BY GOH CHIN LIAN
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.