TODAY: Recapture the ideals, vision of 1965, urge MPs


HE HAS spoken fiercely in favour of the market peg for civil service salaries. But when Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew was quoted and referred to by Members of Parliament yesterday, they invoked the ideals he stood for rather than his hard-headed pragmatic approach.

As the final six MPs – out of 30 in all – spoke on the civil service salary revisions, the issue of how the ideals of a public service ethos square with a monetary emphasis came most sharply into focus.

Nominated MP Thio Li-ann argued passionately that Singapore, especially its post-1965 generation, needs a “unifying vision that transcends the joint pursuit of material wealth”. “Civic virtues like loyalty, sacrifice and perseverance sustain hope that a nation will endure and become great,” she said.

She cited how Mr Lee, on Aug 9, 1965, spelt out a vision of a country founded on the principles of “liberty, justice and ever seeking the welfare and happiness of a people in a more just and equal society”. So, in the “overwhelming, market-oriented” approach to public office salaries, she asked, are “intangible values for nation building” being discounted?

Non-Constituency MP Sylvia Lim also quoted Mr Lee on how “political leadership should have passion, commitment and share the same dreams as the people”, a comment to explain why foreign talent could not run Singapore.

While she agreed with him here, she questioned if the current salary benchmark for ministers is the way to achieve this. “If we’re seriously unable to interest good people in public office, we must ask why other countries can do it and we cannot. Is it just the money or the fact that we have not invested in creating a culture of high-public-spiritedness?” she asked.

It was not just non-ruling party MPs who spoke on the importance of ideals. Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Hong Kah Group Representation Constituency), asked: “How many lives and livelihoods are at stake if our policymakers become too comfortable and disconnected from the realities of ordinary Singaporeans?

“This post-65 idealist would like to see leaders coming forward with a heart to serve, honestly and compassionately, who will put aside personal interests for the interests of Singapore.”

Straits Times: Sylvia Lim: Ministers will be out of touch with citizens


NON-CONSTITUENCY MP Sylvia Lim yesterday pointed out that ministers’ pay was likely to rise further in future, a rise she felt would put them out of touch with average citizens.

It would, she added, work against the national interest as leaders may face problems getting people to make sacrifices for the country.

A few years from now, she ventured, the benchmark “may require us to endorse each Cabinet minister’s pay for $3 million or $4 million annually.”

“As these pay packets are funded from taxes, including poor people paying goods and services tax, how far is the Government prepared to go with this? Does it have a threshold of unconscionability?”

The median monthly income of $2,170 was what a minister earned in just half a day, while a graduate’s median wage of $4,450 took a minister a day to earn, she noted.

As the salaries move up to 88 per cent of the benchmark by the end of next year, a minister would earn in two to three hours what the average worker made in one month, she said.

“Does the Cabinet not feel a tinge of discomfort drawing taxpayers’ money at such a rate?” she asked.

“At such rates, can ministers and Singaporeans share the same dreams?”

Ms Lim, chairman of the Workers’ Party, reiterated her party’s position that political office holders’ salaries should be benchmarked against what their counterparts in successful countries get.

It was a logical comparison, she argued, because similar skill sets and responsibilities funded by the public were being compared.

Public service had to remain an undertaking for which people are prepared to make sacrifices in exchange for the benevolent power to improve the lives of others, she added.

“If we corrupt this by money, we can be efficient but never a country of high ideals,” she said.

Nominated MP Thio Li-Ann expressed a similar concern with the emphasis on market-based pay, noting that leaders’ wealth could spawn discontent and alienation.

“One’s sense of duty must perhaps co-exist with other motives, but where does prudence end and avarice begin?” she asked.

“I appreciate the need to pay ministers well, but in devising an appropriate formula, there is a need to be vigilant, in the light of public unhappiness, to strike a median between austerity and excessive prosperity.”

Channel NewsAsia: National education has failed to create public-spiritedness: Sylvia Lim

By Hoe Yeen Nie

Sylvia Lim

SINGAPORE: Non-Constituency MP Sylvia Lim questioned the view that Singapore’s ministers would succeed in the private sector had they not opted for public service instead.

