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Wholesome Food and Speech?

January 17, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

Real Food, The Central, Singapore Real Food, The Central, Singapore

Was craving brown rice so attempted a fix at Real Food at The Central. Not as unmilled as I was hoping for, but the brown rice mix “containing at least 5 different organic grains including wild rice and barley beans” was rather tasty.

Dumpling soup and "brown rice", Real Food, The Central, Singapore

On the wholesome-ness of another matter: after numerous inevitable discussions about the salaries of Singapore ministers with various groups of people, i’ve been wanting to set out my thoughts on the issue for my own reference. Am rather neutral between political parties, since none of them are perfect and have their fair share of duds. But have been quite taken aback by the hatred and personal attacks on Facebook that, in a non-PAP-linked context, would be labelled harrassment and/or cyber-bullying. The vitriol i’ve seen hasn’t been terribly rational nor does it seem to be interested in what is best for the country. People haven’t fought so hard for freedom of speech for this sort of wanton abuse.

Anyway, since Alvin Yeo’s speech sets out most of the points in my mind (much more succinctly of course), am reproducing it here merely for future reference (not for yet more debate ad nauseum). Sadly, despite the best laid plans of mice and men, no system or policy can be made proof against the inherent sinfulness of all men:

Speech by Chua Chu Kang GRC MP Alvin Yeo (Debate on Political Salaries, 16 Jan 2012)

It is certainly fashionable now to lay into this whole topic of minister’s pay, to attack perceived ‘fat cat’ salaries and decry the loss of the spirit of public service that was the hallmark of our pioneer leaders.

But amidst the cacophony of sound, it is essential that we maintain a level-headed perspective about this debate, to temper idealism with realism, to remember that nothing exists in a vacuum (least of all, our country), to strike a balance between the ethos of public service and the need to attract and retain talent in our leadership.

One of the sub-plots that has drawn considerable comment is the benchmark adopted by the committee – the median income of the top 1,000 citizen earners, less 40 per cent. It is criticised by some to be elitist, there’s no relation to the lot of the common Singaporean, and likens public office with the profit-driven occupations of commercial enterprise.

Far better, it is said, to peg salaries to the median income of all Singaporeans, or of the lowest 20 per cent – and now with the latest proposal by the Workers’ Party, to that of senior civil servants – and then apply a suitable multiple to that figure.

I feel that much of this criticism overlooks what the committee was trying to achieve. The committee was not seeking to monetise the value of public service or to treat the Cabinet as an extension of the private sector, as the honourable member for Aljunied Mr Chen Show Mao has alleged.

Rather the committee was looking at the talent pool among Singaporeans, from whom the Government would seek to draw its future leaders. It is true that income-earning capacity, just as academic qualifications and lofty positions in corporations, are not a conclusive determinant of the qualities to be a leader. That is where the ethos of public service comes in, and what the 40 per cent discount was meant to address. But make no mistake, our citizens demand top performance from our ministers, who in turn are drawn from what is considered to be the likely pool of top performers.

Purely by way of illustration, there was considerable excitement in political circles when Mr Chen Show Mao himself threw his hat in the political ring. This was not because Mr Chen was considered to be a ‘median-income’ sort of guy, or somehow an emblem of the lowest income quintile of society. But rather, with his sterling qualifications and his position then as a partner in a international law firm, he was proof that opposition parties could also attract the sort of top talent, that one day perhaps may form the Government.

What about the other suggested benchmark of median income, which is then multiplied by a ‘reasonable’ number?

The first issue is how you derive this multiple – is it five times, 10 times, or 20 times? Whichever multiple you use will be arbitrary, and appear to be an exercise in backward rationalisation. You work out the salary figure you want, and then you derive the multiple to get there.

The second issue is – how does this method better justify the salary as identification with the man-in-the-street? Once you apply a multiple, any multiple – five times, 10 times, 20 times – you lose that identification with the median income, and you can be equally accused of being elitist.

To me, the most significant metric that appears in the committee’s report was the Mercer’s figure of $2.29 million for the average pay for a CEO of a similar public-listed company. That was considered by Mercer as the closest approximation to a minister’s job.

