Meritocracy and mediocrity

Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong attending the 2018 National Day Parade held at The Float at Marina Bay. (PHOTO: Yahoo News Singapore)

Four years ago, I wrote about a slow-acting poison in Singapore’s political system: ministerial salaries. I argued that it had reduced the relationship between the ruler and the ruled into a commercial transaction, based on whether voters thought they were getting their money’s worth.

The topic is a lightning rod, with very few people weighing in on the merits of such a rational, pragmatic way of paying for good leaders who might otherwise be tempted to aggrandise themselves in other ways. It is, in today’s parlance, a clean wage shorn of hidden perks and privileges. Those who rally behind it are quickly shot down by others who think the pay formula is a disgraceful way of putting a value on national service.

Now, one of the chief champions of ministerial salaries, Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, has ignited a fire-storm with his comments on ministerial salaries during a recent dialogue. Looking at the transcript of what happened, it appeared that Mr Goh got carried away when he was asked to give his perspective regarding a question about whether a pension fund could be created by reducing defence spending or ministerial pay and so relieve them from slogging at cleaning tables. (He was sabo-ed by Senior Minister of State Maliki Osman).

He started by engaging the audience over whether they would do cleaning jobs for $1,000 a month, which segued into the problems of hiring too many foreign workers and then to the imposition of minimum salaries. It was an answer that was supposed to show how policy making is difficult, with one limb affecting the other and not necessarily in the national interest. But he also seemed very taken up with the “populist” question and made the point that ministers are hard to come by.

“I am telling you the Ministers are not paid enough, and down the road, we are going to get a problem with getting people to join the government, because civil servants now earn more than Ministers. Are you aware of that? And where do we get our future office holders from? From the private sector?”

He went on to say he tried to recruit two from the private sector in the last election, but they turned it down because of the salary sacrifice.

Mr Goh took a blunt approach which is unlikely to elicit empathy from people who are grumbling about the cost of living. People are not likely to say that ministerial salaries are low, especially when compared to their own, and even compared to political leaders in far bigger countries. Ministers who tried in the past to talk about the cut in their private sector salary, or whose past salaries were referred to, have regularly been flamed. It is now the unfortunate Edwin Tong’s turn to have his past earnings (more than $2m a year) splashed in the media. The Senior Counsel has just been appointed Minister of State, therefore making far less. Mr Goh said Mr Tong had sought his counsel because he had “a house, parents-in-law and his own parents to support”. To highlight the travails of a high-income earner, no matter how honest, was bound to attract derision since these are normal circumstances for most breadwinners.

What was more disturbing was his comment equating merit with salary. He wouldn’t recruit someone who earned less than $500,000 a year because “you are going to end up with very very mediocre people, who can’t even earn a million dollars outside to be our Minister.”

“Think about that. Is it good for you, or is it worse for us in the end?”

Okay, so let’s think about it.

First, it’s odd that our civil service salaries have outpaced those of ministers. I suppose Mr Goh meant the salaries of junior ministers rather than full Cabinet ministers. But I don’t know the facts here. In fact, one of niggling problems I used to have was how civil servants (and not really top-ranked at that) had been parachuted into key government positions on their election. Doesn’t this leave them open to questions about whether they are in politics for the higher pay, which they might never achieve if they stayed on in the public sector? I suppose the counter would be that because they are civil servants, political leaders would have a better measure of their character, competence and ability. They would have worked together, you know.

Hence, this self-perpetuating closed circle of members of the Establishment.

Second, the difficulty of canvassing candidates from the private sector has been a long-standing complaint. The way I see it: the People’s Action Party wants only the top brass, but these head honchos do not want to put nation before family and wealth. And the PAP is critical of the not-so-at-the-top private sector types, because it thinks their salary is a reflection of their lack of brilliance. Worse, it is suspicious of this “type” whom it perceives as wanting political positions because they pay better. (Read: opposition politicians).

Conclusion: The PAP doesn’t know or trust enough private sector people. (And vice versa?)

Mr Goh has tried to correct his faux pax by posting this on his Facebook: “Salaries is not our starting point in looking for Ministers. Character, motivation, commitment, selflessness, practical abilities, competence and proven performance are the main attributes we look for. The first four attributes are veto factors.”

He stuck to his point that when it comes to assessing abilities, it is a person’s salary which reflects his competence and performance. (I don’t suppose he ruled out self-made businessmen who pay their own salaries? Or will this come down to the size of the business?)

The two points aside, his statements merely reinforce the notion that everything in Singapore can be bought, “from durians to clothes to football players to military weapons”. So too quality political leadership.

This is the attitude that pervades our society which is why I have been writing columns to argue that the move towards a skills-based mindset can only come about, sadly, if there is “money” – not even power – attached to it. Why would any parent want his kid to enter a trade or be a master craftsman when the pecuniary rewards are small-ish?

Here, we calculate everything in dollars and cents – how much sacrifice, budget constraints, trade-offs. Then we laud ourselves for being pragmatic and getting our money’s worth. We apply the same yard-stick to ministers and ask if their exceptional salaries lead to exceptional performance? (By the way, no one even knows what performance bonuses are paid to ministers, except the Prime Minister.) Sometimes, we are simply hypocritical, arguing that we should not expect the ministers to be governed by the same calculations that we have.

At the end of the day, the issue of ministerial salaries will always stand between the rulers and the ruled. You cannot engender trust, if people can only think of the payment made.

I made this suggestion in a column in January this year about the sort of imprint the 4G leaders might want to make: To ditch the ministerial salary formula and come up with another one. “Then maybe people won’t be so tetchy and demanding of their money’s worth and the talented wouldn’t be so afraid to be derided for working for money.”

I am not hopeful.

Related stories:

Ministerial pay debate: ‘Singaporeans know quality costs money’- Goh Chok Tong

Yahoo Poll: Are Singapore ministers paid enough?

‘Ministers are not paid enough’, says Goh Chok Tong: reports