And if Singapore cannot interest good people to enter government, she asked if this was because government leaders had yet to create a culture of high public-spiritedness, despite years of National Education.

Ms Lim made these points during the debate on the civil service and ministerial pay revisions in Parliament on Wednesday.

The NCMP also stressed that in comparing ministerial pay with other countries, the issue was not the level of a country’s development, but the skill sets required of an office holder.

To add value to the lives of the people, Ms Lim felt ministers should understand the people’s aspirations and lead with both head and heart.

But with ministerial pay pegged at the current benchmarks, she said this has created a disjunct with the income of the average Singapore worker.

It also sends out the message that one’s sense of duty to Singapore could be similarly measured in material terms. – CNA/ls

Posted in 2007 04. Comments Off on Channel NewsAsia: National education has failed to create public-spiritedness: Sylvia Lim

TODAY: Parliament

New Paper: Govt Salary Debate


By Leong Ching

MINISTERS’ salaries are pegged to the 48 top earners in the private sector in six professions. These include lawyers, accountants, engineers and local manufacturers.

The method is to rank these top earners according to their pay, take the median pay and take off one-third.

This way, a minister’s salary is kept competitive against the private sector.

Defence Minister Teo Chee Hean, who is also Minister-in-charge of the civil service, said that while “there is no perfect method for doing this benchmarking”, the current method had been debated thoroughly in 1994 and had the support of the House.

Yesterday, however, opposition Members of Parliament stood up to challenge this benchmarking.

Workers’ Party’s Mr Low Thia Khiang asked the Government to consider modifying the current benchmarks to “a more equitable and sustainable one”.

“We suggest that the benchmark should take into account international practice, in particular countries such as Switzerland, Denmark and Finland,” he said, pointing out that these countries have ministers who are paid lower than Singapore.

He noted that these countries have a pay adjustment scheme, but “unlike Singapore, they all do not have a sure-win formula that ensures civil servants always have the best deal by benchmarking specifically to the top few earners”.

In the end, he argued, there must be a non-financial element to public service.

“There’s simply no point in offering high remuneration just to entice someone to serve if what he is interested in is to make more and more money for himself and his family in pursuit of material interests.

“Don’t forget that even if you don’t pay peanuts but pay with a bigger piece, say, a banana, you can still get a monkey,” he said.

Also arguing against the method of benchmarking was Potong Pasir MP Chiam See Tong.

He said: “I think this is unfair to the taxpayer who is footing the bill, because the high-performance managers, the CEOs are paid all kinds of extras, incentives, perks such as bonuses and stock options, and they also get bonus shares.

“In other words, their salaries are highly inflated. How can our ministers take that as a benchmark?”

A fairer way, he said, is to peg ministers’ salaries to those of ministers of other First World countries.

“I think Hong Kong is a good country to follow,” Mr Chiam said. “Hong Kong is an Asian country about the size of Singapore. It is paying its head of government about $600,000 a year, or about $50,000 a month. I think this is a fair salary,” he said.

People’s Action Party MP Inderjit Singh also took issue with the benchmarking approach, even though he supported the pay rise overall.

The Ang Mo Kio GRC MP said he agreed that the ministers and civil servants need to be paid what is due. But instead of a benchmark, he wanted the Prime Minister himself to decide ministers’ salaries.

MP for Marine Parade GRC Seah Kian Peng told The New Paper that he thought letting the PM have a say is an idea.

But he said benchmarking is the way to go. Once you have the principle in place, you just have to work out the details.

Mr Seah said: “It is a formula – who are in this group, how do you calculate it. If you want to argue about this, there will be no end to it. Everyone will think that they have a better way.

“If I can offer a suggestion, it is that after all the calculations are done, we still allow the Prime Minister the discretion to make the adjustments within a range, as he deems fit,” he said.

TODAY: How well is well-paid?