That may be so but in my view it is still not that close. The budget of a ministry runs into the billions of dollars, more than that of the typical public company. The number of employees of a ministry can be in the tens of thousands, bigger than most public companies. The impact of a minister’s decisions and policies affect a far wider group than any public company.

When there is a breakdown of the MRT trains, the Transport Minister is called to account. When a portion of Orchard Road floods, the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources has to answer questions on ponding and pumps.

No one is complaining about this – that is the nature of public office. But if the closest approximation of a minister’s job, which is still less onerous than that of a minister, pays $2.29 million, and the Committee’s recommendation would mean that a minister earns less than 50 per cent of that, is that a not a reasonable balance to strike? Is that not an appropriate financial sacrifice to make for public office?

There are those who think that is not enough, that public office should not be linked with competitive salaries, even with a 40 to 50 per cent discount. I respect their view, but would caution that idealism must be tempered by pragmatism, by a sense of the world we live in.

We would all like our leaders to be not only honest, clever, hardworking, probably good-looking as well, but so public-spirited that they would take office regardless of the pay, regardless of whether they could provide sufficiently for their family, or for their own retirement. Ms Denise Phua dubbed them ‘superhero politicians’. There are such people around, but are there enough for one to form a government, generation after generation?

The bulk of the population would like to earn a good living, and to earn more if they could. Does it mean that a potential leader is not public-spirited, if he or she is willing to take a pay cut but still wants to ensure a certain standard of living for their family? Or are we confining our choice of leaders to those who not only are extremely capable, but also have the disposition of religious or social workers when it comes to something as mundane as a salary? Is it wise for us to confine our pool of potential leaders to such a restrictive category?

Quite apart from that, a symbolic salary, or one that is not linked in any way to the potential income that a leader could make if he chooses a different path, brings with it other dangers. It is difficult to speak about it diplomatically, but it is well-recognised that there are many political leaders in other countries, who draw an official salary which appears very low, but are rich beyond imagination because they use their power for illicit gain.

There is a list circulating around the Internet about the 20 to 30 highest paid political leaders in the world, and all of them are from the Singapore Government, presumably to make the point against high minister salaries.

But if the list was expanded to include the 20 to 30 richest political leaders, I believe there would not be a single Singaporean minister among them.

Clearly a low or symbolic salary would not put off such persons, who see public office as the route to great riches but through indirect means. The complete opposite to the clean wage that Mr Inderjit Singh was talking about. But are these the sort of persons we want to vie for leadership positions?

Still another side effect of having salaries which are not being pegged to private sector benchmarks, even with a hefty discount, is that it tends to limit those coming forward to serve, to those who have inherited wealth or who have already made their fortune.

The United States and the United Kingdom are two countries which are acknowledged as leading democracies, with First World political systems, if not always parliaments. It has been pointed out many times that their leaders get paid less than our ministers, despite ruling over larger countries. What is sometimes overlooked is the background and composition of their leaders.

Quoting from ThisisMoney.co.uk, an article called ‘The Cabinet Rich List’ by Glen Owen, talking about the United Kingdom:

‘It is the £60 million (S$119 million) Cabinet. David Cameron’s coalition government may have adopted ‘fairness’ as one of its defining slogans, but his team of ministers has been drawn almost exclusively from the ranks of the financial elite – leading to accusations that politics is once again becoming the preserve of the wealthy.’

On No. 3 of the Cabinet Rich List is George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, with a net worth, which means assets less liabilities, of £4.6 million. The description is: ‘The youngest Chancellor for more than a century holds a £2 million stake in his father’s luxury wallpaper company, and lives in a £2 million family home in London’s Notting Hill. His constituency property adds another £600,000.’

At No. 5 of the Cabinet Rich List is the Prime Minister David Cameron, with a net worth of £4 million.

The PM and his wife both come from wealthy backgrounds and enjoy substantial property assets of their own: their London home has been valued at £2.7 million and their constituency house at £1 million.

Both are in line to inherit fortunes from their parents: the combined wealth of the Camerons’ parents has been put as high as £30 million.

Then at No. 12 on the list is Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg with a more modest net worth of £1.9 million. This is the description of his state of wealth:

‘Like his coalition partner Cameron, Clegg’s father made millions in the City. While Clegg Sr has an impressive international property portfolio worth several million pounds, the Lib Dem leader’s own wealth comes from a £1.5m property in Putney and a constituency house in Sheffield.’

