Friday, May 18, 2007

The Unofficial polling commentaries : Blogs n Stuff

What some have to say from the Ground Level :

May 17th 2007 : Little Speck
April 08 2007 : Million Dollar Ministers


Blogspehere :

Talking Cock in Parliament: IndigNation Videos

Singapore's founding leader dismisses gripes over pay hike

Monday April 23, 1:56 PM

The debate over the million-dollar paychecks of Singapore's cabinet ministers is "rubbish" because the city-state needs to attract extraordinary people to run it, founding leader Lee Kuan Yew said in remarks published Monday.

"The biggest mistake any Singaporean can make is to believe that Singapore is an ordinary country and can behave like an ordinary country like Malaysia, like Indonesia, like Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark," he was quoted by the Straits Times as saying over the weekend.

The blunt-talking former prime minister said the public furore over the decision to raise cabinet ministers' base salaries by more than 30 percent to 1.05 million US dollars per year was "completely unreal."

"I say, 'rubbish,'" he told 400 members of the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) on Saturday.

Singapore, with its lack of natural resources and small population, needs attractive packages to draw talented people into public service or the country's future prosperity would be at risk, Lee warned.

"The problem we now face is how to attract more talent, how to headhunt and to persuade the best to come into parliament," said Lee, 83, who remains an influential figure in the government with the title of "minister mentor."

"I see this place going for another 50 years, no problem. But you need top-grade government," Lee said.

The pay hikes for ministers and top civil servants, which take effect this month, have triggered a rare public outcry from normally reserved Singaporeans, who enjoy Southeast Asia's highest standards of living.

The pay increase boosted Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's annual salary to 2.04 million dollars, five times more than the figure US President George W. Bush earns and more than eight times the salary of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The prime minister -- the son of the elder Lee, who now makes 2.01 million dollars -- said he will freeze his salary for five years and donate the pay increase to charity.

Ministers' salaries are calculated using a formula pegging them to the earnings of top business executives and professionals, including lawyers and bankers.

Officials have long maintained that high salaries are necessary to attract talented managers into government service and preserve Singapore's reputation as one of the most corruption-free countries in Asia.


Singapore PM to freeze his pay for 5 years, donate pay hikes

Singapore PM to freeze his pay for 5 years, donate pay hikes
Posted: 11 April 2007 1643 hrs

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong says he will hold his own salary at the present level for five years and will donate any increases in his salary during that period.

He made the announcement in Parliament on Wednesday, as the House continues its debate on salary revisions for government ministers and civil servants.

Mr Lee said making a large adjustment in public sector salaries now is politically a most difficult decision.

But it is something that must be done.

While it is very difficult to get people to understand and emotionally accept it, he said the issue is absolutely critical.

"If we do not tackle it now, the problem will not go away; it will just get worse - we will be in serious trouble," he said.

After discussing it at length in Cabinet, and with Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong and Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew in particular strongly encouraging him to do it, PM Lee decided to move now because of the overriding importance of keeping public sector salaries competitive.

The Prime Minister said that to make clear why he is doing this, and to give him the moral standing to defend this policy to Singaporeans, he will hold his own salary at its present level for five years.

The Government will pay him his full pay, because that is how the system must work.

But for five years, he will donate the increase in his salary from this and subsequent revisions.

Mr Lee said he does not expect other Ministers to follow.

While it is a Cabinet decision, he told Parliament, he is carrying the ultimate responsibility, not them.

So what the individual Ministers and MPs do is up to them.

Mr Lee said that he knows they already support various worthy causes.

It should not be a public ostentatious display of how generous they are, but a private matter for them to decide at their own discretion, he said.

Mr Lee told the House that the issue is not just about salaries of Ministers and civil servants.

It is about Singapore's future - how it can produce the best government to secure a bright future for the people.

He explained that a strong political leadership and effective government will not happen automatically or by chance.

It only happens through a deliberate, systematic process to build the team and to bring in talent.

But it did not start out like that.