MPs discuss altruism, better salary benchmarks


THEY expressed support for the need to pay top dollar for top talent in the public sector. But Members of Parliament (MPs) who took part in yesterday’s parliamentary debate on the pay hike also spoke passionately about what many Singaporeans believe to be the heart of the issue: The benchmarking formula used to determine ministerial pay.

Ang Mo Kio MP Inderjit Singh noted that Singaporeans could not expect their leaders to serve based on altruism alone. “Are we willing to leave the future of the country to chance, that we will get good people who will give up their competence without caring about their salary?” he asked.

Some MPs, however, saw problems in benchmarking ministers’ pay to the private sector, pointing out to disparities in the risks taken by company chief executives and ministers and top civil servants.

Marine Parade MP Lim Biow Chuan said: “I struggle to understand what a top Admin Officer aged 32 at grade SR9 has to worry about that will justify him receiving $363,000 a year … From many people’s perspectives, they take no personal risk and are at best, paid employees.”

Opposition MPs Mr Chiam See Tong (Potong Pasir) and Hougang’s Low Thia Khiang took issue with the fact that Singapore’s ministers are paid more than their counterparts in developed countries.

MPs like Bishan-Toa Payoh’s Mrs Josephine Teo, however, pointed out that ministers in other countries may make more money after their term in office ends, such as through public speaking.

Some MPs voiced concerns about the timing of announcing the pay revisions, especially with the Goods and Services Tax (GST) due to rise to 7 per cent in July.

Mr Singh said: “How do we answer the man-in-the-street when we’re told that about one-quarter to one-third of the expected revenue increase this year from the GST is going to be for the proposed ministerial and civil service salary increases, about $240 million, I was told?”

Mr Low also referred to the recent debate on increasing the amounts for public assistance. “It’s also ironic that we are consuming taxpayers’ money and … discussing how much more of a fraction of a million to pay civil servants and ministers while we haggle over additional tens of dollars to hand out to our needy and disadvantaged citizens,” he said.

Some MPs who supported the pay hike also suggested that the salary benchmarking could be finetuned, such as pegging ministers’ salaries to more realistic markers such as top men in private equity firms and top companies based on market capitalisation.

Straits Times: Other nations pay less but still do well: Low and Chiam


OTHER countries pay ministers lower salaries without seeming to suffer a drop in the quality of governance, so why not Singapore, asked two opposition MPs yesterday.

Mr Low Thia Khiang (Hougang) noted that Singapore ranked below Finland and Denmark in corruption perception and global competitiveness surveys.

Singapore also ranked 34th in an annual survey on quality of living, while Swiss cities topped the rankings, he said.

At the same time, reports by the United Nations found that civil servants in those countries earned less than those here, he added.

For example, Swiss civil servants’ basic salary ranged from 55,000 Swiss francs (S$69,000) to 321,000 Swiss francs.

And while Denmark and Hong Kong also kept their civil service pay in line with the private sector, Mr Low argued that “they do not have a sure-win formula that ensures civil servants always have the best deal by benchmarking specifically to the top few earners”.

“We believe there is no need for enormously large salaries to attract and retain the right talent to run a country in an efficient and corrupt-free manner,” he said.

The Workers’ Party secretary-general said that while the Government could claim to have won the people’s mandate at last year’s general election and so pay itself as it deemed fit, he was quick to add:

“I do not think Singaporeans have given the Government a blank cheque.”

Besides Mr Low, Mr Chiam See Tong (Potong Pasir) also spoke after Defence Minister Teo Chee Hean, who oversees the public service, announced the salary changes.

Mr Chiam said salaries of ministers here surpass those of heads of government elsewhere.

The United States President earns about $1 million, even though the US is 15,000 times larger than Singapore and had over 60 times more people, he said, adding:

“If the heads of government of other bigger and more industrialised countries can live on salaries less than a million dollars, why can’t our ministers do the same?”

Why not peg the bonus to key performance indicators of ministries, Mr Low suggested.

The Prime Minister could, for instance, have to achieve a 5-per-cent reduction in the Gini coefficient – a measure of income inequality. Or the Transport Ministry must increase the proportion of trips on public transport during peak hours by 2 per cent.

