The report by the Ministerial Salary Review Committee is out, and there is actually quite a substantial bit of adjustments proposed. Balancing the principles and objectives of ministerial salary is not easy. The salary have to perform multiple roles that often may not necessarily be reconcilable. It first have to be high enough to attract the necessary talent; it should have a fixed component to satisfy basic needs and variable component to incentivize efforts that would translate into effective policies that improves the lives of the people; finally, it has to satisfy the scrutiny of the voters (ie. it must not be obscenely high by the judgment of the public).
Well, looking at the data on growth of GDP in Singapore, it is unlikely that the introduction of pegging ministerial pay to the private sector had any impact on performance of the economy though one could employ counterfactuals and suggest that we could have done worst without it. There comes a layer of complexity when we ask ourselves whether the motivation of these politicians/technocrats lies in serving the nation or earning a fat paycheck. There is no hard and fast rule about salary guidelines to prevent corruption of those in power though we do have management theorist who suggests that as long as we pay enough to get the issue of money off the table, workers would be able to concentrate on doing their job well. Perhaps the fact that people are in politics is supposed to shed light on alternative motivations?
A potential solution we should explore is for the ministers to bid their positions by making a wage offer to the public and providing their full personal histories and work experience details for the public to screen. The public could vote for the ministers; the top 5 voted candidates will be considered but the minister will be selected based on their salary bids. The lowest bidding candidate will be the minister, but his actual pay will be the higher of, either a 10% discount on the second lowest bid in the top 5, or his own bid. Given the intelligence of the candidates politics should draw forth, such a complex system should be able to attract only the brightest and best while allowing them to take a salary that they (and the public have ‘agreed’).
That is, of course, a joke. But the spirit of the mechanism is that we want the candidates to bare their motivations to the public and force them to give us a picture of what drives them. Then we’ll decide if it’s worth it to pay them that offer rate, based on their qualifications and the position in question. This also allows ministers taking on more difficult portfolios to receive a higher pay. Cabinet reshufflings will also be implicitly ‘approved’ by the public in this way. Best of all, opposition MPs are allowed to put themselves up for ministerial positions and the result would have taken into account public scrutiny of their qualifications, the salary they are going to be paid and also their personal incentives to take on the job – they gave the salary bid themselves so no reason they are going to say, now that’s not enough for me.
Knowing the incentives of our political leaders are important. Soon after the news about the salary review recommendations were out, Grace Fu’s facebook page status was:
“When I made the decision to join politics in 2006, pay was not a key factor. Loss of privacy, public scrutiny on myself and my family and loss of personal time were. The disruption to my career was also an important consideration. I had some ground to believe that my family would not suffer a drastic change in the standard of living even though I experienced a drop in my income. So it is with this recent pay cut. If the balance is tilted further in the future, it will make it harder for any one considering political office.”
It drew forth loads of comments. It reflects how little we know about the true motivations and incentives of our politicians or how unconcerned we are. I think Grace is being really frank and objective here; we should empathize with her position. It is something very human to say and we really shouldn’t think of our leaders as heroes who can make all the sacrifices in the world to lead our country. The whole pay issue is a tricky one, but we need to work towards making it less thorny.
Perhaps in a Singapore where our expectations for the future prospects of the country is not so dependent on the government; and that all the institutions are merely support and guiding structures for the private sector to take the lead, then we could relieve our leaders’ workload while simultaneously relieving the taxpayers’ burden of financing our leaders’ salary. And perhaps we should work towards that; and for our government to prevent a crisis where we fail to balance between the 3 principles of the minister pay I’ve defined earlier, we probably have to transit our political system to one that takes more of a backseat in determining the future of our nation.