Monday 23 January 2012

Ministerial Salaries Review debate in Parliament -Day 3

'Real progress' in ministerial pay debate
Opposition's agreement on key points marks a breakthrough: DPM Teo
By Li Xueying, The Straits Times, 19 Jan 2012

PARLIAMENT yesterday voted to adopt the new ministerial salary recommendations, with Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean saying real progress had been made on the controversial topic, with agreement on key areas.

Members of Parliament, including those from the Workers' Party, had endorsed the three principles of the new system, he said.

These are: the need for competitive salaries; the ethos of political service; and the system of clean wages.

On the principle of clean wages, for example, he said there had been unanimous agreement, which hopefully would put an end to 'misleading comparisons' with the salaries of foreign leaders who receive unquantifiable benefits.

Noting that no one had suggested benchmarking salaries to foreign leaders' cash pay, he said it was 'quite remarkable as this had been a feature in the past'.

'We have come a very long way on this issue of political salaries and have moved much closer together, members from both sides of the House,' he said.

What struck him was the 'degree of convergence and agreement' achieved over the past three days.

Although the WP came up with a different formula to calculate the salaries, the ultimate sums that both it and the Committee to Review Political Salaries derived were still in the same ballpark, he said. But in an indication that the issue could continue to loom in Singapore's political landscape, People's Action Party and opposition MPs locked horns several times during the debate yesterday.

And when the House voted at 6pm on the motion to endorse the committee's recommendations, those voting 'Aye' prevailed, against roars of 'No' from the opposition.

It brought to a close the three-day debate - Singapore's seventh on ministerial pay in the past three decades - which featured detailed charts, impassioned convictions and, at one point, a half-filled glass of water, as speakers made their arguments.

A total of 30 MPs, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, spoke.

Separately, former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew - the man behind the formula first introduced in 1994 to peg political salaries to private-sector benchmarks - wrote in a letter released to the media last night that Singapore did not make the leap from Third World to First 'by head-hunting ministers willing to sacrifice their children's future when undertaking a public service duty'.

Instead, it took 'a pragmatic course that does not require people of calibre to give up too much for the public good'.

'With a different generation, political attitudes change,' he said. 'But for Singapore, the basic challenge remains unchanged: that unless we have a steady stream of high-quality men and women to serve as PM and ministers, Singapore as a little red dot will become a little black spot.'

He noted that the PAP's internal critics who had previously expressed reservations about political salaries - for instance, Ms Denise Phua (Moulmein-Kallang GRC) and Mr Inderjit Singh (Ang Mo Kio GRC) - had now indicated broad support for the new system.

Shift in WP's stance helps debate move forward: DPM Teo

But he was most heartened to hear the WP's Mr Chen Show Mao (Aljunied GRC) espouse the three principles on Monday.

'This is a significant change, and a significant step forward,' he said.

'For the first time, the Workers' Party has stated that it accepted benchmarks, benchmarking salaries competitively, similar to the approach taken by the committee, and it is a fundamental departure from their past proposals.'

He went on to detail how the WP had shifted its stance over the years.

In the run-up to the 2006 General Election, the party had said it wanted political salaries to be pegged to the incomes of the poorest 20 per cent of Singaporeans, multiplied by 100.

The following year, it said the salaries should be benchmarked to what foreign leaders earn - a call repeated during the general election campaign last year.

This time, said Mr Teo, the WP's position to peg an MP's allowance to a senior civil servant's pay was 'in line with benchmarking to local conditions'.

He said: 'The Workers' Party has clearly made a fundamental change, and taken a new position, which I hope they will hold on to in the next GE.

'I welcome this change. This change has helped this debate to move forward and arrive at areas of convergence.'

WP MPs later rose to highlight 'distinct' differences between their formula and the committee's, including how bonuses are calculated. They also asserted that in principle, their benchmark was 'more in line with general wage levels'.

But Mr Teo and other PAP MPs countered that the bottom line was that the final figures were still about the same.

The WP proposed a monthly pay for ministers of $55,000 and an annual typical package of $852,500. The committee recommended a $46,750 starting salary for an entry-level minister with an annual typical package of $935,000.

Said Mr Teo: 'If you churn out the numbers and multiply them up, you come up with an answer which is a bit bigger, but still generally in the same ballpark.'

The same went for the Singapore People's Party, which came up with a monthly salary of $60,000, he added.

Strip away the rhetoric, he said, and the WP proposal could be seen to have been based on the same principles, is just as pragmatic, and has resulted in salaries of the same general level as the Committee's. He urged WP MPs to 'take a more elevated view of the subject rather than accentuating differences'.

Mr Teo made it clear the adopted recommendations were not set in stone, given that another review would be carried out in five years.

By then, he added, 'we will have more experience and perhaps we can take on board the many interesting and potentially useful suggestions that have been put forward'.

'If structural changes need to be made to the framework, we will have the opportunity to do so'.

But now, looking ahead, he urged MPs to 'focus on the real work at hand'.

'We hope this (debate) will help to settle this important matter for some time to come, and enable us to avoid politicising ministerial salaries, in order to focus on getting the best team to do the best job for Singapore and Singaporeans.'

Not all that different after all

BACKBENCHER Edwin Tong (Moulmein-Kallang GRC) yesterday drew up a table (see chart) to show that the ministerial pay proposed by the Workers' Party is not that different from what the Committee to Review Ministerial Salaries came up with.

'For all the loud cries of disagreement by the WP, their own number gets us within the same ballpark,' he said.

In the table, assuming the lowest starting pay and a 13-month annual package, the WP's recommended pay is $715,000, while the committee's is $607,750.

With bonuses added, the WP's range is $880,000 to $1,017,500, while the committee's is $935,000 to $1.23 million.

Mr Tong said the table assumes that the WP's maximum bonus is 5.5 months, because this was the number provided by WP's Mr Yaw Shin Leong (Hougang SMC) on Tuesday.

Referring to the table, he spoke of how in the past, WP MPs would use absolute pay numbers 'to stir emotions and sentiments against the salary scale'.

'Now that the WP's proposal gives us the same ballpark, a different slogan is being trotted out - the 'people-up' approach,' he noted, referring to the WP's latest argument that its formula is based on 'general wage levels' of Singaporeans.

He added that if salaries have to be competitive, a principle that the WP's Mr Chen Show Mao had agreed with, that meant having wages that are attractive relative to what the comparable alternative is.

He asked: 'If you accept that a competitive wage needs to be paid, why peg it from the bottom up?'

DPM Teo queries Workers' Party's choice of benchmark
Just 1.2% of civil servants of MX9 grade or higher, he says
By Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 19 Jan 2012

DEPUTY Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean yesterday criticised the Workers' Party (WP) for picking the MX9 senior civil servant grade as the basis for its ministerial pay formula without first finding out what it entailed.