Mr Low suggested the Government consider setting up a panel for public consultation and come up with a remuneration formula that was reasonable in the eyes of the public.

Mrs Josephine Teo (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) offered a different perspective.

Political leaders elsewhere reaped financial benefits after leaving office, she said. Reports say former US president Bill Clinton has received US$40 million (S$60 million) in speaking fees in the six years since he left office.

Mrs Teo also commented on Mr Low’s suggestion at an election rally in May last year to peg ministers’ pay to what the poorest 20 per cent of Singaporeans earned, and multiply the amount by 100.

She said ministers could not be focused only on the plight of this group of Singaporeans as they had to watch over the well-being of all.

Ms Irene Ng (Tampines GRC) took issue with Mr Low’s “rosy view” of Switzerland, Denmark and Finland. She pointed out that Finland has a high unemployment rate. Its prime minister won recent elections by a narrow margin and now had to negotiate a four-party coalition.

“Is this the sort of Singapore he wants, with a high unemployment rate?”

But Mr Low was adamant, asking Ms Ng if the three countries were really that badly off. “They’re not Third World countries,” he said.

MM to Low: Is comparison valid?

HE HAS not spoken in Parliament since 2005, but he felt compelled yesterday to weigh in on the nation’s hottest debate.

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew rose to pose a question to opposition MP Low Thia Khiang, who had just claimed that Singapore could pay lower salaries to its civil servants like Finland, Denmark and Switzerland, and still run a country efficiently and without corruption.

MM Lee, the architect of the civil service salary benchmark, asked if Mr Low was “comparing apples with apples”.

Did the MP consider Singapore to have a relatively high population compared to its resources?

Had the governments of those three countries brought the standard of living of their people up “multifold times from Third World to First World in one generation”, or maintained the quality of government and leadership that sets the tone for the whole civil service and the whole country?

And could a Swiss, Finnish or Danish government bring about the results that Singapore has brought about in their own countries, let alone bringing them and their system into Singapore?

Mr Low replied that these countries were “not anything that is lousier than Singapore” in terms of living standards or government performance.

And while they had different conditions compared to Singapore, Mr Low also noted that the Republic has also been looking to emulate the Swiss standard of living.

This is the rest of their exchange:

MM Lee: The Member has not answered my point. Is he saying we are comparing apples with apples? Is he saying that the system of government in Finland, Denmark and Switzerland can bring (them) from First World to a superpower? Does he realise that…our external trade is 31/2 times that of our GDP, higher than Hong Kong at three times, and that if this economy ever falters, that’s the end of Singapore and its First World status?

Denmark, Switzerland and Finland are part of Europe. They can fail and you are still caught in a European situation. If you fail here, you go back to a South-east Asian situation. Just look around you.

Mr Low: Is the MM saying that without paying such a high salary, we are bound to fail? I do not think even if we pay top-earner salaries the present government can bring Singapore up to a superpower.

MM Lee: I am putting a simple question and ask for his clarification. He has compared Singapore as if it were a Denmark, a Switzerland or a Finland. Their system, their governments never produced the kind of transformation that we have, and their system and their government have a broader base. It can afford a mediocre government.

The Singapore base is less than 700 sq km and when we started, it was less than 600. Could the system in Denmark, Switzerland or Finland produce a transformation as in Singapore?

Mr Low: On what basis does MM think that the same system in Denmark and Switzerland put in Singapore will not be able to transform Singapore into what we are today?

I have no claim that it will happen, but I would like to know from the wisdom of MM, why he thinks that it will not.

MM Lee: I would like the Member to explain why he thinks Singapore is comparable to Denmark, Switzerland or Finland.

Look at the size of the country, the location of the country, the resources of the country and the history of the people. Then look at Singapore, its size, its history and the nature of its population.

To make the transformation from what we were in 1959 or 1965, whichever the starting point, to what we are requires an extraordinary government with extraordinary government officers to support it.

If you go back to an ordinary system that exists around us, then you will go down to those levels. It is as simple as that. There is no guarantee that Singapore with less than 700 sq km can maintain this position.