Minister Mentor Lee and the first generation of leaders went out systematically building a successor team.

This approach worked with a second generation of leaders, and now a third.

Citing examples like NEWater, which turns a strategic vulnerability into a competitive advantage, education, and a clean and non-corrupt government, Mr Lee said that Singapore's system of government has delivered results.

To sustain the system, the country must build the strongest possible team in Cabinet and government to govern and serve Singaporeans now and into the future.

He told Parliament that building the next team is his most important task.

Citing the example of Law Minister Professor Jayakumar, who is now 67, Mr Lee said he must have a successor ready by 2011.

The Prime Minister himself is 55.

So he must find and bring in a whole team of new MPs and political office-holders.

Mr Lee said that he wants to be able to assemble together the best possible group of young persons, who are now in their late 30s or early 40s, so they can offer Singaporeans the best choice.

10 years from now, one of them should be ready to take over as PM.

One key requirement, Mr Lee said, is to pay people properly.

He stressed that while the government does not expect Ministers to earn as much as the top earners in the private sector, it must not be too far out of line from what a person of similar ability can earn outside.

He also explained that the formula for benchmarking public sector salaries to the private sector is basically sound.

Mr Lee did not agree to a suggestion to delegate the responsibility of deciding Ministers' pay to an independent pay commission.

He said this will not settle the matter as finally, the responsibility lies with the political leadership.

It is accountable to Parliament and to all Singaporeans, who will have to judge and decide whether it has done the right thing.

To comments by opposition member Low Thia Khiang, he asked the Workers' Party chief to produce his line-up of Ministers and say how much he intends to pay them.

While Mr Lee conceded that his present team is not perfect, he said every Minister is worth his pay, and by paying properly, the team can be improved and strengthened.

Other countries also face similar problems over the pay of political leaders.

Some try to benchmark public sector salaries to the private sector, but have not succeeded.

Mr Lee acknowledged that despite all the arguments, the policy is not easy for people to accept.

The income gap is widening and although the economy is doing well, some people still face difficulties.

Mr Lee also agreed that it is not a good time for a salary revision when the GST has just been raised and not everything is rosy in the economy.

He said he had considered waiting one year, but the problem is urgent.

Since the last adjustment in 2000, private sector incomes have surged ahead.

Waiting one year would mean having to make a bigger move.

Meanwhile, the government will lose people.

Hence it must move now.

Also, it must keep on adjusting as the private sector moves.

Mr Lee made clear this policy is for the future, against the backdrop of the new globalised Asia.

He said the test is not whether these Ministers will leave, but whether there will be good Ministers in Singapore in 10, 20 years' time.

The Prime Minister said he is convinced the government has made the right decision. - CNA/ir

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Introduction : Two Competing Paradigms by NMP Thio Li-Ann, Law Professor at NUS

Debate on civil salary revisions

Apr 11, 2007
AsiaOne < >

*Introduction: Two Competing Paradigms *

Mr. Speaker Sir, thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak to
this debate. The arguments raised by Members of this House over the
past 2 days, have reminded me of the words from a certain Beatles song:

The best things in life are free / but you can give them to the birds
and bees / I want money - that's what I want!

These lyrics, courtesy of Lennon and McCartney, starkly capture the two
competing paradigms which have driven this debate over salary revisions
for political office holders and civil servants. First, we have the
argument from the perspective of the Market. Secondly, the argument
from the imperative that public servants must possess Moral authority
which might be undermined by the perception that they are receiving
salaries pegged at too high a level.

The problem is identified as the need to attract and retain the best
talent to helm positions of political leadership and to staff the elite
Administrative Service; to do so, the method adopted is to pay top
dollar for the best and brightest. Of course, the salary revisions have
a broader reach and also affect the administrative rank and file
officers and teachers; I applaud the measures taken to recognize and
reward them for their significant contributions to society.

