Ministerial Salaries have been a controversial and emotive topic since 1994, when the White Paper on Competitive Salaries for Competent and Honest Government established private sector salary benchmarks to peg the salaries of Ministers and Administrative Officers. I have heard the various important issues arguing for or against the formula proposed by the Ministerial Salary Review Committee. Ihave also heard the need to pay competitive salaries to attract talents. Yes, Singapore is a small country and we have a limited pool of talents. Competitive and fair salaries must be paid so that we can attract the right people in their prime to serve the nation.
Ethos of Public / Political Service
I remember one of the more memorable speeches made during the last parliamentary debate in 2007, was that by MP Ms Denise Phua. She spoke passionately of the differences between the public and private sectors. In the public sector, especially for political leaders, the main difference herein, lies in the amount of power, influence which one could wield. She warned that concentrating too much of both; power and pay, would attract the wrong type of people to public service.
This is a view which I wholeheartedly agree with. Public service is a calling. High ministerial salaries or monetary rewards should not be the reason why people are motivated to serve the nation. As Catherine Lim wrote in a Straits Times Article in 2007:
“No Singaporean with any practical sense of the real world would want to see a minister denied a salary commensurate with his status and dignity, or living less well than any prosperous Singaporean. But, at the same time, no Singaporean would expect a minister to feel disgruntled if he is paid less than the top CEO. If the disgruntlement actually causes him to leave his job, then he was not cut out for public office in the first place. Thus, to offer him a matching salary to enable him to stay would be to demean that office. ”
It is as simple as that: The motivation for public service should not be pay.
But should we not then pay our Ministers sufficiently well – a salary that commensurate his important role and heavy responsibility as a Minister? Similarly, is it right to demand an immense financial sacrifice from people to serve the nation? By this argument, is it then right to say that we should demand the same type of ‘financial sacrifice’ from Teachers, Police Officers, Military Personnel, Nurses, Judges or our civil service because they should be serving out of a sense of dedication and devotion to the public good?
I would like to share the life of one great political leader:
His father was a high official in a small state in British India. He studied law at the University College of London and became a lawyer. When he finally returned to the country of his birth, advocated non-violence and became the greatest leader India or even the world ever knew. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s peaceful nonviolent resistance movement galvanized Indians and led to the independence of India.
Gandhi earnestly believed that a person involved in public service should lead a simple life. He first displayed this principle when he gave up wearing western-style clothing, which he associated with wealth and success. When he returned to India, he renounced the western lifestyle he led in South Africa, where he had enjoyed a successful legal practice. The practice of giving up unnecessary expenditure, embracing a simple lifestyle and washing his own clothes, Gandhi called “reducing himself to zero”.
When I read the story of this great leader, I thought to myself that this should be the epitome of the ideal leader. But let us remember that political leaders in the past, in different parts of the world, served in different contexts from local political leaders today. The scenarios and challenges they faced were totally different from those we see today. But as I read stories of great leaders both in Singapore and elsewhere, I wondered, what were the common reasons that motivated them to serve the public good? What gave them the motivation, in certain admirable situations, to give up everything to serve the nation?
The esteemed James L Perry, distinguished professor from Indiana University, and author of the book “Motivation in Public Management: The Call of Public Service” calls the reasons to which people are attracted to public service: “public service motivation”. In examining the US system of governance, Perry argues that there are 6 key dimensions which people could be called or attracted to serve. These are:
1) attraction to public policy making,
2) commitment to the public interest,
3) a sense of civic duty,
4) social justice,
5) compassion or a patriotism of benevolence, and
6) self-sacrifice – the willingness to substitute service to others for tangible personal rewards.
These should be the reasons that we should use to attract our future leaders. I believe that up to today, we have been able to attract talent who have joined the public service not because of pay. Examples include our current Minister for Foreign Affairs and Law, K Shammugan, Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen, ESM Goh Chok Tong or then Minister for Finance, Richard Hu and the late Dr Balaji Sadasivan who gave up their plump jobs in the private sector not for the monetary rewards in serving the nation? Many politicians are in this parliament, not because of the financial and monetary rewards that are offered, but rather, inside all of us, regardless of party affiliation, we have this deep rooted duty to serve. It is indeed a great privilege to serve the public and to serve the nation. Neither money, power nor fame has motivated us to be here.
