26 Mar 2012

In adjusting political salaries, the government did its sums but missed the mark in calibrating the mood of the people.

In adjusting political salaries, the government did its sums but missed the mark in calibrating the mood of the people. Kenneth Paul Tan gives his insights.

Singapore introduced the controversial policy of paying top dollar to politicians and senior civil servants in 1994, a policy grudgingly accepted by most, even as they questioned and criticised not only the mechanics of this policy but also the assumptions and values that underpin it.

These criticisms, along with criticisms of other burgeoning policy problems confronting the government today, came to a head in parliamentary elections held on 7 May 2011. The People’s Action Party (PAP), the ruling party since 1959, won only 60.1 per cent of the votes— the lowest share of the popular vote since independence. Though it secured 81 out of 87 seats, for the first time in history, it lost a team-contested multi-seat constituency to the opposition Workers’ Party. More crucially, political heavyweights such as Foreign Affairs Minister George Yeo and Lim Hwee Hua (Singapore’s first and only female minister) both lost their seats. In this one-party dominant system, the 2011 results were the PAP’s worst since Singapore gained independence in 1965 and in more ways than the numbers alone suggest.

Very soon after these elections, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced a review of political salaries.

Paying for talent

In 2008, I wrote an article ‘Meritocracy and elitism in a global city: ideological shifts in Singapore’, in International Political Science Review, arguing that Singapore-style meritocracy had seen a shift in balance, since the 1980s, away from egalitarian values and towards elitist ones. This was especially so in the management of talent for political and public sector leadership.

This shift, I argued, had something to do with the global city’s tightening embrace of market logic, an article of faith associated strongly with the twin orthodoxies of neoliberal globalisation and new public management. I observed signs of social tension and division, as well as some political strain. A socio-cultural mood marked by cynicism, resentment, and social disengagement all pointed at the beginnings of a legitimation crisis in a state that had enjoyed tremendous hegemonic success due in no small part to the spectacular material achievements credited to daring and far-sighted policies.

Earlier this year, in my article, ‘The ideology of pragmatism in Singapore: neoliberal globalisation and political authoritarianism’ (Journal of Contemporary Asia), I observed the paradox where even pragmatism, a key principle of governance in Singapore, was becoming ideological. Singapore’s success strategies have started to become dogmatised as a form of market fundamentalism, while the global city faces increasingly intractable problems induced by a fluid and engulfing globalisation. The ongoing nation-building project has become fraught with contradictions, tensions, and mismatched expectations. In last year’s elections, an enlarged and re-energised electorate showed itself to be capable of challenging the hegemonic pre-eminence of an elitist technocracy, which was now having a much harder time justifying its high salaries.

After a three-day debate in January 2012, parliament accepted the committee’s proposal to benchmark entry-level ministers’ salaries to 60 per cent of the median income of the top 1,000 Singaporean earners. This would replace the previous formula that pegged these salaries to twothirds of the income of the top four earners in six professions, resulting in a 37 per cent cut from S$1.58 million (US$1.25 million) to S$1.1 million. The Prime Minister’s salary, falling 31 per cent from S$3.07 million to S$2.2 million, remains the highest salary earned by any political leader in the world.

Technocrats tend to assume right from the start that their policy is right and that the problem lies only in public communication.

A question of governance

But the debates surrounding political salaries are unlikely to be over. They reflect much deeper concerns and anxieties about governance in Singapore.

First, this is not simply about determining the right salary formula as a technical matter of getting prices right, although it is of course important not to get it far wrong. It is one thing to turn to the market for an approach to a solution, but quite another to become constrained by market logic in ways that fetter our creativity and understanding of human nature. The emotional and idealistic dimensions of this problem should not be treated, as they often are by a frequently patronising technocratic government, as irrational and impractical pressures from a short-sighted public that needs to be pacified. Technocrats tend to assume right from the start that their policy is correct and that the problem lies only in public communication.

Second, a meritocratic government once drew the best talents from Singaporeans of varied backgrounds. Today, the justification for high political salaries suggests that it has become a government that only really welcomes Singaporeans from an elite strata of society that commands the kind of private sector salaries available to the top one per cent.

There are a number of potential problems with this. Can a leadership uniformly consisting of highly-paid elites be representative of the general population? Can they really understand poverty and daily struggle beyond an academic notion of it? Can privileged leaders, in the spirit of noblesse oblige, avoid simply imposing their values and prejudices onto the realities of a wider population, infantilising them as ignorant, selfish, or even malicious? Will this system cultivate politicians to value leadership and public service in terms of money and profitability, while devaluing others whose talents, motivations, and concerns cannot be so crudely measured?

Third, the pool of talent for political leadership may have been drained for other reasons than simply the competition from the private sector. Could worthy Singaporeans have developed a bad taste for politics because of decades of political intolerance? There have been perhaps too many examples in the past of well-meaning people ridiculed in public by a prickly, defensive, and over-bearing government, just for having an inconvenient view that managed to touch a nerve.

Kenneth Paul Tan is an Associate Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.