And contrary to the WP MPs' defence of their formula as being more 'people-up' and in tune with national wage levels, their benchmark in fact belongs to a small pool of senior officers whose pay is pegged to people of similar seniority in the private sector, he noted.

Only 1.2 per cent of the 76,000 civil servants across all services are of the MX9 (Superscale) grade or higher, revealed DPM Teo yesterday.

This works out to fewer than 1,000 people, or one out of 83 civil servants.

'While the Workers' Party has stated that the committee's benchmark is 'elitist', the MX9 (Superscale) pool is actually quite a select group,' he said.

WP MPs had recommended treating ministers' salaries as multiples of the MP allowance, as ministers should be paid according to the principle that they are first and foremost elected MPs.

They proposed pegging the MP allowance to the starting salary of entry-grade senior civil servants outside of the elite Administrative Service. A director at the MX9 grade in the Management Executive Scheme of the civil service, for instance, would earn around $11,000 a month.

Such a benchmark would be more in line with 'general wage levels of Singaporeans' and have a 'whole of Government, people-up' approach, the WP MPs had said.

In contrast, the formula proposed by the Committee to Review Ministerial Salaries, which pegs ministers' pay to 60 per cent of the median income of the top 1,000 income earners, is 'elitist' because it takes into account only 0.06 per cent of the workforce, the WP charged.

Yesterday, DPM Teo took issue with the WP's arguments on two counts.

First, the 0.06 per cent ratio highlighted by the WP is misleading because it could also be applied to a leader in charge of an organisation with 1,700 workers.

'There are a number of organisations in the public service which are comparable to or larger than 1,700 people, and the leader of such an organisation is 0.06 per cent of that organisation,' said DPM Teo.

'Is that an unreasonable ratio for a minister? And the impact of a minister's work goes well beyond that and affects all Singaporeans,' he added.

'Both 0.06 per cent and 1.2 per cent are small numbers, but when we look at them in terms of these ratios we might be better able to assess and understand whether these reflect the type of qualities we are looking for in our ministers and our MPs,' said DPM Teo.

Two, he pointed out that the MX9 (Superscale) salary grade is not pegged to Singaporeans' 'general wage levels'.

Instead, it is pegged to the salaries of 'quite senior people in the private sector' who hold jobs of equivalent responsibility and scope.

'The MX9 (Superscale) officer is not representative of an average 'whole-of-government' officer. He is a senior officer with significant responsibilities, in the ranks of the senior leadership of the civil service,' said DPM Teo.

Noting that about half of civil servants are teachers and the WP was proposing to benchmark MPs - not ministers - to the top 1.2 per cent of the civil service, he added: 'I leave it to members and the public to decide whether this is an appropriate way to compare.'

DPM Teo's speech later resulted in a skirmish between Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam and several office-holders.

Responding to Mr Giam's question of whether MX9 salaries would rise at the same rate as the top 1,000 Singaporean earners, DPM Teo asked if Mr Giam accepted that MX9 pay did not represent general wage levels here.

Said DPM Teo: 'I don't have a crystal ball. I can't tell what salaries will do in the future... But the important point is the principle. We have now all agreed that we do competitive benchmarking against the market.'

Mr Giam said he had 'no choice but to accept' the MX9 formula because the WP had not been privy to what it was.

This led DPM Teo to say he was 'a bit perturbed' by Mr Giam's revelation. 'First of all, he revealed that he really didn't know what the MX9 (Superscale) grade was. But then, he's based his entire system and proposition on this,' he said.

Senior Minister of State Heng Chee How and Minister of State Tan Chuan-Jin also rose to rebut.

Said Mr Tan: 'The honourable Member has based the entire system on MX9 which he had made a big song and dance about without understanding what it is... I think it reveals the thoroughness with which certain Members are approaching making policies which would have an impact on Singapore.'

Mr Heng pressed Mr Giam to admit that since he knew MX9 was the entry grade to the Superscale pay range for senior civil servants, the WP MPs 'are similarly benchmarking according to what they themselves call an elitist approach'.

Mr Giam, however, countered that the MX9 grade would still be a more reasonable level and more reflective of what the majority of Singaporeans earn, compared with the top 1,000 earners.


FEWER than 1,000 civil servants belong to the MX9 (Superscale) grade or higher, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean revealed yesterday.

It is the lowest rung - the 'entry grade' - of the Superscale salary range in the civil service. Superscale officers are senior personnel in the top echelons of the civil service.

Yesterday, DPM Teo, who oversees the civil service, said only 1.2 per cent of the civil service workforce of 76,000 are of the MX9 grade or above. This works out to just one out of 83 civil servants across all services.

The Workers' Party had proposed pegging an MP's allowance to the starting salary of the MX9 grade - around $11,000 a month. An entry-level minister's monthly pay would then be set at five times that amount, or $55,000 a month. The Prime Minister would get nine times that amount, or $99,000 a month.

On Monday, WP MP Chen Show Mao (Aljunied GRC) said that many countries also benchmarked MPs' allowance to senior executives' in the regular civil service.

Civil service salaries are also aligned to general market conditions faced by Singaporean workers, he said. Hence, ministers' pay would 'move with the income levels of many more Singaporeans' compared with the benchmark of the median income of the top 1,000 Singaporean earners proposed by the committee.

The committee recommended setting the MP allowance at 17.5 per cent of an entry-level minister's salary - or $13,750 a month.

Yesterday, Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam said the WP consciously chose the regular civil service as a benchmark instead of the elite Administrative Service. The lowest entry grade to Superscale salary range for the Administrative Service is SR9, which is pegged to the 15th-highest earner at age 32 in six professions. This is 'a much higher benchmark' than MX9, said Mr Giam.

DPM Teo clarified yesterday that salaries of MX9 officers are pegged to those of senior people in the private sector who hold jobs of similar responsibility and scope. This is because MX9 officers belong to the ranks of senior leadership in the civil service and hold significant responsibilities, he said.

Mr Giam later said DPM Teo had not revealed the actual benchmark of the MX9 salaries. DPM Teo, however, had earlier noted the mid-point of the MX9 salary grade is $13,750, which coincides with the MP allowance proposed by the committee.

Don't underpay our ministers: Lee Kuan Yew

MR LEE Kuan Yew, who is currently in Paris to attend Total's advisory council meeting, sent a letter to the media last night giving his views on the recommendations of the ministerial pay review committee:

'I listened to several of the speeches in Parliament on ministerial salaries and read the rest in the newspapers. With a different generation, political attitudes change. But for Singapore, the basic challenge remains unchanged: That unless we have a steady stream of high-quality men and women to serve as PM and ministers, Singapore as a little red dot will become a little black spot.

'I was Prime Minister from 1959 to 1990 and Senior Minister in PM Goh Chok Tong's Cabinet from 1990 to 2004.

