually seen their real income drop over the past 7 years, even as Singapore continues to grow millionaires at a faster rate than anywhere else in the world. Income inequality is rising fast.

In this climate, raising the salaries of Ministers to stratospheric levels does, for many, appear like ‘legitimised corruption’ (a term bandied around on an online discussion group, Singapore Review).

I think a premium must be paid, because that is one way to lure the best. However, the current salaries seem a bit much (average salary of government minister–US$1.25m)

Sometimes it is good to get an external perspective on things. Other times, it is misleading. When a jet-setting Indian banker makes big proclamations about Singapore, its politics and its economy, after having lived only in a bubble of expense-account French wine and company-paid luxury apartments, it smacks of bias.
(For sure, I too don’t fully understand the challenges that many of my less well-off countrymen face.)

The irony? The well-heeled, sharp-tongued banker, having lived here for 6 months, will probably get much more air time from our government and its press than the fourth-generation Singaporean single mother in a 1-room HDB flat, her everyday a struggle.

Of course, it’s not just Indians from India who say these things. People from all over the world come here and say similar things. They’re just comparing life here as they see it with life as it was from where they came…only natural.

But that shouldn’t stop us from understanding the realities of life in Singapore, and trying our best to match up (and beat) the world’s best.