My remarks today are primarily directed to the issue of salary
revisions in relation to cabinet ministers and top civil servants of
Super-scale grade, as this has been the focal point of public interest
and debate amongst our citizens, netizens, denizens and other
interested observers of our country.

Both the Cabinet and the Admin Service bear the onerous task of crafting
and implementing sound, far-sighted national policy: our national welfare
depends on this being successfully executed. Diligent effort and wisdom is
required to this end.

Let me say from the outset that it is a given that that our leaders and
those who execute their policies should be paid well. This is a
safeguard against corruption. A corruption-free government is
foundational to the well-being of a nation. The difficulty is to find
the right criteria and mechanism for determining just remuneration and

I agree that ministers and top civil servants should not be expected to make
"unreasonable financial sacrifices" to be in public service, the devil is in
the details - how is this quantified? Honourable Members have voiced
reservations, questioning whether pegging salaries to the top earners in 6
private sector professions is the best approach: Does it achieve the desired
end? Does it communicate the right message? Are public and private sector
jobs comparable? Are we making a mountain out of a molehill as the annual
wage bill under the revision constitutes just 0.022 % of our total economic

*The Market and Moral Leadership*

I will now turn to the "Market" argument. The logic of the Market
perspective is the need to be competitive so that top talents can be
attracted into government and the Admin service and kept. This would
facilitate political renewal of the incumbent government and ruling
political party. The chosen measure is to benchmark public sector
salaries against top private sector salaries to position the Government
to compete for the same or overlapping pool of talents by closing the
salary gap between these 2 sectors.

The dominant motif of this camp is to be realistic and its chief tool
is that of financial incentives or market-based wages. This rejects as
flawed the conventional wisdom that Ministers should only be paid a
modest wage because they do public service.

The new orthodoxy is the need to pay ministers very well to ensure a
constant supply of good governors who would perpetuate good government
and high economic growth. It posits that just as a CEO determines the
profitability of a company, so too a country's economic well-being is
contingent on high ministerial calibre.

The analogy between a company and a country is imperfect. What serves
the corporate world well does not necessarily translate into what
serves good government well.

Although our country has been described as Singapore Inc. and Hotel
Singapore, it is more than that - it is our Home. A Home evokes
affection because it carries intangible qualities of warmth, security,
space, which a Hotel, no matter how luxurious, can never fully possess.

Sir, I now move to the second paradigm of the Moral Leadership argument.
The argument from moral authority seizes upon the idea of intangible virtues.
It is motivated by the fear that the market-based wages model will attract the
wrong people who are motivated primarily by money rather than a desire to
serve the public. There is an expectation of some degree of altruism from
governors. While this may be criticized as naïve utopianism, the
alternative, a cynicism and total capitulation to materialism, is itself
tragic in sounding the death knell for ideals needed to temper our selfish

The existing concern and perception that ministers and top civil
servants are being paid too has been exacerbated by two things: one,
the impending GST hikes and two, the adequacy of public assistance for
the most needy in our society, some of whom reportedly eat only one
meal a day. This plugs into the existing unhappiness generated by the
growing levels of income disparity in Singapore. A person earning about
$2000 a month may find it hard to grasp the need to increase the pay
packets of "million dollar ministers" who currently take home about
$40,000 per month or elected MPs who receive almost $12,000 per month.

There is an emotional disconnect in this respect, particularly where
the green-eyed monster of envy rears its head. This emotional
disaffection can impair the health of a representative democracy where
MPs, as the People's Representatives, are supposed to understand the
struggles of the common man on the streets and to represent such
concerns. Wealth can be a socially divisive factor, spawning discontent
and alienation particularly where the salaries of government leaders
are well above the national average.

*Good Governance*

Sir, the fact that this emotive topic is being freely debated in
Parliament today shows that we value transparency, a facet of good
governance, which guards against corruption.