'To find able and committed men and women of integrity, willing to spend the prime of their lives, and going through the risky process of elections, we cannot underpay our ministers and argue that their sole reward should be their contribution to the public good.

'Every family wants to provide the best for their children, send them to a good university. We were pragmatic and paid competitive salaries in order to have a continuous stream of high-calibre people become MPs, and then ministers. They put their careers at risk and underwent an uncertain and unpredictable election process.

'A PM and his ministers carry heavy responsibilities for the nation. If they make a serious mistake, the damage to Singapore will be incalculable and permanent. Their macroeconomic policies will decide the GDP of the country, which was more than S$300 billion in 2010, with per capita GDP of S$59,000.

'We did not take Singapore from the Third to the First World by head-hunting ministers willing to sacrifice their children's future when undertaking a public service duty. We took a pragmatic course that did not require people of calibre to give up too much for the public good. We must not reduce Singapore to another ordinary country in the Third World by dodging the issue of competitive ministerial remuneration.'

Heated words over hot topic
Speaker reminds MPs 'decorum of House must always be maintained'
By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 19 Jan 2012

THE parliamentary debate over ministerial pay was so characterised by forceful exchanges and cross-bench fire that Speaker Michael Palmer yesterday felt compelled to remind MPs that 'the decorum of this House must always be maintained'.

Speaking before the third and final day of debate began, Mr Palmer said that while he 'fully appreciates and encourages vigorous debate', MPs must obey the ground rules of parliamentary discourse.

They should not address other MPs directly with words like 'you' or 'yours', and must seek his consent before asking one another for clarification.

They must also allow their interlocutors to fully answer their questions before jumping to rebut, he added.

The reminder did not douse the fire in MPs' bellies. The day's first speech, by Workers' Party MP Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC), moved seven People's Action Party MPs to their feet to variously attack the WP's position, or defend their own.

One central issue characterised the bulk of the exchanges between PAP and WP MPs through the three days: Whether the difference between the WP's proposal on political pay and the one the Government intends to enact is vast, as WP MPs argued, or superficial, as PAP MPs countered.

The base salary that the WP proposes for entry-level ministers, of $55,000 a month, is the same as the benchmark the Committee to Review Ministerial Salaries had recommended.

This confounded PAP MPs like Minister of State for Finance and Transport Josephine Teo. The identical figure implies that the WP wants to recruit from the same pool of talent as the committee does, she said. 'So how is it then that the committee's proposal is elitist but then the WP is not elitist?'

But WP MPs stressed there were two key differences in their proposal.

First, it limits bonuses to five months, as opposed to the maximum of 13.5 months the committee sanctions.

As Aljunied GRC MP Chen Show Mao said to Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean yesterday: 'If maximum bonuses were received under the committee's proposal, ministerial salary would in fact be reduced by 8 per cent (from current levels). Under the WP's proposal, it will be reduced by 37 per cent.'

Mr Chen's figures are derived from the benchmark for an entry-grade minister in 2010: $1.58 million. It is unclear if that benchmark took into account the maximum bonuses that entry-level ministers could receive in the old scheme; and Mr Chen did not explain how he arrived at his figures.

PAP MPs also pressed WP MPs on why they objected to the committee's proposal when they had expressed acceptance of the three fundamental principles underlying it.

They are: salaries must be competitive; political service entails sacrifice and hence there should be a discount from the peg; and there should be a 'clean wage' with no hidden perks.

But Mr Singh said that significant differences remained in his party's approach. In particular, the WP rejects pegging pay to the top earners in the private sector. Rather, it proposes to peg pay to MPs' allowances, which are in turn linked to the pay of what Mr Singh called 'rank-and-file civil servants'.

He said that this would be more acceptable to the public and 'critically, take the emotion out of the debate (and) set the tone in future decades for a more sober assessment of political salaries'.

The WP's call for an independent review commission to be formed each time the Prime Minister seeks to change how political pay is determined was probed by Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC MP Janil Puthu-cheary.

The WP wants such a commission to be accountable to Parliament, and its findings subject to the approval of the House.

Dr Puthucheary asked if this suggestion implied the WP thought the committee headed by National Kidney Foundation chairman Gerard Ee, which answered to the PM, was partisan or not independent.

Mr Singh replied in the negative: 'I feel that the committee was independent and non-partisan. I have no reason to believe otherwise, but I can only speak for myself. I'm not speaking for the WP.'

After three days of bruising thrust and parry among the 30 MPs who weighed in on the issue, Mr Palmer called for a vote.

The debate came to a close with the House endorsing the Committee's new benchmark for political pay: The 'ayes' had it.

After Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean wrapped up the debate in a 45-minute speech, Workers' Party MP Chen Show Mao (Aljunied GRC) rose to dispute that there was not much difference between the WP's proposal and that of the Committee to Review Ministerial Salaries:

Mr Chen Show Mao: 'If indeed there is convergence today and if indeed, as has been mentioned, today is much like a dance, I would like to thank the Government for leading the dance and taking the first step towards acknowledging that political salaries in this country need fixing.

'While we agree with the three principles distilled by the committee, does DPM agree that under the committee's application of the principles, they have produced a formula that is really quite distinct from what the WP has proposed?

'For example, if maximum bonuses were received under the committee's proposal, ministerial salary would in fact be reduced by 8 per cent. And under the WP's proposal, it will be reduced by 37 per cent.'

Mr Teo Chee Hean: 'I think it goes to the nub of what I said just now. We are at about the same levels of salary. There's not a great deal of difference between what the WP has proposed, what the committee has proposed and what the Government accepts. Mr Chen is bargaining over small differences here and there. I would have hoped that Mr Chen would have taken a more elevated view of the subject. He has agreed to accept three principles. The committee has, in its wisdom, after consulting many people, including some inputs from the WP, come up with what it thinks is a good formula for Singapore for the future. We're prepared to accept that.

'The WP has a different formula, but as I pointed out in my speech, very similar in principle, very similar in method, very similar in benchmarking against specific population groups where they feel comparisons are relevant and have come up with roughly the same number.

'I think this House should come together, accept the committee's recommendation, move forward and take a more elevated view of the subject rather than accentuate differences.'

After WP MP Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) delivered his speech, PAP MP Alvin Yeo (Chua Chu Kang GRC) questioned his point that a generous bonus system is not consistent with the principle of a 'clean wage'

Mr Alvin Yeo: I would just ask Mr Singh (if he) is aware that it's a commonly accepted remuneration practice, that the more senior the position, the greater weightage placed on bonus. So for instance, it's typical for a CEO to have more than half his remuneration based on bonus.

The idea here is not that it is not a clean wage. It is made quite transparent. The idea of having a heavier weightage on bonus is to make it clear that the minister will not get that pay unless his performance is in keeping with key performance indicators, which include national outcomes that improve the lot of Singaporeans. Does not Mr Pritam Singh accept that that is consistent with the principle of having a minister be made accountable for his performance?