Rationale of Clean and Fair Remuneration
It is important that we pay our leaders fairly. In deciding what a fair remuneration is, we should also be aware of the sacrifices that one makes to become a Minister or a political office bearer. Let us hypothetically explore several options.
On one hand, we can peg pay to private sector salaries, which is what we are doing currently. On the other, we could offer all Ministers and leaders of our nation a nominal wage; say $1 a month. Well I think there are problems to that; for one we run the risk of possible corruption (not questioning the integrity of leaders though) but worse, I think we will only attract people who are ‘sufficiently comfortable’ or who have attained a certain measure of success in their lives, to come forth and serve the nation. I am not saying that all who are rich and wealthy and who come forth, do not come with a deep seated intent to serve the nation. Rather I am highlighting a scenario where only the money rich and wealthy elite, capable of setting aside their concerns with daily lives, would come forth and serve and govern Singapore.
Even the suggestion to peg Ministerial Salaries to a certain percentage of the lowest income earner is flawed, for there is the counter argument that Ministers should be concerned for the well being of all Singaporeans, rather than just the lower income Singaporeans. They should be concerned for the well being of all in the nation and should not focus just on growing the lives and wealth of the poor.
The Review Committee also looked at comparisons with other politicians from other countries. However, we do not know how the other countries derive their formulae, and these countries do not face the same sort of socio-historical-political contexts and environment as we do. Moreover, the pay packets of politicians of other countries are not transparent, and often have other hidden components. What we want is a clean wage, with no hidden perks and entitlements, and the current recommendations offer just that.
In deriving a new formula for Ministerial Salaries, it is important not to be too fixated with just the Private Sector Benchmarks. While the Private Sector would serve as a significant competitor for talent in the civil service, coming into politics and serving the nation as a leader, as a Minister, is a unique set of circumstances that cannot be solely compared to the private sector. Thus, the pay of a Minister can never be successfully pegged to and equated to that of the private sector alone, because the scope and responsibility are very different. The pay of a Minister must reflect the work he does. The job of a Minister, or any public servant for that matter, must be to serve the people.
The Review Committee rightly introduced the National Bonus which draws a direct link between the salaries of political leaders and the socio-economic progress of Singaporeans. Besides GDP growth, real or inflation-adjusted median income growth, the real income growth of the poorest 20 per cent in Singapore, and the unemployment rate, will be considered in computing the remuneration.
There is really no magic formula in determining the salaries of Ministers. This current formula is a right step forward and we need to regularly review its relevance moving forward. Having strong and committed leaders is critical in the survival and progress of Singapore. Our leaders’ task must be to create a nation where all Singaporeans can enjoy the fruits of their labor and hardwork. While pay should not be the key motivator for political service, it should also not be a deterrent. Let us pay our leaders a fair wage which reflects the work that they do in ensuring that all Singaporeans benefit from the growth of the country and in ensuring that the lives of Singaporeans are all being looked after.
We have often talked about comparing apples to apples in deciding Ministerial salaries. I would like to end off with an analogy: one that reflects the type of political leaders we hope to see in Singapore.
The Gardener and the Tree
The job of a Minister is like the guardian of an apple tree; in other words he is the gardener. In tending to the apple tree, do we pay him low wages, that he is forced to take the apples from the tree and sell them? Or should we pay the gardener fair wages, be satisfied, such that he is not tempted to take from the tree but instead would freely share the fruits of his labour with others? Our Ministers are like gardeners. They take good care of the apple tree; they put in their time and effort. They sacrifice their lives, their times and other opportunities, to devote attention to this tree that is Singapore, sowing the fruits of their labour such that Singaporeans can share in the growth and fruits of the tree. Let us pay them the right wage that commensurate with the heavy responsibility they have been entrusted with. For as the Ministers sow the seed, today we will reap the harvest for ourselves, for our children and for our future.