Mr. Speaker Sir I would like to highlight another facet of good
governance, which is, accountability. This comprises two elements,
Firstly, the ability to measure whether an office-holder is performing
well or badly in quantitative or qualitative terms. KPI or other
benchmarks are necessary to evaluate the government's progress, or
regress. This is relevant to how much they should be paid and a
performance-based variability component to salaries may facilitate

Secondly, there needs to be a sanction for poor performance, as in the
private sector, where poor performance could cost the loss of a job.

Some may argue that while ministers and top civil servants enjoy the rewards
of the private sector, they do not suffer such risks or the disciplining
force of the market.

This may not be entirely accurate insofar as assurances that the Admin
service is no longer an iron rice bowl, as under-achievers may be asked
to leave, is realized.

It may be argued that political office-holders are accountable to the
shareholders of Singapore Inc, Singapore citizens., who can exercise
the sanction of the ballot box through their votes every 5 years or so.
If this is the case, then it may be said that ministers do no enjoy
guaranteed long-term jobs which is a risk associated with the nature of
this office.

Elections are however, a blunt tool for sanctioning under-performing
political leaders. They are periodic, rather than continuous checks.
Voters may still support a government as a whole even though it is
concerned with a few errant or under-performing ministers.

To be frank, to say the electorate can judge the government through
elections is a bit of a fiction. The ultimate sanction provided by a
system of parliamentary democracy is that the incumbent government can
be replaced by an alternative government. For this to work, a sizeable
parliamentary opposition is needed. The current one is Lilliputnian in
size, though not necessarily in heart.

The current political system favours the continuation of a dominant
party state; despite the sterling efforts of the Honourable Members
from Hougang and Potong Pasir and NCMP Sylvia Lim, I do not think we
will see a functioning bipartisan system anywhere in the short to
medium term. This may be cause for rejoicing or mourning, depending on
one's political affiliations. However, this means that the task of
holding under-performing or incompetent ministers accountable falls to
the Prime Minister and the internal self regulatory mechanisms of the
ruling political party. This may not always be effective or transparent
enough to allay public concerns.

In terms of accountability, the question some may ask is: how can you
write your own salary, without an external auditor? In this respect, I
commend the proposals of various Honourable Members to have an
independent Panel to review the issue of benchmarking salaries. This
would promote accountability
and in involving non-government sectors of society, could inject a
participatory element which strengthens democratic governance. To promote
further transparency, the government could widely disseminate how the
performance of each individual ministry is evaluated.

*Sending the Wrong Message to the Post 65 Generation?*

Mr. Speaker Sir, I would like to raise a question whether the wrong
message is being sent to my generation, the post 1965 generation, in
conceptualizing reward and structuring incentive in primarily monetary
terms. Are we not sending the wrong message in assuming that throwing
money after a problem will solve it?

In conveying an overwhelming market-oriented ethos, are we not
discounting intangible values which are essential for nation-building?

The underlying ideology of profit maximization which can breed a fixation
on self-interest stands at odds with attributes of selflessness and dedication
to the common good.

Ms Denise Phua cautioned against the volatile mix of power and
excessive emphasis on materialism yesterday. I concur entirely with her
sentiments. Power corrupts and absolutely power corrupts absolutely as
Lord Acton famously opined; wedded to a lust for lucre, the danger to
the common weal increases exponentially. Corrupt governors wielding the
coercive power of the state can wreak havoc on the body politic.

When it comes to our political leaders, surely what Singaporeans want
are men and women of character and vision to steer the ship. One is
willing to follow where one is inspired and leaders must lead by
example, through sacrifice and service. For better or worse, our
leaders influence us and shape our common destiny.

Sir, my Generation, the post 65ers, are the beneficiaries of the wisdom
and foresight of our forefathers which has catapulted Singapore from
the Third to First World, with high GDP rates and foreign reserves.
This is a remarkable achievement which the second and third generation
of leaders has consolidated.

No country is perfect but Singaporeans are grateful for the peace and
prosperity we have enjoyed and hope to keep enjoying. We are not
oblivious to the challenges that continue to face the government and
people of our small island.

