more kneejerk reactions in singapore

by stillinnewyork

What a sight to behold. After the sea-change that is the recent general elections, we first had the very dramatic resignations of MM Lee Kuan Yew and SM Goh Chok Tong, seemingly without consultation with the cabinet or even PM Lee. Then when unveiling the new cabinet, PM Lee announced the retirements of DPM Wong Kan Seng, Minister for National Development Mah Bow Tan and Minister for Transport Raymond Lim – those deemed responsible for the election hot topics of housing, public transportation and Mas Selamat. Now a committee is being set up to review ministerial salaries, yet another sore point for many Singaporeans.

1) It is important to review ministerial and civil servant pay

But not for the reasons that voters gripe about. If spending $45million on cabinet salary helps reduce risk of corruption and attracts the best talent, it is but a tiny price to pay for the country’s future. Any good businessman would make the same decision (assuming the former brings the latter). However, there are problems with our current pay scheme.

The first is that extremely high ministerial and civil servant pay shifts incentives in a negative direction. A highly paid permanent secretary drawing more than a million Singapore dollars a year is strongly incentivised to minimise mistakes. Their primary concern becomes career risk. Why would anyone challenge their superiors when they risk losing their sinecure. As a result you breed a group of yes-men. True visionaries that the country needs needn’t apply (they certainly lose any incentives to ‘do the right thing’).

The second reason is more nuanced and less discussed – high pay breeds internal discontent and unhappiness within the civil service. The Singapore civil service is split into an elite core (administrative service) who are the designated leaders and the rest (professional service). Officers in the former are on the fast track, with a significantly higher pay and performance bonus than their peers who are not. A junior officer can thus make more money than his superior by virtue of being in the administrative service. Conversely, if you are denied admission into the admin service (one gets a few tries) your career in the civil service is capped. This unhappiness/rift within the service itself isn’t mentioned in the press, but is and will continue to be a structural fault that hampers the service.

Finally, high pay creates easy targets. When you are paying a minister more than $100k a month (which many Singaporeans cannot dream of making in a year), you create unrealistic expectations of perfection. This is not conducive to constructive dialogue. Consider the situation of Tin Pei Ling. Nevermind her competencies (or lack thereof) – this is a hard problem for voters to ‘solve’, so they don’t (has anyone bothered to review her 6years of work in grassroots?). On the other hand, it is plain for all to see that she is 27, will earn $15k a month tax free as a member of parliament (what she has implied may be a part time gig), while most Singaporeans themselves are not. How can they not be infuriated? Status at work again.

2) However it won’t win votes
As the saying goes, a stitch in time saves nine. This is not to diminish the importance of a pay review, but populist effects are questionable at best.

This is typical Singaporean logical response by the government. Concerns that old guard is still running the show in PAP? Fine, they announce their resignation. Unhappy with housing and transportation? Okay ministers are retiring. Minister salaries obscene? Sure let’s put together a committee to review them. But what are the underlying causes of the dissatisfaction? Is it PAP arrogance? Do citizens feel like that are being treated as idiots and cogs? Perhaps it is the power that social media and technology has transferred to the masses via information and connectivity? Something else? Most probably all of the above. Until the PAP starts understanding the subtext of citizens’ dissatisfaction, they are pushing at strings addressing election talking points.

The good thing is they have 5 years to find out and respond. We’ll see how they perform.


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