Monday, 4 June 2018

Do MPs and grassroots volunteers pay for parking?

Clean wage policy has raised questions on how it applies to teachers, MPs and grassroots volunteers
By Chua Mui Hoong, Opinion Editor, The Sunday Times, 3 Jun 2018

First, a news bulletin to clarify some of the information and misinformation swirling on social media about parking for civil servants, MPs and grassroots volunteers.

Do civil servants pay for parking at work premises? In general, yes. If they didn't before, their ministry or the agency they work for is likely to change the rules so they do.

That's one reason why the Ministry of Education decided to start charging teachers for parking in schools. Most other ministries charge staff for parking, and MOE should do likewise, the Auditor-General's Office said.

The decision makes sense when you consider that Singapore maintains a "clean wage" system for public servants - a wage system with no or minimal hidden perks or benefits in kind. But the decision drew much public attention - and flak - from people who felt that making teachers pay for parking somehow devalued their contributions to society.

That debate continues to roil online, but the Government is holding fast to its stand that a clean wage policy means civil servants pay for parking at their workplaces.

So that's clear for civil servants.

PARKING FOR MEMBERS OF PARLIAMENT

Online, there was also much chatter and questions about MPs.

Is it true that they get to park for free at Parliament House?

Intrigued, I asked the Clerk of Parliament. Answer: Yes.

MPs - elected MPs as well as Non-Constituency and Nominated MPs - get to park at the restricted staff carpark at Parliament House, which is not open to the public, but only for staff, and authorised visitors and persons.

Staff pay $139.10 for a monthly season parking ticket. Like other civil servants, they pay for parking at their work premises.

In contrast, MPs park for free. The rationale is this: "Members of Parliament (MPs) do not have offices in Parliament House and do not require full-time parking here. As authorised persons to Parliament House on sitting days or when they are here for meetings to perform their official duties, MPs park their vehicles at the restricted carpark at no charge."

Can they park overnight or, say, when they are going to the theatre or a private dinner at Boat Quay nearby? The answer: No.

The official version: "They are allowed to use the restricted carpark without charges for the duration of their official business in Parliament House. Generally, no overnight parking is allowed for security reasons."

Is it fair for MPs to park for free at Parliament House?

First, one can argue that MPs aren't full-time staff at Parliament, so the civil service clean wage policy need not apply to them. Many of them have full-time jobs elsewhere. When they attend Parliament sittings, they do so as public, elected officials.

Next, we should consider how to view an MP's work. Should we see it through the lens of the marketplace (to be valued commercially and paid for) or through the social lens (as some kind of volunteer work whose value goes beyond its market price?) Are MPs paid workers or volunteers?

The answer is not so simple. MPs get an allowance of about $210,000 a year - which is probably lower than what many of them can earn in the marketplace. Society may then decide that MPs deserve some additional psychic income or satisfaction, to "compensate" them for their below-marketplace allowance. If so, MPs' work is a hybrid, valued using both market and social norms.

That might explain why MPs are given free parking at Parliament House - in recognition of their social contributions to society as elected representatives of the people, for the periods when they attend Parliament sittings or are on official business at Parliament. If they were seen as purely paid employees, they would be expected to pay for parking, like Parliament staff. By that same token, though, their pay packet as MPs would likely be higher.

In this sense, their free parking is a perk akin to that for directors of companies, or volunteers who sit on organisations' boards. They get a small allowance but not full market compensation for their time.

But the flip side of this argument is that MPs' $210,000 allowance is meant to compensate them for expenses related to their constituency work, and they should be expected to pay for their parking at Parliament House from it.

Also, the cost of maintaining carpark space for about 100 MPs in the Central Business District must be rather prohibitive. Consider too that the space is likely to be unused most times, as Parliament sittings take place only about once a month.

From a public accounting point of view, one can say there is wastage in keeping permanent free parking for MPs who need the space only a few days or less a month.

It might be more equitable to have MPs pay for hourly parking at Parliament House.



PARKING FOR GRASSROOTS VOLUNTEERS

Next, grassroots volunteers who work with People's Association-related grassroots organisations. There has always been much talk about how they get to park for free at Housing Board carparks.

Not quite trusting what I read online, I went to the official channel. Is it true that grassroots volunteers get free parking?

Answer: Not quite true.

The PA's official version: "Our grassroots volunteers play an important role in our community outreach efforts. They regularly help out in house visits, especially to the old and vulnerable who need assistance, as well as in organising community activities and dialogues to strengthen neighbourly ties. Our core volunteers often help out in the evenings and during weekends.

"To facilitate them in their community work, volunteers who drive may apply for a monthly HDB special parking label. This special parking label allows them to park only in designated carparks within the area they serve, up to 11pm.

"To qualify for the special parking label, grassroots volunteers who live in HDB estates must first buy a residential season parking label. Those who do not live in HDB estates must pay for the special parking label. This scheme has been in place since 1978.

