After all the talk, what are we going to do about the pay hike?

Charles Tan

17 May 07

The increase of the ministers’ salaries have generated so much controversy and distrust from the ground that when Prime Minister Mr Lee Hsien Loong announced his decision to donate his increment to charity, it was met with cynicism. Many saw it as a public relations exercise to reduce the damage that the pay hike had inflicted.

Of course the local newspapers, trying to soften the blow, devoted several of its pages to reports, “analyses” and readers’ letters defending the pay hike. Not unexpectedly, much of the coverage focused on peripheral issues such as the implementation of the pay rise, the sensitivity and timing of the pay rise, and alternative systems of deriving ministerial salaries.

With such “robust” debates in the media, one might be forgiven to think that the media in Singapore is pluralistic. This could not be further from the truth, as the real issue was not debated – how our ministers are already overpaid as it is even without the increase. No dissenting views proposing that ministerial salaries be reduced to saner levels were published.

Besides cutting ministerial pay, we need to review the pay formula and the logic of linking ministerial salaries to top earners in the private sector.

Instead, ministers’ salaries should be related to other factors that affect society’s welfare and well-being. These should include income disparity, cost of living and the increase in salaries amongst our workers to cope with these increases.

Other areas factors such as diplomatic relations with other countries, the state of civil society, the level of political participation (not just in elections), the general level of happiness among Singaporeans, and the amount of discrimination in the workplace could be used to assess the amounts ministers ought to be paid.

While such factors are admittedly difficult to assess vis-a-vis government performance, they nevertheless form important indicators which help to give citizens an idea of how well the Government is doing, not just in economic terms, but also with regards to the well-being of the general society, especially the disadvantaged and the poor.

By using these indicators, the ministers would create and modify laws and policies that are more caring and sensitive towards the people.

After all the talk is done, however, the question that remains is: What can we do about the recent ministerial pay increase?

Let’s start with the Opposition. For too long, critics have accused it for being unable to pose a serious challenge to the PAP. The SDP has even been accused of focusing on democratic or human rights issues while neglecting economic issues that concern the people. Yet, for as long as I can remember the SDP has actively campaigned against our ministerial salaries and related bread-and-butter issues.

During the last elections, SDP candidates repeatedly raised the issue of the ministers’ pay during the rallies as well as matters such as the rising cost of living, increasing unemployment, the foreign talent policy, and the growing income disparity. These subjects were the front and centre of our campaign flyer. The New Democrat, the party’s newsletter, has devoted pages since the 1990s to protesting against the huge salary package that the ministers give themselves annually.

Singaporeans have also spoken out against the matter. They registered their displeasure by communicating their opinions to grassroots leaders, wrote letters to the press and/or their MPs, and even signed online petitions to urge the Government to reconsider its decision to increase ministers’ salaries.

Yet at the end of the day, the Government has not relented on this issue. As we all know, this will not be the first nor last time that the ministers will increase their salaries.

In a few years’ time, all the debates about the issue will be well forgotten and the ministers may well decide to give themselves another raise.

Without a powerful Opposition to oppose these measures, Singaporeans will have to live with the pay increases for the ministers.

The only solution therefore, is for citizens to be active in supporting the Opposition and to participate in civil society. In short, we need to think out of the (PAP) box and not just focus on elections to the exclusion of everything else.

Don’t just sit back and complain. Support the Opposition.

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