“Privilege” pt. 2

by Shihang

Reading the Facebook pages of some of the PAP’s ministers (how’s social media working out for you?), it seems clear that people are convinced that public service is a “privilege”. Now, as much as I disagree with the PAP on the issue of compensation, I think the use of “privilege” here is rather perverse. After all, the free market in its idealised state rests upon arguments that selfish motivations can lead to behaviour that benefit the public good, and perhaps, also that it is the most consistent factor that binds actors to a socially beneficial course. Insisting that public servants to rely on their own benevolence to keep them on the straight and narrow, however idealistically defensible it may be, is perhaps a little naive. And surely working long hours and public attention are indeed costs that come with the decision to be a public servant. So I am not sure that the issue of ministerial salaries should rest any more on ministers’ goodwill than the laughably egoistical notion that our ministers are as economically competitive as their pay cheques suggest.

Also, I appreciate the point raised by one NMP that this report is a technical fix, which is why we should not be dizzied by the size of the pay cut. Frankly, the pay structure before was ridiculous. Ministers could have been paid for 39.5 months of work in a year (which to my knowledge still consists of 12 months). On top of that, they are also paid a MP allowance. It also strikes me as a little strange that they would consider a comfortable wage 50,000 a month, which seems rather damning considering that most Singaporeans earn below a-tenth that sum.

Just two more disparate observations. First, one thing I like about the recommendation is the notion of a clean wage. Case in point: Chinese officials’ pay is notoriously low but everybody knows that they drive luxury cars and live in big mansions. The shortfall is made up for by corruption and favour taking (read Richard McGregor’s book for a good account). Second, on the other hand, paying people not to lie and cheat seems to be in fact internalising the deception, which is defensible on pragmatic grounds, but suggests that it is a pity that we cannot get less greedy people.