Yes, we need talented leaders to lead us into our collective future. In
addition, we as a People need a vision of who we are as Singaporeans.
What is 'Singapore?' We are not just a company, we are a nation. But we
need a vision of what this means, because without a vision, the people
perish, they cannot gel together, they become selfish, cynical,
alienated atomistic individuals, pre-occupied with their own concerns.

Our founding fathers had such a vision.

On the 9th of August 1965, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew issued the
Proclamation of Singapore's independence on behalf of the people and
Government of Singapore. This stated that "Singapore shall be forever a
sovereign democratic and independent nation, founded upon the
principles of liberty and justice and ever seeking the welfare and
happiness of her people in a more just and equal society." These are
worthy ideals we should constantly revisit; these ideals are
foundational to our constitutional order, which can inspire in us a
sense of national pride and identity.

The Minister Mentor had a vision. First, it was for a Malaysian
Malaysia rather than one where the constitution entrenched unequal
rights on the basis of race. When we seceded from the Federation, the
vision for Singapore was that of a multi-racial democratic society
where meritocracy was key to social mobility and indeed, social

I recall a conversation I had with our first Chief Minister David
Marshall after he returned to Singapore from his ambassadorship in
Paris. He always spoke of the need to have "chili-padi in our veins."
His passion and wit were invigorating as was his patriotism. Ever the
Idealist, he nevertheless acknowledged the central role of the Minister
Mentor in spear-heading Singapore's tremendous economic success through
policies based on hard-headed, economic rationality and the will to
push through unpopular policies which were later vindicated.

We are the beneficiaries of the successful execution of this vision of
our forefathers. Their sacrifice and foresight are inspiring and worthy
of emulation. Minister Mentor himself gave up what would certainly have
been a lucrative and distinguished legal career, because of his vision
and commitment to Singapore.

The post '65 generation has enjoyed peace and affluence but we also face
the uncertainties and insecurities wrought by globalization, terrorism and
other pressing concerns..

For Singapore to be able to negotiate these twenty-first century challenges,
it needs to be a socially cohesive and resilient society. This depends on
the character and identity of its People and a common unifying vision for
our nation which transcends the joint pursuit of lucre, of material wealth.
The intangibles count. Civic virtues like patriotism, honour, duty, a
commitment to the common weal, may be difficult to quantify, but this is as
real as the wind we cannot see.

We need a vision for my generation which transcends instrumental
objectives or which conceptualizes things primarily or exclusively in
pecuniary terms. It is sad to think that good people will not come
forth to serve because 'money no enough'. But Sir, we are not merely
atomistic, profit-maximising individuals, evaluating opportunity costs
and benefits; the call to service is a noble one.

In tandem with a generous pay package, job satisfaction and other
intangibles, should motivate future ministers and top administrators.

There is more to life than seeing things through the dominant lens of
money and human resource management. Virtues like loyalty, sacrifice,
perseverance, sustain hope that a nation will endure and become great.

We do not do things merely because of financial reward. I think of my father
who represented Singapore as a swimmer and water polo player for 12 years,
including the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne. AS a university student and
later a practicing engineer, he trained everyday in preparation, paid for
his own expenses, food, and even, swimming trunks. He never received a cent
and was not given any bonus when he won. In material terms, he got a medal
and a jacket with the Singapore crest for his efforts. This sufficed. In
non-material terms, he speaks to me of the tremendous joy in winning the
honour in representing Singapore and the fellowship of his team-mates.

Perhaps I have been influenced by my father. When I graduated from Oxford,
I was offered a teaching position at the NUS Law Faculty; the 'lure' was the
promise of a Masters scholarship which came attached with a 3 year bond. At
the end of the 3 years, I had a better understanding of what the job
entailed. I felt that I had built something worthwhile. I could have joined,
I suppose, a good law firm and practiced corporate law; perhaps I might even
have been in the running to become one of those persons against whom
ministerial salaries are benchmarked. But I chose to stay on as a university
don. Indeed, for many years, my students frequently asked me when I was
leaving for practice, as in fact, some of my colleagues had done. I found
immense satisfaction (and irritation) in being an educator and scholar -
there was other things which added value to my occupation which outweighed
the material rewards of legal practice. One might think that a top
administrator at age 32 after completing her bond, may find similar
satisfaction in her job scope, aside from pecuniary compensation, to
motivate her to stay.

