My parliamentary speech on Ministerial Pay Review (17 Jan 2012)

Mr Speaker Sir, my party colleagues have touched on many aspects of the proposal. I wish to highlight the part that I have the biggest concern with. It is the way a minister’s pay is pegged to the top 1,000 Singaporean earners.

The salary review committee was given the terms of reference by the Prime Minister to (quote) “take into account salaries of comparable jobs in the private sector and also other reference points such as the general wage levels in Singapore” (unquote).

The assumption this government began with is that political talent is synonomous with career success; that office holders must have comparable pay with top private sector earners. So the committee arrived at the median income of the top 1,000 earners, less a 40% discount to (quote) “signify the ethos and sacrifice that comes with political service” (unquote). It implies that our political office holders must come from this pool, or that their ability and job scope is equivalent to the top 0.06% of the working Singaporean population.

This sentiment has indeed been expressed by the Deputy Prime Minister and by various members over the past two days.

We have constantly used this mindset since 1994, when ministers’ pay was first revamped to tie it to the that of the top earners in the private sector. While the committee’s new formula is better than that of the previous one which had been narrowly tied with only the top eight earners in six professions, it is nevertheless still an elist thinking that only those who are top in their professional careers can make it to hold political office.

Running a company well is different from being able to run a country. Perhaps the government has treated running this country too much like running a business that we have often been referred to as Singapore Inc. So we also tie political work to that of running a very big company. I believe this is a flawed model.

In constantly drumming this message since 1994, we have created an expectation amongst potential political office holders that political office is a career progression for them, and that reaching a minister’s position is like reaching the pinnacle of one’s career.

It also creates an expectation amongst identified potential office holders that they need a safe route to parachute into parliament or they would not risk their career. This has made Singapore politics uniquely Singapore. It is a model of politics that despite years of attempts to justify and fine-tune, many have yet to accept. I for one, do not accept this model of politics.

I feel we have over commercialised the nature of running this country. We need to constantly remind ourselves that we have been elected by the people into this House. It is totally different from being headhunted to become a hired top management of a company. We should never forget it is a noble calling to serve the public.

I like to ask, what aspires a person to take the difficult route of politics?

Four years ago I read with interest about how President Obama as a young student in an Indonesian school, stated that his ambition was to be the President of the United States of America. It was a noble aspiration for a child; an almost impossible ambition given his family background and then living half the globe away from America. Why would he have such an aspiration?

As a child growing up in post independent Singapore, I have been influenced by several of our first generation leaders whom I had clearly seen have made lots of personal sacrifices and have made great improvements to the country by what they did.

I wonder what would aspire our next generation to become future ministers and the future Prime Minister. I certainly hope it will not be for career progression.

I share the Prime Minister’s concern that Singapore needs good and high ability people to protect what we have. We have often heard that Singapore does not have enough talent for two teams. I do not agree with this thinking. I have more confidence in our people.

During the debate on the Presidential Address, I had called for political education in schools. It is to strengthen the knowledge of our youths in the functioning of parliament and of the government. I believe it is important that we instill this sense of public service and politcal awareness in our youths to give them a better understanding of issues important to our country. We should aim to create aspiring future politicians who will strongly believe in the importance of leading the nation, and that they wish to play a part in it.

Perhaps it is also how we constantly look for political talent from amongst a narrow pool of top career performers that has perpetuated lack of interest in political careers amongst the general population. I believe we have been talent ponding for too long, searching from a small pond for people that fit as career elites. We should instead talent flood with people from all walks of life.

The salary review committee describes the 40% discount as a sacrifice for political service. Personally, I do not like the word “sacrifice”, a term that has been used by various members throughout the past 2 days. Being a politician should be an aspiration and an honour. It is the nature of politics all over the world that there will be public scrutiny; there will be challenges balancing family and work; and there will be set-backs such as electoral loss. The reluctant will deem these as sacrifice. Those who aspire to lead will welcome these as challenges to be overcome.

Singaporeans do not expect politicians to lead a spartan life with a religious calling. I believe Singapore politics has been more than fair to our political office holders in the past two decades. Even with the levels proposed by the Workers’ Party, they can lead very dignified lives.

We sometimes hear examples of former US and UK political leaders earning a lot after retirement. I think life has also been fair to our political office holders after retirement. We can see that retiring ministers are sought after by our government linked companies and some by multinationals. I believe the experience they have gained while in office have increased their market value.

Several members have said that the Workers’ Party’s proposal supports the level of salaries proposed by the committee, just because we happen to arrive at roughly the same basic monthly salary level for an entry level minister. The differences are several, and important:

(1) We start with the allowance for a member of parliament, because the minister is firstly a member of parliament. It is a reminder that we are elected by the people, not selected by a powerful committee to become ministers.

(2) The base salary for entry-grade senior civil servants at MX9 grade in less subjected to fluctuation compared with incomes at the 500th and 501st top income earners, which is the median of the top 100 earners. Over time, by comparing with the top, we could again see the salaries of ministers rising faster than are acceptable to Singaporeans.

(3) We oppose the huge bonus payout. Again, I like to stress that while we like Singapore to be well run, Singapore is not just another very large company. As an entrepreneur, Mr Inderjit Singh is acceptable with huge bonuses of 13.5 months. That may be the practice of some very generous private companies. Politically, it is unheard of and unacceptable to the electorate. The bonus for any political party, comes at the ballot boxes.

I like to thank the Prime Minister for agreeing that the Workers’ Party pay formula works out to less than that of the review committee’s. I recommend that Mr Vikram Nair and Madam Halimah check with the Prime Minister how he arrived at the calculations.

In our computation, the benchmark point annual salary for an entry level minister with 13th month and 2.5 months bonus is $852,500, compared with $1.1 million as recommended by the committee. This is a 46% cut from 2010 annual pay. Furthermore, a portion of the bonus is deferred into a bonus bank. Under our proposal, the Prime Minister with 13th month and 2.5 months bonus will receive $1,534,500, compared with the recommended $2.2 million. This is a 50% cut from 2010 annual pay.

Before I conclude, I like to address a point that Mr Vikram Nair raised. Over the past 2 days, he had harped on what we have contributed to Gerald Ee’s committee. With the permission of my colleague Gerald Giam, I like to share that Gerald Giam had spent more than 2 hours with the review committee. During the meeting, he had shared the deferred bonus, measuring by KPIs and our benchmarking method, which are now contained in our proposal. We have no need to share everything with the committee. I wonder how many hours Mr Vikram spent with the committee.

Mr Vikram has said that by opposing the motion, we are supporting the 2010 pay levels. The parliament is the platform to debate the salary review and to come up with alternatives, which is what we are doing. I wonder if Mr Vikram Nair expects us to simply rubber stamp the review committee’s proposal.

In conclusion, the annual levels we have proposed are not the same as that of the reveiw committee’s. More fundamentally, we object to the principles used to set the benchmark for ministerial salaries. Therefore, I oppose the motion.


2 comments on “My parliamentary speech on Ministerial Pay Review (17 Jan 2012)

  1. A political post in a democratic country is not supposed to be a career (like those in the private sector), it is not meant to be permanent. Here in Singapore, a political post is like a life long job and people who end up there feel that we owe them a living for the whole of their remaining lives.

    Suggest We Should Limit The Terms Of Top Government Leaders To 2 Terms, If They Feel They Sacrifice A Lot, Because We Shouldn’t Allow Others To ‘Sacrifice’ For Us For Their Whole Lives, Don’t You Think So?

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