Singapore Politics - Insights from the Inside

Tuesday, June 26, 2007 

Politics of Money II – A Reply

I thank all comments that you’ve posted. To me, all the comments were positive and constructive, and I truly appreciate it. None of the comments were irrelevant or negative. Some prefer not to read my blog after this post, fine with me since there are plenty of “I-hate-PAP-tailored-blogs” out there. Anyway, this blog is not of the consensus of following the “mainstream netizen”.

Think this blog did serve its purpose by getting you all to speak up and throw out some ideas. In my perspectives, politics is speaking out your own ideals, ask questions, challenge the norms, challenge your own ideals and last and most importantly, finding the answer and why things are the way are on YOUR OWN. The problem with us, Asians, is that we either don’t question and allow others to dictate us or ask but are constantly too sluggish to find out our own answers. Do I have my own disagreements with PAP? Of course! But instead of listing my grumbles like many others, why don’t I challenge myself further and answer my own grumbles. Put them to the practical test and challenge them. If you do so, some of your own questions might be answered.

Back to the questions. First and foremost, did I simplify the whole issue to a one-liner, “competition of talents from the private sector”? Yes, I did. I could and I would list all the reasons, logics and statistics into 10,000 words thesis to support my claim, but who would ever bother reading it, not mentioning, commenting on it. Yes, there are more factors to consider. And your inputs are valid. Perhaps having a short and provocative article to spark the answers from you is better than me listing my thoughts and imposing them on you.

Replying to some of your questions, Marc, good point, but I have statistics to represent the contrary to yours. It is not true that Singapore has spent proportionally less on education, health care and welfare for the needy. Kai, I’ve listed the tax rates of the Scandinavian countries for your use n the previous post’s comments. And to Young Singaporean, thanks for your comments. To, twasher and ttg, and Kelvin Lim, I appreciate your comments and your points are well-noted.

Morals Vs Money
I guess most people oppose the statement I made about the monetary competition and the morals of a leader quote. You’ve every right to be. Maybe I am becoming like the Thrasymachus of Socrates age, a pragmatist and realist.

Year 1
Suppose everyone who reads this blog sits in an enclosed room and the LKY asked, “I’ve got confidence in your ability and for SGD50k per annum, I want you to be my minister.” I am sure at least 9/10, if not all, will say yes. Why? He thinks we are capable, we are moral and we are not in it for the money, so despite the pay, we will volunteer our service to the nation. I am sure every one of us WILL think this way. And this is the most common comment I’ve seen in the previous post, ie, moral leader should service his country and not for the pay. I agree with this totally.

Year 5
Part II and this will get more interesting. Five years down the road, you have experienced tiring but rewarding job of making a change in people’s lives. Some will appreciate, but in like every other democratic country, most will criticize you. Every week you’ve spent your time in the Meet-the-People Session answering to issues on the ground. Get scolded by a good number of them. Your family has lost their privacy (see MP Wee Siew Kim’s daughter). While you’ve spent so much time (literary a 24/7 job) planning, implementing and answering to the people, the people thinks you are nothing but a ribbon cutter at events. If you are the Minister of Health, how do you balance the cost of health care against the quality of health care? Either ways, you will be criticized by some. If you are the Minister of Transport, how do you justify the cost of transportation (which is privatized) with the quality? Similar, both ways you will have your opponents. Minister of Finance, how do you balance your budget while setting aside enough for healthcare, welfare and education, with limited taxes (one of the lowest in Asia – aside from HK)? Minister of Manpower, how to do you lower the unemployment rates? Create jobs! How do you create jobs? Get in foreign MNCs! How to you attract MNCs? Lower taxes, provide security and stability…etc! Then you will have issues with MOF, MCYS, MTI and others who will ask you on budgeting issues. All these are the battles you will face in every parliamentary session. In addition to that, your daily running of the Ministry and making key decisions. Bottomline, you’ve realized that being a Minister is not so simply. And for the SGD50k per annum, the answering the people, doing your roles, being accountable and making such public sacrifices maybe quite a stretch.