All the more so a minister. The position of minister is a position of
high honour, great power, which is accompanied by great responsibility.
A minister may be able to command a greater salary in the private
sector; however, as a minister is uniquely positioned to build an
enduring legacy - to solve health care woes, transportation problems,
to keep the economy humming and thousands of Singaporeans employed, to
sustain friendly relations with neighbouring states. It is a privilege
to be able to build something of enduring worth in our lifetime.
Greatness is not measured in purely monetary terms; otherwise, we would
celebrate mercenaries, not patriots.

The market is a marvelous motivator, but it can lead to insularity,
selfishness and the "I come first" mentality. My concern is that if we
conceptualise the worth of our government leaders in predominantly
material or monetary terms, an over-emphasis on Market values may send
the wrong message to my generation. After all, the worth of a person
does not turn on how much he earns.

One's sense of duty must perhaps co-exist with other motives; but where does
prudence end and avarice begin? When does the impulse to reward someone for
a job well-done cross the line and descend into the realm of greed?

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

Minister Lim Swee Say spoke of the need to have leaders with thinking heads,
caring heart and clean hands - to this recipe I would add the quality of
sacrifice, of putting others first, a certain liberality of spirit that is
manifested in sincerity, courage, generosity and service.

We must take care and be conscious of the message being sent to Singaporeans
through this revision exercise, as the underlying assumptions speak of how
we value things. Do we value people instrumentally, primarily through what
can be quantified? Or do we appreciate the intrinsic worth of things, which
is essential to any society which cherishes the principle of human dignity
and authentic community.

As our political leaders, we the citizens of Singapore are watching you
and learning from your example. I hope when the times comes, my
generation will be ready, able and willing to receive the baton of
leadership and to view this as a vocation, a calling, rather than just
a salaried job. It would be a sad indictment of my generation if no one
came forward to serve without excessive monetary inducement, as, to be
bereft of deep convictions, is to be impoverished indeed.

Thank you.

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Singapore pay rise highlights inequality

Singapore pay rise highlights inequality
John Burton
Financial Times
10 May 07

Singapore's government recently provoked a public furore in the normally placid city-state of 4.5m people when it announced it would increase the salaries of government ministers to more than $1m a year, making it probably the best-paid cabinet in the world.

The reason for the howl of protest was that the move came as Singapore confronts a growing gap between rich and poor. It ranks 105th in the world in terms of income equality, based on United Nations data. Wages for the bottom 30 per cent have fallen in the past five years as demand for unskilled labourers shrinks.

The controversy reflects a wider issue of whether government officials in Singapore and elsewhere should be paid more to attract the best and the brightest when salaries for executives in the private sector are rising sharply.

The issue also raises the question of whether work in the private and public sectors are comparable and how common performance standards can be applied to both.

Singapore's government has often been compared with a well-run corporation, one of the few places where the phrase "bureaucratic efficiency" is not an oxymoron. Many top officials hold degrees from universities such as Harvard or Cambridge.

Since the 1990s, the salaries of cabinet ministers and senior civil servants have been linked to top wage earners in the local private sector. Under the formula, the officials receive two-thirds of the median income of the top eight earners in six professions - bankers, lawyers, accountants, executives with multinational corporations, local manufacturing executives and engineers.

Lee Hsien Loong, the prime minister who is due to receive $2m in pay this year (although some will be donated to charity), says the latest salary increase is necessary to keep up with a surge in executive pay when talent is in much demand. He cited Singapore's strong record of clean government and good governance as justification for the high ministerial salaries.

