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Dear Mr Dan Fineman,
While your overall analysis (Fiscal Predator, FEER, May6, 2004) of the Singapore governments fiscal policies and how they impact the economic future of the country is spot-on, you seem to have taken a more dilettante approach when you talk about the countrys politics.
You make the argument that high salaries paid to Singapores cabinet ministers discourage corruption and attract talent into government ranks to the extent that the political opposition and the private sector are deprived of good minds.
I would like to argue that high salaries in and of themselves are not the antidote in combating corruption. If it were we would not be hearing of the corporate scandals in Enron and WorldCom just to name two that have involved top executives whose salaries are not exactly considered paltry.
If the prevention of corruption is cited as a justification for huge salaries, can’t workers demand exorbitant wages and advance the argument that this will prevent them from stealing and robbing? The simple truth is that corruption is a crime and if we have to dangle money in front of Singapore’s leaders to keep them on the straight, then we have a problem on our hands.
Besides, how much is enough? Singapores prime minister is paid more that the president of the US, the prime minister of the UK, the chancellor of Germany, the president of France and the prime minister of Italy combined!
The more plausible reason that drives many of the rich and powerful to seek even greater wealth is good old-fashioned greed. The excuse that huge incomes prevent corruption among high-ranking officials is just that, an excuse.
May I also suggest that political control is another reason why Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew insists that his ministers are paid the amounts that they are. While you posit that huge salaries discourage corruption, have you also considered that they may also dissuade liberalization? Talk of democratic reform among the more liberal members of the cabinet (not that Im suggesting that there are any at the moment) is significantly reduced if the ministers know that they risk losing their more-than-fat incomes if there is a chance that theyll be voted out of office.
As for the thesis that the high salaries in the public sector attract so much talent into the government that few brains are left for the political opposition and the private sector, it is offensive to many Singaporeans who do not see wealth as our guiding principle when it comes to choosing our vocations. You may be surprised to know that many of those whom Mr Lee Kuan Yew considered the ablest and brightest, did not seek the path of great fortune but instead opted for great tribulation by joining the opposition. Former solicitor-general Mr Francis Seow is but one example. He now lives in exile in the US.
Whatever happened to public service and sacrifice?
You also failed to mention the fact that the reason Singaporeans are not standing in line to join opposition parties could be because of the years of oppression and persecution instituted by the ruling party. With stringent laws still in place to curb freedom of speech, a pluralistic media, trade unions, and free and fair elections not to mention the numerous defamation lawsuits brought against oppositionists it may be unwise to attribute an intellectually and numerically anemic political opposition solely to the brain-drain factor.
These points notwithstanding, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your excellent piece. Thank you.
Chee Soon Juan
Singapore Democratic Party