Turning to the US, citing figures from OpenSecrets.org which is published by the Centre for Responsive Politics, of the estimated net worth – again, assets less liabilities – of members of the executive:

In 2008, the Republican government contained figures such as Henry Paulson, the Secretary of the Treasury with an estimated net worth of US$125 million (S$161 million), and Dick Cheney, the vice-president, of over US$30 million. Even the President, George Bush was worth about US$9.5 million.’

In 2010, the Democratic government contained figures like Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State with an estimated net worth of US$31 million, and William Daley of over US$28 million. Even President Barack Obama, perhaps thanks to his book sales, was worth US$7.3 million.

I do not seek to criticise these countries or their political systems. But it reinforces the view that every country must choose its own system based on its own economic conditions, social mores and particular limitations. What works for the UK and the US may not be right for Singapore. We are a small country, true, but that is precisely the challenge – how to make this little red dot, with no natural resources, small population, tiny domestic market, relevant against our giant neighbours and in this ever-changing world. All while trying to maintain our multi-ethnic, multi-religious identity.

To institute a system of remuneration that tends to draw our leaders from the saintly, the power-hungry and the already-rich, is not a course we should take.

We need the best government we can find, regardless of race, religion or background, provided they have the public interest at heart.

We need a system of remuneration – not to attract candidates to public office with the promise of riches, but not to deter them either, by imposing over-large sacrifices of a financial and personal nature. The committee sets out a fair and reasonable balance between these competing requirements. We should support it and move on with the challenging task of coming up with the best policies to improve the lives of all Singaporeans.

Since any attempt at quantification of salary has gotten the raspberries, i do wonder, if one took a ministerial appointment as some sort of national service and so if ministers were paid their last drawn salary (just as employers are currently compensated for any recall of their employees for reservist), how much more or less the bill would be. But certainly the horizontal inequality of pay then amongst ministers would throw up a whole different set of issues in theory and practice.

This reminds me somewhat of how lunch with colleagues sometimes goes:

A: Where shall we eat?
Everyone: Anywhere lah, anywhere. You decide lah.
A: Ok, let’s go to X.
B: Too smelly!
A: Ok, how about Y?
C: Food not good and too expensive!
A: Err, Z?
D: Too far away.
A: ……

Appointed as leader but everyone finds fault with your decisions and provide no viable alternative. And when the decision-maker accedes to demand of each person’s opinion of what is best, and we all know how “The Man, The Boy, and The Donkey” from Aesop’s Fables ended.

PS: In many respects, an interesting speech by Tan Chuan-Jin:

Speech – Parliamentary Debate on the recommendations of the Committee to Review Ministerial Salaries (18 Jan 2012)

Thank you Mr. Speaker, for allowing me the opportunity to share my thoughts.

A lot of views have been shared over the past few days in Parliament and much has been exchanged on the topic both in and out of this house. Many have taken an interest in this topic.

I would like to take a different tact and share more on the rhetoric and reality of service.

I am a new Member of Parliament, as many of my friends are on both sides of the house. This debate is useful for us to take a few steps back and ask ourselves very fundamental questions.

I will address 3 themes today.

Why we serve? What price our service? And the rhetoric and reality of service.

We serve

We serve because we all in this House believe that this place called Singapore is our home and it is worth fighting for. We may have different views, but if you strip the politics or rhetoric out of these few days’ exchanges, there is a lot more in common than we care to admit.

We should not try to speak as if we are the most committed, most passionate, principled etc. We all are, in our own ways.

Secondly, as honourable Mr. Chen Show Mao states so eloquently, we serve because it is a privilege and I agree. I would add that we serve because it is a calling. It is not a career. It is an honour that all of us do not take lightly. I think all of us here believe in this.

Importantly, we make sure that we do the real work on the ground and we serve because we want to make a difference. For example, there is the prospect of an economic downturn coming. Not everything is within our control but we have been planning on how best to ride it, manage it, and to look after Singaporeans. Livelihoods are at stake. We do what we can, as we do on a whole range of issues. It is not just talk and debate.

Things are not perfect by far, but we continue to try and do as best we can.

On balance, Singapore is in pretty good shape considering the difficulties in the last decade or so.

