THE LATE Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew equated ministers’ pay to the importance of an individual to Singapore.
When ministerial pay hikes were discussed in parliament in 1985, Lee referred to the assessable incomes of persons in 1983 which showed that there were 331 people in Singapore who were paid more than he was.
He noted: “Now I accept that stockbrokers, bankers, doctors, dentists earn more than my colleagues. But I cannot accept that there are 676 people who are more important to Singapore than at least three: the Minister for Finance who must be a heavyweight, or we are in trouble; the Minister of Defence who must be another heavyweight or we are in deeper trouble, and the Minister of National Development, who has the biggest budget of any ministry in an expanding and building phase of Singapore.”
This is the sort of unsubstantiated thinking that has pervaded Singapore ever since and become the prevailing logic. Claims continue to be made about Singapore getting deep into trouble, and no one calls the government to task on it. Even with a more vocal independent media, political leaders can still get away with making the most outrageous statements as if they are statements of fact.
Who Calls The Shots?
The hard truth for Singaporeans is that political leaders see themselves as key to the progress of the country, so their judgement should not be questioned. How true is that point of view?
Beneath the hood of a high-profile minister, you will have teams of capable civil servants initiating, testing and pushing through policies. The minister makes the final decision but by the time it reaches that stage, the decision has typically already been made.
Another flaw of the ministerial pay hike issue back in the day was that ministers were calling for their own pay to be raised. It is like a worker paying himself more from the coffers of his company without any oversight from his managers.
The people of Singapore should have had a say if the ministers deserved to have their salaries hiked. There was no referendum.
There is no objective and independent discussion on policies. Even if there is, it always amounts to zero because of single-party rule. New policies are rubber-stamped on a one-sided and skewed view that they are in the best interests of Singapore.
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Product Of The System
The idea that ministers deserved higher pay and that Singaporeans need not be consulted over this has continued to this day. We should not be surprised when former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong says that anybody earning less than $500,000 a year is mediocre. He is a prime product of a system and his beliefs are driven by being embedded fully in a system that has worked well for Singapore for a long time.
However, the cracks are starting to show. Many of Singapore’s successful policies in the first few decades are getting ragged at the edges — family planning, education, the changing role of the CPF, the Population White Paper, transportation shortcomings — and are gradually beginning to reveal a lack of foresight by previous political leaders. The rush for growth created a monster economy that is hard to manage, regardless of how much one is paid.
For a tiny country to have an economy the size of Singapore’s is ill-conceived. More careful calibration was needed in the past rather than just parroting the West. There were no attempts to consult the public about the directions that Singapore took at major crossroads since independence.
Today, neighbouring countries are doing all the stuff that gave Singapore a leading edge in the past. Soon Singapore could be left behind.
In the meantime, the make-up of today’s cabinet is general-heavy, which is a euphemism for a lack of imagination. Generals take orders from their highest masters and stay loyal. Indeed, the high pay of ministers ensures that they stay loyal to the party — that seems to be the real reason for raising the pay of ministers over the years. They have a vested interest in ensuring that the current system is maintained. There is an absence of spontaneity, innovation and imagination.
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Singaporeans need to think long and hard about Goh Chok Tong’s comments about salary. It is a reminder of how those who run the country think about themselves and about the people that they are supposed to serve. In many other countries, he would be hounded out of office for making such a statement. It showed a disregard and lack of respect to how the less fortunate live in Singapore.
The debate over ministerial pay hikes should have raged on in the 1980s and been put to rest with no such nonsense entertained by Singaporeans. It is too late to go back now.
A compliant populace allowed it to happen, and nothing can be done about it under current circumstances. It has led to where we are today, when an experienced minister can say what he wants with impunity and not get called on it by his peers.
Thus It Was Unboxed by One-Five-Four Analytics presents alternative angles to current events. Reach us at [email protected]
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