inequality, Politics

Can Singapore afford to pay ministers and top civil servants millions?

Yes! Yes! And absolutely Yes! $$$$$$$$$$$$

From a financial point of view, we can easily afford it. Their multi-million dollar salaries are a drop in the bucket compared to the huge economy of Singapore.

We could even afford to pay them millions more. It’s not going to break the bank.

But herein lies the problem. As a country, we have swallowed, hook, line and stinker, the story that:

  • million-dollar salaries = one in a million ministers.

It’s the same fallacy that many fancy designer labels peddle. The bags, clothes and shoes in luxury boutiques may look more like they belong in a clown house than on the runway but rich fools queue up to buy precisely because they are ridiculously expensive.

The same goes for our ministers. Their multi-million salaries are both their cross to bear and the shield that spares.

Since we pay them so much, the perverse logic follows that ministers must be superhuman deities deserving of deference (and free parking) in some way, mistakes notwithstanding.

And this, I think, is what Goh Chok Tong was getting. In Singapore, we measure a person’s worth by their the size of their peanut packet. It’s our undeniably objective stamp of quality.

And we the people, stingy jealous bastards though we may be, believe entirely in this creed.

It’s just that we are in a fancy designer boutique, lusting after some clown clothes (simply because of the eye-watering price tag) while simultaneously trying to haggle a discount as if we were at the pasar malam.

  • We want Dolce & Gabbana but want to pay for Dolce & Kiam Kana.

Until that narrative changes, we are going to continue looking like clowns.

Postscript:

Here are 3 popular myths around why Ministers should be paid millions:

1. It we pay them millions, they won’t be corrupt.

Both in the public and private sector, corruption can range from the $50 you slip to a Malaysian traffic policeman to get him to wave you off to the billions of dollars paid in “consultancy fees” by MNCs to “facilitate business”.

Do you honestly think that the paltry $2.2 million paid to PM Lee is what keeps him honest, when he’s routinely making decisions that involve billions of dollars?

The only real defence against corruption is checks and balances in society, such as:

  • Free and fair elections to regularly hold politicians to account,
  • Independent newspapers and media,
  • An electorate that is aware of their rights and responsibilities as voters,
  • Independent anti-corruption watchdogs that have the power to investigate anyone, no matter their position in government or society,
  • Laws that protect people who speak out against corrupt practices or corrupt people,
  • An education system that encourages young people to think, question, speak up and take action against unfair or corrupt practices. And teaches them how to.

2. We need to pay Ministers millions to attract talented people to join politics and run for government.

Is talent attracted and retained by money? Yes, money is definitely a factor. Let’s not kid ourselves. It attracts, it motivates, it rewards.

But if money is the MAIN attraction of the job, then this will attract a certain kind of person. And do you really want that kind of person running the country?

If you want talented people to run the country, you have to inspire a sense of purpose, a sense of mission. Not throwing a couple more stacks of sing dollars at ’em.

So dear PAP, if this is your reason for multi-million dollar minister salaries, then you really have to relook your the people you are bringing in, and the ethos of your party.

3. If we pay Ministers millions, this will disconnect them from the realities of average Singaporeans.

This line of argument, popular among opposition party supporters, claims that you must experience everyday drudgery of the average citizens life (taking public transport, seeking medical care at a public hospital, sending your kids to government schools, living in a HDB flat) to be able to empathise and enact policies that benefit the poorest and least priviliged in society.

Really?

Whatever happened to the responsibility of voters to choose politicians that have the right values, sense of purpose and mission? And to vote out those politicians who show themselves to be disconnected District 10 divas.

Judge a person on their actions, not on their background, please.

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