Mr Singh: I think (Mr Yeo) has already put out, in the best way possible, why the principles behind our proposals are so different. We are not looking at CEOs in the private sector and how bonuses are paid out to them.

We are looking at the rank-and-file civil service. And we believe that political salaries ought to have some comparison with the rank-and-file civil servants. Now if they are not paid double-digit bonuses, then we feel, in the same way, that ministers should not get double-digit bonuses.

The other point I made in my speech is that if you pay these high bonuses, what that works out to in reality is that you have an additional part of your wage. When you compare to other countries with perks (for their politicians), we feel that it comes to the same thing, in some roundabout way. So what we are saying is, there is a cleaner way to reach that clean wage definition. And that is by keeping bonuses a little modest and sober.

Mr Yeo: I don't believe Mr Singh has answered my question as to whether a higher weightage on bonus is consistent with the principle of making ministers accountable for performance...I don't agree that (perks) are the same shape or form as a bonus which is made transparent and known to the electorate.

Mr Singh: I disagree with (Mr Yeo), obviously. Even if your bonus was, let's say, five months or 5.5 months, as the WP is recommending, does it mean ministers will be somehow less accountable? I don't believe so. And my party also doesn't believe so. We feel bonuses can be kept at 5.5 months and that's our position.

Minister of State for Transport and Finance Josephine Teo pressed Mr Singh on why the Workers' Party believed its proposals were that different from those of the review committee:

Mrs Josephine Teo: 'The number (Mr Singh) has proposed to pay a minister is actually not very different from the number the committee is paying. What that means, in effect, is you're also proposing to draw from roughly the same population the committee is proposing to draw from, to fill our political leadership. So how is it that the committee's proposal is elitist but the WP's is not elitist?'

Mr Pritam Singh: 'It's not the numbers that's the issue. It's the principle behind those numbers. We have moved away from pegging ministerial salaries to the top 1,000 and the Administrative Service...Peg it to the average Singaporean at a level where Singaporeans can aspire to.'

Mrs Teo: 'Did I not hear the Member agreeing that the principles that were enunciated by Mr Ee's committee are the same principles that (the Member) also subscribes to? Unless I heard you wrongly. The second thing is that I also remember very distinctly DPM (Teo Chee Hean) saying it does not mean that we draw people only from around that salary range. Did he not make that clear or did you not pick that up?'

Mr Singh: At the risk of repeating myself, what we are saying is the committee's use of the percentage of the Administrative Service salary scale is something we do not agree with. That's one principle which is fundamentally different. So I hope you're clear on that. If you're not clear, I'm sorry, I can't be clearer than this.

'The other was pegging the salaries to the top 1,000. Again, we don't agree with that. We think there's another way which is more acceptable to the public and, critically, we feel that way would take the emotion out of the debate and it will set the tone in future decades for a more sober assessment of political salaries.'

WP pressed to disclose feedback to committee
PAP MPs question motive for keeping suggestions for House
By Tessa Wong, The Straits Times, 19 Jan 2012

THE Workers' Party (WP) came under further pressure yesterday in Parliament to disclose what it said to the Committee to Review Ministerial Salaries, with at least one PAP MP accusing the party of 'playing political games'.

Several PAP MPs took issue with WP Non-Constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong's remarks the day before.

On Tuesday, Mr Yee had said that his WP colleague Gerald Giam had met the committee for two hours and shared certain ideas.

Mr Yee then added: 'We have no need to share everything with the committee, as this is precisely what Parliament is here for. Parliament is the place where we debate the whole proposal.'

Yesterday, Mr Baey Yam Keng (Tampines GRC) queried why they kept some suggestions to raise in Parliament.

'Either they have not thought through this matter or they have changed their position, or perhaps there are other political motivations. I wonder,' said Mr Baey.

Later, Mr Hri Kumar Nair (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) went a step further and lobbed the accusation that the WP was being inconsistent and 'playing political games'.

'They wanted to reserve some arguments for Parliament, and the only reason why you want to do that is because you want to... tell the whole world that 'I am clever because I've a better idea'. Never mind that months, hours, a lot of resources were spent by Mr Gerard Ee's committee to put together the best possible package for Singapore,' he said.

Minister of State for National Development Tan Chuan-Jin echoed this by saying that if members were sincere in changing the ministerial salary structures, then they should have tried to help the committee get the best solution possible.

It would have been better if the WP had sent in its precise proposal instead of sharing broad principles, as the review committee may have adopted some of their suggestions, added Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean in his closing speech later.

Mr Yee and Mr Giam rose repeatedly throughout the debate to rebut these accusations.

Mr Giam stressed that his party's interest was 'to want the committee to come out with as good a recommendation as possible, that would be in the best interest of the nation'.

He pointed out that if they did not have this interest, they could have rejected the request to meet the committee and withheld all their ideas.

Brandishing a document, which he said he had taken with him to the meeting, Mr Giam said he had given 'all the feedback that we had at that point of time' which they felt would be 'important for the committee to take into consideration'.

These ideas included doing away with the benchmark of two-thirds of the median income of the top 48 professionals; measuring a minister's bonus against the achievement of key performance indicators; and doing away with pensions.

'When the committee's proposals came out, there were many more details that we could not have foreseen that appeared in the proposal.

'So I think it's fair for us to be able to analyse the report as a responsible party... and come to debate on the basis of that report rather than what we had held our positions earlier on,' he said.

The WP sent only Mr Giam to meet with three Mercer consultants advising the committee, on Sept 29 last year.

They had an 'extensive discussion' that lasted about two hours, Mr Giam told The Straits Times, in which he gave an oral presentation of the WP's ideas and was also interviewed on why he joined politics.

During the debate, Aljunied GRC MP Pritam Singh rejected what he said was the impression that the WP came into Parliament to undermine the committee's findings.

Mr Yee said that just as the committee had to take a long time to come up with its findings, so too did the WP need to spend a lot of time to do its own research.

'We did not feel that we had withheld any important info,' he said.

'Same figures, different principles'
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 19 Jan 2012

THE final figures arrived at by the Workers' Party (WP) are not 'worlds apart' from those proposed by the Committee to Review Ministerial Salaries.

But the WP differs in its principles - not least its wish to sever the connection between political pay and elitism, WP MP Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) said yesterday.

'It's the principles behind the numbers that matter,' he said during the third and last day of parliamentary debate on the committee's report.

On Monday and Tuesday, People's Action Party MPs such as Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC) had pointed out that the WP's proposed salaries were similar to the committee's recommendations.

The WP's proposed $55,000 monthly salary for an entry-grade minister is equal to the committee's benchmark salary, and higher than its lowest monthly starting pay of $46,750.