Our work continues.

Who do we serve? We serve our people, our country, for today and for tomorrow. As the honourable Mr. Yee Jenn Jong states, Singapore is not a company nor a business. It cannot be run as such. All of us agree. It is far more than that. But should we not be prudent? Should we not put in place systems and processes to keep things going well? Should we look at numbers? Should we look at details? Should we make those difficult decisions that are sometimes necessary but painful for some?

We face these decisions everyday in our households, do we not? At our work place? These are the realities of life. There is no point pretending otherwise and it is no less for a country. Does addressing these things make Singapore a company which is indicative when you made your statement? We address these because we are responsible and we care for well being of our people and our nation.

Let me share with you this card I received on Monday during my Meet-the-People Session from one of my residents. She is a single mother with an abusive ex-husband, with school-going children and was finding it difficult to secure a rental flat.

It was addressed to Member of Parliament, Mr. Tan, not Minister. (I highlighted this because of statements made that we were Ministers first rather than being an MP first)

谢谢你给我的帮助, 孩子们已经搬进新家了。心里对您的感激永远不会忘记。您帮助了我重新开始人生的第一步,也是最困难的第的一步。我会好好珍惜和努力往前走。 在这里还是要多一次说谢谢您。 祝您新年快乐、万事如意。

(In English) Thank you for your help. The children have moved into their new home. In our hearts, we will never forget your help. You have helped me to take the first, which is also the most difficult, step to begin our lives afresh. I will treasure this and will continue to work hard to move forward. Thank you once again and Happy Lunar New Year.

This is not unique – I think all of us from both sides of the House receive such cards, acknowledgements from time to time.

What price our service?

We are all Members of Parliament, elected by the people.

Can we price our responsibilities? Impossible. This effort is not about pricing the office. But we all know that once we move beyond the proclamations of service, we need to work the mechanics of this. It is something we need to do, whatever the formula.

As we have seen, Worker’s Party accepts that we need to do that as well. Honestly, I think these principles are not dissimilar and are in the same ballpark. The numbers don’t necessarily differ greatly, depending on what the performance is and so forth, and I don’t intend to go into details on this.

So is the opposition also pricing our service as well in this effort? Of course not!

Are the models very different? So let’s look at this.

A very emphatic statement was made about us being MPs first. Indeed we are. But I was curious when Honourable Member Pritam Singh made these grand statements of a political nature – that for us, we are Ministers first, before MPs. There is no such thing. He added that there is only the top tier that can become Ministers. I would suggest that it is rather untruthful. We are MPs first unlike certain MPs who have stated that it is not their responsibility to look after the low-income group, that it is the Government’s responsibility.

That is why all of us as Members of Parliament, even as office holders, make sure we look after our residents as best as we can. We push the Government to do more, and complement the national efforts when we are able to. We do not wish away our responsibilities. We walk the talk as best as we can.

The Worker’s Party suggests that an MP’s pay be based on MX9 because it is an extension of public service. But then again, MX9 is also based on market considerations. This is part of the entire pay structure of the civil service – from MX 9 to beyond the Admin Service pay. We look at the private sector pay and adjust it accordingly. MX 9 is the entry level to the Super scale level. So I suppose we add in some multiples to make up a credible political number.

So on one hand – you have multiples of a top civil servant’s pay at MX9. On the other hand, as proposed by Mr. Gerard Ee’s committee – a so-called discount factor on the top 1000.

Mr. Chen states that political service is not a discount factor. I agree. It is not. I have talked about why we serve.

So in the same spirit, would it be correct to say that in WP’s reckoning, that Political Service is a “mark-up factor?”

I don’t think so. That would be a cheap political shot. Because that is not what you mean.

My main puzzle is a logical one: The Workers’ Party formula must come from some foundational perspectives – either it chooses the market-peg that we have worked on, or it puts forward another basis all together. Pegging it to the public sector sounds good at first glance, but it does not count because the public sector too derives from that market-peg. So statements like “Cabinet is not an extension of the Private Sector” again sounds very good and we agree. But does it not then follow that under the Workers’ Party formulation, “the public sector is an extension of the private”? Surely not, as well.

Pays are linked across sectors not because their missions are similar but because the empirical reality is that the same pool of people can flow to either side. There is no point pretending otherwise.