Year 6
Before you know it, the next General Election is here. Now, a MNC (let’s just say, NOL) asked you to join them for SGD1mil per annum as their CEO. Stress and accountability should be more or less the same. LKY asked, “You’ve proven yourself and I want you in my team. According to the statures, I’ll increase your salary to SGD60k per annum. Are you with me? Now, how many of the 10 do you think will stay? Some will say 10/10 but a realist might say that one term is good enough for some to call it a day, so maybe 8/10.

Let’s just say 1/10 Ministers will leave to join the private sector. Essentially, this would represent and result in a small number of “short-term” thinking Ministers in the Cabinet. As for the ills of short-term-thinking Ministers, you should be able to critically figure it out.

Year 10
Now you are the Prime Minister of Singapore, and to the cohort of moral leaders. Your Ministers are in the position of making laws, approving multi-billion to a few million dollars public contracts and running their Ministries. But because we are all moral leaders who have visited this blog and happened to say “yes” in Year 1, you are confident that they are not corrupted. In every public contract (big or small), there will be disputes on favouritism. Once in a while, there will be complaints that reach to your ear on the corruption of the civil services. Two points arises.

1) How confident are you of your Ministers of not being corrupted since the reward for corruption is much higher than easer for a (subjectively) lower-paid Minister?
2) As a member of public, how confident are you of the Minister for impartiality in the tendering of the contracts?

In such cases, if you are the Minister, I’m sure you are not corrupted. But you, the moral leader will have to face such accusations year-in year-out. To such an extent, you will think that is this all worthwhile, fighting false accusations and for your family to bear the burden with you?

May I suggest, which most of you might disagree is that, increasing the Minister’s salary 1) makes them harder to be corrupt, 2) undertake more responsibility to perform and account and 3) gives confidence to the public of his undertaking of office. Maybe you might not know of this but the implicit rule made known to the PAP Ministers is that if you corrupt, you will commit suicide. Unless you choose to be a coward and will face the humiliation that will slain your name for life. I kid you not on this. A PAP Minister once said this.

Maybe you might be thinking that I’ve seriously exaggerated the scenarios but I can assure you that every one scenario, I can name you a real life Minister living through this. Now, hope that you will just answer the following questions from the perspective that you are one of the 10 Ministers:

1) Year 1 – Will you say yes to LKY to be a Minister? How many do you think will say “yes” from the 10? (eg: 9/10)

2) Year 5 – After all the realization of work and responsibility as a Minister, will you continue? How many do you think will stay on as Minister from the 10? (eg: 9/10)

3) Year 6 – Will you accept the offer from NOL? How do you think will stay on for a second term from the 10? (eg: 9/10)

4) Year 10 – As the PM, are you absolutely confident that your Ministers are incorruptible?

5) Year 10 – If you are the Minister, how many of your peers from the 10, do you think will quit in the midst of moderate public confidence?

I would just like to hear your answers as if you are the Minister and your opinions of your fellow Ministers. The answers to these questions will be the answer to your questions. And I hope you do so with a practical and not an ideal sense. Good night and I await your interesting, and most probably opposing comments.

Thursday, June 21, 2007 

The Politics of Money

Yes, after a long hiatus I’m finally back. Contrary to popular beliefs that I’ve given up on my ideals or that I’ve been arrested by ISD, both didn’t happen (much to the disappointment of some). The reason for the long break from posting any article was that I’ve been really busy with work and could only write this article because I took leave today. For the past months, it was quite a personal struggle to get grips over my career and my future. I was brought down to reality on how brutally realistic the working life is compared to our own utopia of morals, philosophy and politics. Yes, this sentence doesn’t make much sense to you at the moment. Hopefully, I explain it better later on.

I’m in the corporate banking line, a line which is unforgiving and sanitized of feelings. If there is one thing I learned is that loyalty doesn’t pay. Move to a bank, achieve your monetary objectives, and after three to five years, move on the other banks. Why 3-5 years time? This is because you will have enough credibility, experience and accumulate enough clienteles to sell out to other banks. Your value is the highest within this number of years. This is how the game is being played and you are expected to observe this. No one will pay you extra for doing the otherwise.