But the important point is that the WP disagrees with the committee's benchmarking method, said Mr Singh. The committee pegs ministers' pay to the median income of the top 1,000 Singaporeans, with a 40 per cent discount.

Ministerial salaries have been an emotive issue because this peg is seen as elitist, said Mr Singh.

In contrast, the WP's proposals were 'precisely formulated... to remove this emotion from any debate on ministerial salaries, and to remove the overbearing odour of elitism from political office'.

The WP instead pegs MP allowances to the starting salary of a senior civil servant at the MX9 pay grade, which is $11,000 a month.

Ministers' pay starts at five times that.

'The WP proposals take their cue from the rank and file of the civil service,' said Mr Singh.

The WP's philosophy is that public service is open to all Singaporeans, and its benchmark sends this signal, he added.

He concluded: 'I may not have convinced this House, but I certainly hope to have convinced Singaporeans that while the numbers behind the PAP and WP recommendations may not be worlds apart, the principles behind them most certainly are.'

But the WP's assumption that the MX9 benchmark was related to the 'rank and file' was later punctured by Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean in the debate's closing speech.

Earlier, Mr Teo had corrected Mr Singh's mistaken impression that the committee pegged MP allowances to the pay of civil servants in the elite Administrative Service.

The MP allowance is actually pegged at 17.5 per cent of a minister's salary.

In his closing speech, Mr Teo also accused Mr Singh of trying to score political points. Mr Singh, noting that a PAP MP had expressed dissatisfaction with ministers' small dental benefits, had said: 'But if the rank-and-file civil service is extended a $70 dental benefit, why should it be different for ministers? Do they have golden teeth?'

Yet the Government has set the same maximum benefit of $70 for ministers, as Mr Singh himself knows, said Mr Teo.

'So when he made a passionate discourse just now on dental benefits, I think he was making a political speech that was not grounded in any reality that this government believes in.'

WP and pay committee 'on the same song sheet'
By Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 19 Jan 2012

THE Workers' Party (WP) and the Committee to Review Ministerial Salaries are 'on the same song sheet' in their formulas for calculating political salaries, said Minister of State Tan Chuan-Jin yesterday.

Both pegged the salaries competitively to the market simply because the public and private sectors draw from the same talent pool, he said.

The WP pegged an MP's allowance to the civil service because it saw political service as an extension of public service, he noted. Ministers would get multiples of the MP allowance.

But, he added, it took issue with the committee's formula, which pegged ministers' pay to the median income of the top 1,000 Singaporean earners.

The position is a logical puzzle, said Mr Tan, because the entire pay structure of the civil service is also based on market considerations.

'Statements like 'Cabinet is not an extension of the private sector' again sound 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.'

The link between private and public sectors was a given in both scenarios, said Mr Tan, '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,' he said.

In his speech titled The Rhetoric And Reality Of Service, Mr Tan called for the rhetoric of the debate over ministerial pay to be set aside.

The reality is that all political office-holders are MPs first who 'make sure we look after our residents as best as we can', he said.

He read out a thank-you card from a resident in his Kembangan-Chai Chee ward. The single mother thanked him for helping her get a rental flat.

While he agreed with WP MP Chen Show Mao (Aljunied GRC) that political service is a privilege, he also saw it as a responsibility to serve the people and make life better.

Mr Tan took issue with WP MPs' argument that political service is not a sacrifice. The former brigadier-general said he took a long time to decide to enter politics: 'Political service is public service but somewhat different.'

Choking over his words, Mr Tan said: 'I'm pained by the knowledge that I'll 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.

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

Silence on graft speaks volumes
By Teo Wan Gek, The Straits Times, 19 Jan 2012

THE three-day debate on ministerial pay was remarkable for its silence on one subject, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said. That subject is corruption.

'We are discussing salaries for political appointment holders and Members of Parliament, and unlike many Houses in many other countries which have been cited as models, this debate was silent on allegations of corruption and dishonesty. It was silent on allegations of abuse of benefits,' he said, departing from his prepared text to speak on this issue.

'This is quite remarkable, and is a vindication of the integrity of the Members of this House, and of the system we have put in place to keep it so.'

Mr Teo also addressed the issues of accountability and transparency, which Workers' Party MP for Hougang Yaw Shin Leong had raised on Tuesday.

Mr Yaw had suggested publishing the total pay of political leaders every year and the amount of National Bonus they receive, to 'stop the spread of misinformation, keep politicians accountable for their entire term of office, and let Singaporeans see how their leaders' pay varies with the country's performance'.

Mr Teo pointed out that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has already provided information on the salary grades of the current ministers. Mr Lee has also periodically given the House information on the performance bonuses for ministers in bands, he added.

Mr Teo did not give details, but records show that in 2007, Mr Lee told the House only two of the 21 ministers and senior ministers of state received the maximum performance bonus of eight to 10 months.

That was the maximum allowed under the old system. With the latest review, ministers' performance bonus will be capped at six months.

Mr Teo also spoke on the new National Bonus. It is fully transparent as the way it is calculated and the numbers used each year are known to all, he said.

'This provides the public assurance that the salary framework is being applied in a fair and reasonable way, while maintaining a certain amount of privacy for office-holders. I think that is fair.'

Mr Teo also responded to Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) on ministers' pensions. He explained why the Government had provided the method for calculating the pensions of individual ministers in detail, but not what each minister received.

'This balances the requirement for transparency... while respecting the privacy of individuals.'

He also observed that with a system of clean wages, there was no need for a website to account for ministers' use of benefits.

He quipped that 'the only variable item that will be there is how much a minister claims for dental treatment - so that's a maximum of $70'.

Political pay in UK: Take allowances into account
Check them when using British MPs' salaries as comparison: Indranee

TANJONG Pagar GRC MP Indranee Rajah yesterday went into detail on the allowances that British politicians get, to illustrate her point that comparing political pay in Singapore to that in Britain is akin to comparing apples and oranges. Here is an excerpt from her speech in Parliament:

'When citing the remuneration of UK ministers, one must take into account the Green Book. The Green Book is the guide to the UK MPs' allowances. The UK ministers' salaries may be lower but they get a whole host of allowances contained in the Green Book. I would encourage our MPs and members of the public to look up the Green Book 2009 edition which is available online. It is seemingly transparent, yet totally opaque. It seems to be transparent because the type of allowances allowed are listed out. However, it is totally opaque because you have no idea what amounts these claims come up to.

UK ministers and MPs get the following allowances:

(a) Personal Additional Accommodation Expenditure - This is reimbursement for additional expenses staying away from their main home. In short, it covers payments for a second home. This includes rent, mortgage interest, council tax, hotel accommodation, utility bills (gas, water, electricity, oil, telephone calls and line rental) service charges, insurance (building and content) and overnight subsistence of £25 (S$49) per night that a UK MP spends away from his or her main home on parliamentary business.