Lee Kuan Yew, the prime minister's father and independent Singapore's first leader, dismissed critics as lacking perspective, saying that the $46m being paid to top officials represented only 0.022 per cent of Singapore's gross domestic product of $140bn.

But opponents maintain that the government is comparing apples with oranges. "The CEO or manager has to think only of the bottom line. But a political leader must maintain integrity, moral authority to inspire and rally people," says one opposition legislator, warning that ministers will be out of touch with citizens.

Others believe the pay increase could accelerate a brain drain that the government wants to prevent. "The message the government is telling us is to adopt a mercenary attitude. So a lot of people will say it's OK to go overseas if a better-paying job is on offer," says a young Singapore professional.

Moreover, questions have been raised about whether the current government salary formula is appropriate or too generous. A review of the 18 cabinet members reveal none has an accounting background, one worked in financial services, one for a multinational company, two for local private companies and three in law.

Most of rest had some form of engineering background, although three were in the medical profession (not included in the pay formula).

Unfortunately, engineering is the lowest paid among the six professions to which ministerial salaries are benchmarked, with the median income of the top eight earners in the sector amounting to about $400,000, a third of the salary most ministers will receive.

Another challenge is how to determine whether the job performance of ministers can be measured in the same way as executives in the private sector. Singapore's economic growth appears to be the key performance indicator for top officials, akin to a company's profits. On that score, the government has performed well in recent years. But critics say the measurement is too broad and does not take into account other factors, such as income equality or the standards of social services.

Take the example of another small developed country. New Zealand, with a population of 4.1m, has a much slower growth rate (1.6 per cent) than Singapore (7.4 per cent) and its $106bn economy is smaller, with a per capita income of $26,000 versus Singapore's $30,900.

But it ranks higher on the UN Human Development Index in 20th place against 25th for Singapore and its income gap is much narrower. Does Singapore's faster growth but less developed social structure justify its prime minister being paid more than five times the salary of the New Zealand prime minister - or the US president, for that matter - ask critics?

Yes, replies the government, because Singapore is "unique". It is a physically small island in an unstable part of the world, with a multi-ethnic population, that pose special challenges to its rulers. As the debate continues, one thing appears certain. Ministerial salaries will rise further if the present system is maintained. Chief executives and senior managers in Singapore are still paid less than their counterparts in Hong Kong, Australia or South Korea, but their pay packets are likely to increase as global companies compete for their talents.

Moreover, given Singapore's close-knit political world, any investment bank or private equity fund would pay top dollar to recruit a minister, which may be the best rationale for paying them so much to keep them in government service.

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The Issue on Ministerial Salaries ( 2007 )

Of Champs, Chumps and Chimps
What lawyers earn has been in the news of late. The focus has been on the top eight
earners in the profession, who apparently earn substantially more than their counterparts in five other sectors. The context has been the financial sacrifices that government ministers have made in agreeing to become ministers, on the basis that if they had not done so they would have been top earners in the private sector.
The issue can be approached at three levels. First, there is principle. Second is mechanics, or structure. Third and finally, there is the impact of it all on social values.

At the level of principle is the shift from an attempt to reward contribution to government and country to an attempt to estimate what he or she would otherwise have earned in the private sector, what has been described as the opportunity cost of a public sector career choice.

The reward for contribution method, still employed in many countries today, typically ensures that a government employee and his or her family are housed, chauffered, medically attended to and in due course pensioned in accordance with a scale that fits that person’s status. It is detached from the employment market, and indeed from the housing market, as the government holds a stock of prime housing that it recycles from generation to generation.

It has the virtue of expressing society’s gratitude (coupled with a sense of what is enough to mark that gratitude), and explicitly matches status to office. Against it is the risk that society’s sense of enough may not match the ambition of talented people, and so the public sector will not attract sufficient talent.