In the political science of this “world”, is that the people will plan and work with a short term horizon since they may not be here to solve the problems that might pop out only in 3-5 years time. As such, people might just focus all their efforts, rightly or wrongly, on the short term goals to achieve their targets, key performance indicators or similar. There are ethical and unethical people who will do all that they could and to sweep the problems under the carpet for enough time before they leave the bank. You can only hope that you’ve got the right man, with the right morals for the job. But in truth, it might just be a 60-40 issue that for every 10 people you hired, 6 are likely to aim for short term goals. Or you might just believe that man are born good but corrupted by society.

If you are thinking that Thrasymachus has sudden changed his blog from politics to a “daily lives – oh, another xiaxue blog”, you are wrong. Something which I have not commented on was the debate on Ministers’ pay raise. I was “off-the-market” and late in the delivery of this article as I was busy (see above, yes, a circular argument). As such, let me relate the reality of totally realistic and practical world of banking to the unreal expectation and philosophy on what a Minister should be paid.

Paying for a Philosophy King
Maybe for those who have read Plato’s Republic will understand why I’ve sub-titled this “Paying for a Philosophy King”. As Plato quoted Socrates in the book, “Until philosophers are king, or kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoners natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside, cities will never have rest from their evils, -no, nor the human race, as I believe, -and then only will this our State have a possibility of life and behold the light of day.”

In short, we all know what the ideal ruler should be, kind, intelligent, incorruptible, loving, wise, philosophical, embraces justice and equality and so on and so forth. We all want those qualities in a Singapore Minister, just that we don’t want to pay them. How Singaporean - wanting the best but at the cheapest cost, or if possible, free!

How much do you think England is willing to pay to have Lee Kwan Yew as their Prime Minister when he was aged 60? Probably, less than David Beckham but definitely more than Sven Goran Eriksson. How much do you think China is willing to pay to have Goh Chok Tong to be their Central Bank Chairman? Definitely much more than the amount of money spent on investigating on central bank corruptions. Or do you want to pay just USD300k to a Vice-President who cooks up a story to invade an oil-rich country, only to award all oil-related contracts to the his former company that stills pay him USD1m every year until his death?

The price of all the qualities you want in a politician and Minister is hard to quantify. Yes, a politician and a Minister should not serve not because of money but because of their passion to serve the people. Most people treat this as the central argument of the whole Minister’s pay debate. But this is not the crux of the issue. The issue is sustainability. Can the system, select the leaders among Singaporeans, who has the right morals and qualities without competition from the real world? I don’t think so.

You want a Minister whom has the trust of the nation and that his integrity to serve Singapore, not for a short term of 5 years, but beyond his terms and for decades. One who is forward looking, whose policies benefit not just his electoral results but the nation’s competitive future. You wouldn’t want a corporate banking-like Minister who thinks only on short term basis just to win votes and make him look good. If you think that a Minister’s role is just to attend events and cut ribbons, then that it is really naïve of you. It is really a 24/7 job, thinking and planning. There is more behind the scenes that the media doesn’t tell. Increasing the pay for the Ministers is also to up the stakes that a Minister can’t fail in his task. If we remain short-sighted, the future Ministers will too.

Not many nations will you find the governments lowing taxes to below 20% and yet having a budget surplus. We have that. We are a small nation but even a far-off country like Egypt, our name looms large. Many things that we attributed it to “Singapore” are really the works of a couple of great men who we sometimes fail to appreciate. Until we have a bad government, we may never realize how good our present one is. Without going into all the things each Minister had mentioned about the pay debate, I will only ask of you to consider the differences between reality and ideals. It is easy for an opposition to oppose the hike, but it is even easier to fail to appreciate our current government. I’ve seen a department taking a nose-dive for the worse within 6 months just by changing a single leader and the impact of a crap Minister will just extrapolates this to a greater extent in a Ministry. As such, I urge you to think objectively and be more far-sighted in your judgment.

On a side note, no, I’ve not sold my soul to the finance world. I’ve never given up and never will. I am still dreaming of my own utopia. You should too.

The Idealist

  • Thrasymachus
  • Propagating In: Singapore
  • The Critic, The Philosopher, The Pragmatist, The Moralist, The Egalitarian, The Confused, The True-Blue Singaporean
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    The author of this blog bears no responsibility for any misinterpretation, libel, defamation, injury and death as a result of reading this blog. Contents are high subjective and readers should read with caution. All readers should be 18 years and above, with half a decent brain to judge the validity of the articles.

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