(b) Administrative and Office Expenditure

(c) Staffing Expenditure

(d) Travel Expenditure - This includes public transport fare, mileage for cars, motorbikes and bicycles, reasonable parking, taxi and private hire car cost, and overnight accommodation for parliamentary business. They have a travel card for train, air, coach, ferry and parking cost for themselves, family and staff, European travel and family travel. There is no restriction on class of travel.

(e) Communication Expenditure - This in-cludes allowances for newsletters, questionnaires, surveys and petitions, contact cards, distribution costs, advertising strategies and constituency meetings, websites and capital purchases.

(f) House Stationery and Postage

(g) Resettlement Grant

(h) Winding-up Expenditure

(i) Security Budget

Best of all - these allowances are deductible from income for tax purpose, that is, the UK MPs do not have to pay income tax on these allowances.

This does not take into account food privileges.

I read an interesting article in the International Express, Tuesday, Jan 10 edition, which reported that in the financial year 2010-2011, the UK taxpayers had to fork out £5.8 million for MPs' food. Under a UK taxpayer-funded subsidy, UK MPs enjoy cheap meals, wines and spirits in the House of Commons. The International Express reported that last year this amount soared to £5.8 million, an increase of £87,000, notwithstanding that in June 2010, the Commons Commission said £500,000 should be lopped off catering costs, and bar prices should match those of high street pubs.

In the UK Members' Dining Room, the UK MPs apparently enjoy artichoke and tomato salad with truffle dressing for £2.05, or a chargrilled rib-eye steak with hand-cut chips and bearnaise sauce for £7.80. The International Express reported that a total of £1.33 million was spent in the Commons Bars for the year ending March 31, 2011, which meant that for every £10 that a UK MP spent on lunch in the UK Parliament Bar, £7.60 was paid for by the public in the financial year 2010-2011.'


What this means is that each and every minister must show that he or she is truly indeed deserving of the high pay, and that the policies you initiate and implement must address Singaporeans' needs. Equally important is a minister's connection with people. People respond well to the ministers who are in tune with issues of concern to Singaporeans, who identify the solutions and take action on behalf of people.

These are the ones that Singaporeans are happy to work with to achieve a better result for all. Singaporeans do not appreciate it if a minister talks down to them, or in a way which they feel is patronising or condescending, or who brushes aside their concerns or worries.- Ms Indranee Rajah (Tanjong Pagar GRC), on the key to public acceptance of high ministerial salaries

The job of a political appointee is fundamentally very different. It is not a position that we can apply to. First, there is no application form. You need to be first elected by the people. And we have seen how voters' choice can change a person's destiny overnight... I need to add that it is also not easy for a minister to resign or quit if he or she finds a better opportunity or he or she does not like the work. It is like a five-year contract with no exit clause.- Mr Baey Yam Keng (Tampines GRC), on how entering politics differs from making a career change

I don't want someone who tells me his best quality is that he loves his country, or money is not important to him. Because these are the easiest things to say, and there will be no shortage of people who will say them just to win approval.

What do I want from our leaders? I don't want them just to be smart and capable. I want them to be the smartest, most capable people in the room. I want them to be fair-minded, hard-working, compassionate and of unimpeachable character.- Mr Hri Kumar Nair (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) arguing that people should not ask how much political leaders should sacrifice, but what they want from them

When anyone considers a career path, financial considerations matter. Let us not pretend it does not. We worry about mortgage payments, looking after elderly parents, providing for the family and saving for retirement, or a rainy day. Why should a bright young talent and potential political office holder be any different?- Mr Edwin Tong (Moulmein-Kallang GRC), on ensuring salaries do not become an obstacle to joining public service

I admire those who proudly proclaim 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.- Minister of State for National Development and Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin (Marine Parade GRC), on the toll that political office takes on his personal life

Rhetoric and Reality of Service
Speech by Tan Chuan-JinMinister of State (Manpower & National Development) MP, Marine Parade GRC

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.

Speech by Hri KumarMP for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC

When this House discussed the issue of Ministerial salaries in 2007, I focused on the technicalities of the old formula, and what I thought was wrong with it. 

But I had failed to appreciate a larger issue. Money changes how people look at things. Paying high salaries can be intellectually reasoned, but it affects the relationship between the Government and the people.

Government is not perfect. It has never been, and will never be. We have all, at one time or another, been critical of something the Government did or failed to do. But, as former American President Bill Clinton observed, a successful country needs both an effective government and a good economy. There are no exceptions. In Singapore, we have both. Other government leaders, international institutions and expert commentators agree that Singapore, and what we have achieved, is exceptional. This did not happen by chance. The people of Singapore deserve credit. And so does the Government.

Singaporeans know this, and are appreciative of what the Government has done. But the issue of political salaries has, more than any other, shaped and changed the tone of our national dialogue. When we pay top dollar, we expect top results, and are less forgiving of errors. And so it has become with the way people treat Government. Any mis-step is met with the response that mistakes are unacceptable from highly paid leaders. Things have now become more “transactional”. That emotional connection, that redoubtable bond, which Singaporeans have always had with the Government, and which has been the bedrock of Singapore’s success, is at risk of disappearing. 

Will the new formula make a difference? Many Singaporeans have shared their thoughts on the subject, and there are as many opinions as there are people sharing them. But what I find interesting is that very few are willing to state precise figures or formula which they would be comfortable with, let alone one everyone will agree on. I met a group of about 30 bright, young undergraduates recently and asked them what they thought would be a reasonable sum for the PM to receive. Not one of them was able to propose a figure. They all agreed it was very difficult issue. At another discussion I had with working adults, the figure ranged from $500,000 to $3 million. There was no consensus.

Even opposition parties cannot agree on the formula or quantum. Some have declined to go into any specifics, obviously to avoid scrutiny. The Workers’ Party unfortunately has decided to indulge in a game of cat and mouse. NCMP Mr Giam yesterday said that they are not willing to reveal what they or he submitted to Mr Ee’s Committee, saying that it was private. Why? What is there to hide? There are only two inferences: that the Workers’ Party private and public positions are different; or they have changed their position after the Report was issued. 

Then NCMP Mr Yee let the cat out of the bag. He made the extra-ordinary assertion that the Workers’ Party held back some proposals so that they could raise them in this debate. He tried to explain that today by saying that the Workers’ Party were still researching the issue and shared what they had. But that is not what he said yesterday. He said: “We do not feel that we have to give everything to the Committee and this is precisely what Parliament is for.” And later he said: “I believe Parliament is where we come up with another proposal to be decided upon.” So it is clear what the Workers’ Party is doing.