"Currently, about 20 per cent of our grassroots volunteers have the special parking label to facilitate their community work. These include those appointed to the CCC, CCMC and its sub-committees." That's the Citizens' Consultative Committee and the Community Centre/Club Management Committee.

Translated into plain English, the policy is this: Grassroots volunteers who live in HDB estates and already have an HDB season parking label can get a special label that allows them to park for free in the areas they serve in. Say, you live in Tampines and you serve in Serangoon North. You pay about $100 for your monthly HDB season parking for Tampines. You get an additional free special label that lets you park in HDB carparks in Serangoon North.

Grassroots volunteers who don't have an HDB season parking label need to pay a small monthly fee to get that special label to park in the constituency they work in. No overnight parking is allowed under that label. A PA official said it costs about $22 a month.

In that sense, it isn't entirely true that grassroots volunteers get to park for free. In any case, since this bunch of people are not civil servants, nor paid staff of PA, and don't get an allowance, they are not bound by the clean wage policy of the civil service. They should fall under the category of volunteers, whose work should be viewed through the social, not marketplace lens. By that rubric, the parking perk is justified.

Now, what of teachers? Some argue that because many teachers go beyond the call of duty, they deserve free parking. But that argument is flawed, because many other public servants go beyond the call of duty, putting in longer hours, paying for things out of their own pockets, or in the case of firefighters, police officers or drug enforcement officers, even putting themselves at risk.

As a society, we have to find ways to value and recognise such sacrifices in meaningful, not always marketplace, terms. Giving them free parking that amounts to, say, $100 a month, is tantamount to valuing their sacrifice at just $100 and may even be said to cheapen their sacrifices.

Teaching, like other civil service jobs, is a valued profession that deserves to be rewarded on market norms. We should make sure teachers are well compensated in their salaries. In addition, the school, parents, students and community can offer appreciation for the social and moral value of teachers' work. Having an annual Teachers' Day is one such way to recognise teachers. Many students and parents make cards or give gifts to teachers. Many of us, grateful for the teachers in our lives, remain in touch with them, honouring them in our own way.

Having teachers pay for parking has nothing to do with not valuing their contribution to society, and everything to do with having a clear, consistent clean wage policy that pays well for public service work, devoid of hidden perks.





* Elected MPs pay for annual parking permit: Grace Fu

The article, "Do MPs and grassroots volunteers pay for parking?" (June 3), creates an impression that MPs get free parking at Parliament House.

Elected MPs who drive pay for an annual permit that allows them to park in Housing Board carparks, in order to do their constituency work.

This payment, which Parliament deducts from the MPs' allowances, is deemed to cover the occasions when they park at Parliament House to fulfil their duties.

Political office holders, like civil servants, also pay for parking at their ministries and agencies.

This payment generally covers the occasions when they visit other ministries and agencies on official business; and if they have to pay for public or commercial carparks in the vicinity, they are reimbursed.

Applying the same principle, teachers now pay to park at their primary places of duty.

But no one is suggesting they pay again when they visit other schools to attend meetings.

Grace Fu (Ms)
Leader of the House
ST Forum, 4 Jun 2018





Look at each civil service job to see if pay is fair

All civil servants now pay for parking at their workplaces. So the key issue in the debate over school parking is not "internal discipline" or "checks and balances", but the specific grounds on which school teachers, who are civil servants, should be treated differently (School parking fees: Minister stresses checks and balances; May 26).

Some argue that school teachers are special - they work for love and dedication, put in extra hours and often go beyond the call of duty.

But what about fellow teachers who work in the Ministry of Education headquarters or its statutory boards? Do they not work equally hard in the education of our children, even if their work is less visible to the public?

What about firemen, policemen, air traffic controllers, immigration officers, customs officers and other civil servants who work irregular hours or sometimes even put their own lives at risk in carrying out their duties?

All of them pay for parking at their workplaces.

Instead of engaging in invidious arguments over which civil servants are more caring, dedicated or hardworking than others and hence deserve perks, should we not look at each civil service job in its totality and determine objectively whether the remuneration for that job, minus any perk, is fair and competitive?

If some civil servants work longer or more irregular hours than others, should that not, as a matter of good public governance, be reflected in their wages, instead of through opaque perks like free parking, subsidised meals or housing?

This is what "clean wage" means.

While the implementation of public policy must not be rigid, one must not forget that every exception exercised in favour of one is potentially an injustice to another.

Exceptionalism also necessitates discretionary powers, and too much of it can breed opacity and has the potential for abuse and corruption. Clear, transparent and objectively determinable rules, with minimally necessary exceptions, are the hallmarks of good public administration.

Counter-intuitively, perhaps, it is such rules, not exceptionalism, that guarantee fairness for all.

Cheng Shoong Tat
ST Forum, 31 May 2018



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