So I suggest that we are, in many ways, on the same song sheet. Which leads me to the last point.

The rhetoric and reality of service

As I said earlier, I totally agree political service is a privilege.

But you know it’s not a credit card-sort of privilege and membership in Parliament does come with some privileges. I don’t primarily think of it that way nor many of my fellow members. For me, it is a calling to serve. It is a hard-won honour, but more importantly, it is a responsibility. Our responsibility as leaders is to apply our hearts and also our minds to best serve our people. There are practical issues we need to manage – the budget, sustainability, and trade-offs. They may not be emotive or gut stirring, but that is what responsible leadership is about.

Responsibility is not about flowery rhetoric but about translating this belief into reality on a daily basis, to make things better for our people.

Establishing a fair, transparent and pragmatic pay structure is part of that responsibility. Why do we pretend and paint it in negative political tones when in reality, you are doing very much the same with your approach?

What I found most troubling was that a committee was set up in good faith to seriously review the political salaries. Yet it now appears that the opposition has chosen not to share with the Committee the ideas that they are so passionately championing. I understand that Mr. Yee has explained. But two days ago, Mr. Gerald Giam would not give a clear answer. But I thought Mr. Yee’s response yesterday was illuminating. In essence, the thrust of what he said was – there is no need to share that much with the Committee because they would rather table it in Parliament. But the fact of the matter is that the Review Committee was set up to review the structure and the robust debate that we have today can still continue.

So what does this suggest? I think if we are sincere in trying to make things better, we should help the committee do the best job possible rather than focus on gamesmanship in Parliament.

Is this the First World Parliament that they are talking about? I see many First World Parliaments out there floundering. They consume their future and are embroiled in rhetoric and politics that keep them from helping their countries get out of their respective ruts.

But I trust that that is not the First World Parliament that you are talking about. And I think all of us want a model that works for us – regardless of what you want to call it.

There is this matter of sacrifice that I would like to address. It was shared that political service is not about sacrifice.

We don’t all wrap ourselves in a flag and proclaim our patriotism. I believe all of us on both sides of the House serve for the right reason. We all take different routes. The Honourable Mr. Chen for example left Singapore for many years. He became exceedingly successful and then returned to serve our people. Some of us have stayed on and served our nation in various capacities. For some of us, it is our entire lives. And in our own simple way, we are proud to have served and to continue serving.

I admire those who proudly proclaim that there is no sacrifice in stepping forward to political service. It took me a long time to decide even though I had been serving in our Army. Political service is public service but somewhat different. Does this make me a less committed Singaporean?

I am pained by the knowledge that I will miss the many moments when my children are growing up and time with family. My parents are not getting any younger. Those moments missed do not return. Ever. In time, I will look back, and there will be gaps. But that’s life.

I’m not sure how one considers it a privilege to miss these precious moments. It trivializes all of us who do cherish these.

Does that make all of us lesser beings?

Political office is a privilege, a calling and a responsibility. Whatever sacrifices there may be, we do so because we believe there is a higher calling and it is worth this effort to step forward.

As a Christian, I believe that serving my fellow-Singaporeans is my responsibility and count it as a blessing that I am able to do so.

As a soldier, I know and I have seen with my own eyes that real and true service involves sacrifice all the time. We sacrifice what we hold dear to serve something bigger than ourselves.

There is no dollar value that can be attached to this.

And neither should we play games by competing to see who can proclaim their credentials louder with savvy emotive laden language. Or who is more noble with the cleverer turn of phrase.

It is ultimately about human lives and our people’s future. There are real concerns that our people struggle with, and it is our duty to make lives better.

While it may not make for good politics, we believe that it is the right thing to address this pay issue head on.

In being an honest government and I am not talking about corruption here, we try our best to deal with realities and to squarely address them.

Rhetoric is important but it is more important to carry out our responsibilities as best we can.

Ministerial Pay is something we need to decide on. Before the elections, I made a statement that this is something that we should review. I believe the recommendations are fair, and provide us a reasonable basis to implement it sensibly.

With that, Mr. Speaker, I support the motion.

Mr. Tan Chuan-Jin
Minister of State (Manpower & National Development)
MP, Marine Parade GRC

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