Friday, May 18, 2007

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.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home