The point of this whole exercise was for the Committee to consider all ideas, and to propose what it considers the best one for Singapore. That is how I believe every Singaporean understood it. But the Workers’ Party decided to play politics. They held back what they considered to be meaningful proposals, so that they could come to this House and announce to Singaporeans that they have better ideas. In short, they put their Party’s interests before Singapore’s interests. 

But playing politics is their prerogative. Playing games and fence sitting are the privileges of the opposition. Politics is about making decisions, and the Government has one to make. 

Common Principles

Despite the many different arguments, I believe there is much common ground between Singaporeans on this issue, which is often ignored. I would like to talk about matters I think we can all agree on. 

First, we can all agree that the Prime Minister and the Ministers have very important and difficult jobs. They affect almost every aspect of our lives. In fact, is there any other job which has a greater impact on the success of Singapore, and the well being of Singaporeans? 

Second, we can all agree that we want first class public services. When the Former Chairman of the US Federal Reserve, Dr Paul Volker was in Singapore last year, he was asked what he thought of our policy on salaries. Dr Volker is a highly respected economist. He has been a public servant almost all his life. When introducing him to the audience, Dr Kishore Mahbubhani made the point that Dr Volker was content to earn a modest civil servant’s salary, although he could have earned much more in the private sector. That was why he was asked the question, and I expected him to talk about the privilege of service. He did not. Dr Volker’s response to the question was simple and astute. He said it was a good idea to pay public servants well as it was important to ensure good public services. He cited the US Government’s response to Hurricane Katrina and the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico as evidence that US public services were seriously lacking. In short, in his view, you need good, capable people to provide good services, and you should pay good people well. The logic is irrefutable.

Third, we can agree that not every capable person wants a life in politics. I dare say most do not. There are very good reasons for this, not the least of which is effect on their families. While we do not have an intrusive media, there is still a considerable loss of privacy, and a significant impact on personal lives. That includes having your spouses and children being openly discussed and their conduct scrutinised. Who wants that? Many will feel, quite understandably, that this is too high a price, whatever the pay.

Fourth, we can also agree that we do not want to set salaries so high as to make money the sole or main reason for seeking office. At the same time, we do not want it to be so low as to become a disincentive. NCMP Yee says we are fishing for talent in too small a pond. But if you create financial obstacles for good, capable people who are willing to step forward to serve, you are only making your pool smaller. No one wants to do that. Everyone wants to make public service open to all Singaporeans. Paying less does not make it more open, but more closed.


Now we come to the nub: what should you pay capable people who perform critical jobs? This brings us to the other “s” word, which tends to dominate this debate: Sacrifice. It has been said that public service is a privilege, and not a sacrifice. Again, no one disputes that, but that is not the argument. The argument is that leaders should make sacrifices because it demonstrates that they care about what they are doing. That is another thing we can all agree on – we want our leaders to care about Singapore. But why look at sacrifice only in money terms?

I think we are asking ourselves the wrong question. It is not how much our leaders should sacrifice, but we want from them. I don’t want someone who tells me that his best quality is that he loves his country or that money is not important to him. Because these are the easiest things to say, and there will be no shortage of people who will say them to get approval. 

What do I want from our leaders? I don’t want them just to be smart and capable: I want them to be the smartest, most capable people in the room. I want them to be fair minded, hard working, compassionate and of unimpeachable character. I want leaders who will not be satisfied until every Singaporean has a home and the means to a better life. I want to know that if there is outbreak of a deadly disease like SARS, or a terrorist bomb goes off, or Singapore faces an economic crisis, we have leaders who have the courage, intelligence, experience and determination to do what is necessary for the good of Singapore and Singaporeans. I want leaders who understand that their job involves a sacred trust; a vow to devote every fibre, every moment, every thought, every everything, in service to our country. That is the true sacrifice I think every Singaporean should demand. If we get the quality of people right, the question of quantity of pay answers itself. I believe most Singaporeans will agree with that.

The New Formula

That leads to one more thing we can all agree on: it is impossible to answer the question of salaries in a manner which will satisfy everyone. Many have said so in this House. Even the Worker’s Party agrees that there is no right or wrong figure. I would however like to make two suggestions.

I suggest the proposed formula be tweaked to cap the salaries for the Government’s term of office, with an annual increment for inflation. In other words, salaries will not rise if the benchmark median salary rises. This would create more certainty and more importantly, put paid to arguments that the Government will pursue policies to favour the top earners to increase its own pay. 

I also ask the Government to do more to keep Singaporeans informed and engaged on this issue. There is still much misunderstanding over salaries, and you cannot have a proper dialogue if people are working off different facts. For example, many Singaporeans still believe MPs will receive pensions, although that was discontinued years ago. Some even believe MP and Ministers’ salaries are tax free. They are not. Within days of the release of the Report, Mr Gerard Ee had to say publicly that some had mis-understood what it said. Despite the enormous publicity on the subject, some are still unclear about the details of the new package. Although some would prefer that we not keep raising this issue, I support the proposal for the formula be reviewed every five years. I believe we should welcome every opportunity to debate it so that there will be a wider and better understanding of the facts and the arguments. It will also help if we publish annually and in clear terms the average pay package of Ministers, so that we can demolish mischievous allegations that Ministers will secretly earn more through discretionary and undeclared payments. This is fertile ground for those who seek to breed discontent and cynicism. Let us not give them the opportunity to mislead and divide Singaporeans. 

Conclusion – an exceptional Singapore

I end with a final proposition we can agree on. We want Singapore to remain an exceptional nation, for that really is the only thing that keeps us relevant. This exceptionalism should not only be in the performance of our economy or the efficiency of our public services. It should also be in the trust and the relationship between the Government and the people it serves. All around the world, politics and politicians are viewed with great cynicism. Cynicism weakens the government; it weakens democracy and it weakens our country. We cannot afford to let that happen to us.

I therefore support the revision of salaries. The new formula is more relevant and intuitive. It deals with some of the criticisms of the old formula and does away with inequities such as pensions. A 30+ % cut is on any view significant. The National Bonus better reflects performance. Even the Workers’ Party agrees with a monthly wage of $55,000/mth. And as Mr Vikram Nair pointed out yesterday, even the difference in bonus computations may not amount to something substantially different.

So we now have a sound basis for the Government to move forward: strengthen connections with Singaporeans, focus on the difficult problems we all know are around the corner, and deliver on its promise for a better life for all Singaporeans. Because in the final analysis, that is all that really counts. I think we can all agree on that.

A missed opportunity for bipartisanship
By Chua Mui Hoong, The Straits Times, 19 Jan 2012

THE debate on ministerial salaries this week will be remembered by cynics as yet another one in which a People's Action Party (PAP)-dominated House endorsed a wage formula to pay themselves million-dollar salaries.

This would be inaccurate.

