Underpaid ministers lose their dignity

From ‘‘ 部长薪酬过低 有失身份地位’ 林伟杰言论遭网民批评’, 26 May 2011, article in omy.sg (LHWB)

义顺集选区议员林伟杰认为,合理的薪酬有助于维持部长“尊严”,引起网民批评,表示按照他的逻辑,“恐怕胡锦涛和奥巴马遇到李总理时,连握手的‘尊严’都没有!”

…针对这一课题,林伟杰接受媒体采访时认为,部长薪金调得过低是不合理的要求。

他说:“如果新闻、通讯及艺术部长年薪只有50万,当他和身价数百万的电讯公司总裁开会商讨政策问题时,可能面对一些困难。因为总裁们可能认为没有必要听取部长的意见与建议,因此合理的薪酬将有助于维持一点尊严。”

Translation: MP Lim Wee Kiak thinks a reduction in ministerial pay would lead to a loss in dignity, leading some to complain that if that’s the case, President Obama, with a lower wage than our PM, would be ashamed of even shaking the latter’s hand. If the MICA minister had a lower salary than media CEOs, the latter wouldn’t take him seriously.

I normally wouldn’t touch the hot potato topic of ministerial pay with a 10 foot pole. The social economics of appropriate remuneration vs risk of bad quality in Cabinet and the natural unfairness and disparity that ordinary citizens feel is a troublesome, incendiary problem that will plague us all for decades to come. This all revolves around an infuriating dichotomy of expectations;  The expectation that public service is necessarily a horrible sacrifice like national service and politicians should get by on the barest necessities of life as an example to the common man vs the Cabinet consensus that high pay necessarily draws top talent, without going into details about exactly what kind of premium talent you’re looking for.

Underpaying ministers should be no excuse for them to work less hard (in fact they should work doubly hard just to convince us they’re not in it for the money), nor should it be a ‘loss in dignity’ since being a minister used to be an aspiration of leaders willing to die for their country and serve their people for the flakiest rewards. Things are not as simple these days, where even the noblest of professions are not immune to the sway of a little indulgent treats on the side.  It’s a balance as easy to achieve as standing a pencil on its tip; you can never make everybody happy. No one likes the feeling of peering over the neighbour’s fence to see a koi pond in his garden while you’re on your muddied hands and knees plucking weeds, though that would still make our ministers really wealthy gardeners nonetheless.

Such sentiments of ministers deserving what they’ve been getting all along, and would be shortchanged for anything less , echoes the thinking more than 40 years ago, surprisingly by a certain Goh Keng Swee (House is told:Ministers grossly underpaid, 12 June 1969, ST). As the Finance Minister at the time, he probably knew what he’s talking about, and could get away with making such frank, audacious statements. The same comment made today would be out of place even in LKY’s Hard Truths and cost him the chance of being named after anything upon his demise.

Postscript: Dr Lim eventually made a public apology for equating salary with dignity. Mistake made, lesson learnt, time to move on. With dignity I must add.

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