When I was in India last year I asked the daughter of a former Supreme Court Judge
whether there was any difficulty posed by the gap that exists there between judicial salaries and private sector salaries, say those of top senior advocates. She looked at me as if I was mad, and patiently as if to a small child explained the tremendous respect in which she and her family had been held, not to mention the lovely home in which she had grown up, although of course that home was passed on to another judge once her father retired. She went on to say that as far as she knew no one turned down a higher court appointment, asthe opportunity to make and interpret law authoritatively was of incalculable reward for anyone who loved the law.

Singapore has long since moved away from a system based on valuing the contribution
made and honouring the office for itself. The focus today is on trying to determine
remuneration that, while not outpacing the private sector, does not fall too far short of top earners. The justification for it is precisely the fear that top talent will not join the public sector. That peanuts will attract only chimps. But as a method it is fraught with uncertainty. It is hard to put a value on the many differences between the two sectors – for example, the greater security and higher status of the public sector, the longer working hours and greater business stress of the private sector. Not to mention different pension rights, and the vast difference in consistency and longevity of earnings (lawyers’ earnings typically peak in their forties and early fifties and can then fall away quite sharply, and in any case fluctuate greatly from year to year). If a career in the public sector is perceived to be less risky and yet as rewarding, then the best and brightest (as the expression goes) will choose government over business, which may not after all be in the best interests of the nation.

Hard as it is to get the benchmark right in terms of career signals, it is harder still to convince people of its rightness. The market operates to reward disproportionately people who have been lucky, or have acquired the aura of a champion. Think of the huge gap in earning power between the top basketball players and the next rung – the difference in ability may be marginal at best. The same phenomenon occurs elsewhere, and certainly does in the legal profession. Yet some of the best judges in England, Australia and elsewhere have not been top earners in their previous incarnations as advocates or as solicitors, but have excelled as judges because of their combination of good minds and stout hearts.

In short, the opportunity cost method assumes or reflects an attitude that money is the common currency for all the choices one can make about one’s life. In its favour, this could be said to be just being realistic. Moreover, it assists transparency. Without comparable pay, the risk of hidden perks – ranging from the legitimate to the shady - associated with office is a real one. But it can hardly be doubted that one effect of the emphasis on money is to undercut volunteerism and the spirit of public service. It is a reductionist ethos that leaves little room for other motivations. One often hears the expression ‘national service’ to describe various unpaid posts that private sector individuals take on for a public cause, often specifically in aid of a government policy. Such work benefits us all. But, given the materialist spirit of the times, people urged to do their part by way of such ‘national service’ will be forgiven if they sometimes wonder whether they are being taken for chumps.

Unfortunately, there’s very little that the profession can do to change or even influence the terms of the debate. The public is told that top lawyers earn astronomical amounts. And that top engineers earn much, much less. What will this mean to the image and standing of the two professions? For sure, the law faculties at NUS and SMU will be even more oversubscribed than they are at present. And the engineering faculties will see a sharp drop off of applicants. It is unfortunate that the public may be getting a rather skewed idea of the two professions – there is much less of a gap once one looks below the rung of top earners.

Expect clients too to wonder how to square lawyers’ complaints about the very real squeeze on legal fees with the apparent exuberance of top lawyers’ pay. Will they understand that the headline numbers don’t tell the whole story?

Perhaps the only way to redress what is probably a misleading glimpse of what it really means to be a lawyer (or doctor or accountant or engineer) would be for IRAS now to release figures showing what the average income levels are at different stages of a legal,medical, accounting and engineering career, including how they fluctuate, plateau and taper off.

But there seems no way to redress the underlying shift in how we count our time on earth – a shift from values of service and significance to emphasis on success measured in dollars and cents. But it is a terrible shame all the same. And whether the cause is hopeless or not,we should not succumb just yet. The profession still has plenty of room for socially aware,dedicated lawyers to make a mark, and earn a decent living in the process, as well as for the few financial champs. So long as one has enough to keep self and family in food, shelter,health and education, giving up billable hours for professional or social service is still a worthwhile endeavour.

Philip Jeyaretnam, SC
The Law Society of Singapore