In fact, the more fair-minded will note the peculiarity of a Parliament where the 81 elected PAP MPs and ministers - the ones who received the most flak in last year's General Election over the issue of political salaries - cheerfully agreed to support a motion to endorse a report recommending pay cuts across the board for themselves. These ranged from small cuts in MPs' allowances to cuts of one-third or more for ministers.

And aliens from Mars which landed in the Chamber yesterday would be hard put to understand why the Workers' Party (WP), with six elected MPs and two Non-Constituency MPs, would oppose the motion to review an issue they had highlighted during the election. This was especially so when, by their own admission, they accepted the principle of paying a competitive clean wage to ministers.

The only point of difference was what benchmark to use. But as it turned out, the WP's own formula resulted in ministers' salaries close to what the committee has recommended: a monthly pay of $55,000 and an annual package of about $990,000 from the WP versus a starting salary of $46,750 and annual package of about $935,000 from the committee.

With so much similarity, why was the WP at pains to stress how much they differed from the committee, and so determined to refuse to support a motion to endorse the report of a committee its own member Pritam Singh freely admitted was independent and non-partisan?

The answer lies in two words: partisan politics.

To this observer, the afternoon debate yesterday on ministerial salaries was a missed opportunity for bipartisan joining on a key issue.

It was clear the PAP was going great guns trying to get the WP MPs who had spoken on the motion to acknowledge common ground with the committee, and with the PAP MPs' own positions.

After all, as they noted, the WP's Mr Chen Show Mao (Aljunied GRC) agreed with the underlying principles. The WP's formula to peg political salaries to the MX9 grade - the starting point of the superscale level in the civil service which is pegged to private-sector norms - implicitly accepted the principle of benchmarking political salaries to those of the private sector.

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean noted that compared with past debates on ministers' pay in 1994, 2000 and 2007, this year's debate showed more convergence and agreement. He urged WP MPs to 'take a more elevated view of the subject rather than accentuate differences'.

In the 2006 General Election, the WP had proposed that ministers be paid 100 times of what the bottom 20 per cent of workers earned. In 2007, WP chairman Sylvia Lim said in Parliament that ministerial salaries should be pegged to those of political leaders of other countries. The party's election manifesto, as recently as last May, called for 'ministers' remuneration to be benchmarked internationally against the political office of developed countries'.

Yet, this week, WP MPs did not refer to their past positions or explain why they had changed their views. It would have made for a richer, more honest and less partisan debate if they had done so.

Mr Teo himself could have made a few choice remarks on the WP change of stance. He could have forced the issue by asking the six WP MPs who spoke if they agreed with the past positions taken by their party leaders Low Thia Khiang and Ms Lim - who remained studiously silent this week, refusing to be drawn into the debate. He did not, instead saying: 'I welcome this change. This change has helped this debate to move forward and arrive at areas of convergence.'

But WP MPs declined the olive branch - viewing it likely as a bait. Unfortunately for them, their reasoning crumbled under intense questioning from the PAP.

Mr Teo pointed out that the benchmark used by the WP was for superscale officers who themselves formed only 1.2 per cent of the 76,000-strong civil service. He then asked Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam if he thought this benchmark was representative of the civil service or the general wage level as claimed.

Mr Giam fumbled a little but essentially admitted that he had not been privy to what the MX9 pay really represented.

Mr Teo then observed: 'I'm a bit perturbed by what Mr Giam has just revealed. First of all, he revealed that he really didn't know what the MX9 superscale grade was. But then, he's based his entire system and proposition on this.'

The WP will have some explaining to do to its supporters on this count.

But there is a fine line between parliamentary exchanges that are robust but grounded in fact and those that are hostile or unfair.

Some eager-beaver PAP MPs' attempts to force assent or concessions from WP MPs in this week's debate bordered on unfriendly. Much was made by PAP MPs of comments from Non-Constituency MPs Yee Jenn Jong and Mr Giam, which had suggested that they had not shared all of their proposals when they met the committee. Were they being evasive, were they trying to score political points in keeping their proposals for Parliament and not sharing them with the committee?

The beleaguered duo valiantly tried to deflect criticism, both finally saying hand on heart that they had not kept back anything substantial but had merely refined their arguments and done more work on their proposals after meeting the committee.

This is a perfectly reasonable explanation but it did not seem to satisfy PAP MPs, several of whom harped on this. Listening to the crossfire, I wondered how many of the PAP MPs who spoke in this debate had themselves shared all their proposals with the committee.

Partisan bickering is to be expected, as MPs from different parties try to score points. Newbie WP MPs too indulged in cheap shots, like Mr Singh, who asked if ministers had 'golden teeth' which needed more than the standard $70 civil service reimbursement for dental treatment.

But those tempted by this route should realise that they may get the last word in and may even think they are winning the argument - but they risk losing the support of many fair-minded Singaporeans who are watching or listening.

The price worth paying
The Straits Times, 19 Jan 2012

PRIME Minister Lee Hsien Loong's intervention on Tuesday in the debate on ministerial pay revealed what his innermost concern is for Singapore: how to attract and assemble the best team of committed and capable individuals to serve - not just now, but also in the future. He believes that in this undertaking, it is crucial to get the salary structure right. Get it wrong, and the country will pay the price by having the wrong team in place. While others may help him in this process, Mr Lee made clear the responsibility for the decisions is ultimately his as Prime Minister. Even critics will acknowledge the size of the task he faces in aiming to ensure that the system which is put in place can continue to draw the right people who are willing to serve: those with passion and energy; an aptitude for politics and a feel for the people; able to cope with pressure and provide steady leadership in a crisis. It will become increasingly hard for PM Lee. Politics has become more complex, the public more demanding and younger potential candidates with the aptitude have more inviting and challenging options elsewhere.

The salary debate has been diverse. There are those who argue that public service is a calling, and has it own rewards. Never mind the pay. But the reality is that for most Singaporeans, it is not. If it were so, then this often divisive debate on salaries of politicians, public servants and appointment holders that has stretched back to the 1980s would not have surfaced in the manner that it has. Bruising as the long-running debate has sometimes become, PM Lee's responses on Tuesday have been measured, not harsh: acknowledging the differing and critical views, but holding to the principle of paying proper salaries in order to have a capable team to govern the country.

While it remains difficult to convince sceptical Singaporeans, he has appealed to their sense of fair-mindedness, and asked them to consider what is at stake, especially for the future. What was also heartening on Tuesday was his disclosure that none of the current office holders had asked about salaries. It suggests that there are individuals who accept the call and the opportunity to accomplish something beyond the confines of private practice or company business - and who accept the attendant risks of failing to meet expectations. It can be a thankless job. Singaporeans seldom recall accomplishments, but never forget shortcomings. Just as ministers need to open up more and admit to failings when these occur, Singaporeans must recognise the complexities involved in governance today. While the salary debate will no doubt resurface, the suggested changes are in the right direction and strike a better balance between public service and paying what is fair and competitive than the previous formula.

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