Monday, March 26, 2007

The Ministers' Salary Brouhaha

Ministerial salaries are in the news again. The PAP government has the practical problem of paying (themselves) enough to attract the best talent without (further) removing themselves from the plight of the everyman. The Opposition can be expected to (again) take advantage of the situation to accrue some political mileage and pour a little cold water on the PAP’s fire of popularity.

After all, to the Singaporean resident who earned a *median* monthly income of $2,410 in 2005, the amount a Minister gets is simply mind-boggling, and probably contributed to pushing the *average* income to $3,500. (The gap between the average and median incomes illustrates the income gap, which is a topic for another day).

A recent ST article pointed out a suggestion from Workers Party’s Low Thia Kiang (prior to 2006 GE if I recall correctly) that ministers be paid a multiplier of 100 times the average income of the lowest 20%. The idea was that this was approximately already what Ministers were making, but would motivate them to ensure that the poorest 20% did not get left behind.

Politically, this was a very astute move. With one fell swoop, Low made himself the champion of the poor while clearly illustrating the wide gap between the (PAP) ministers and the lower classes.

Politics aside, this idea of pegging Ministers’ salaries to the income of the everyman does merit consideration. The current formula pegs Ministers’ salaries to the top earners in various professions like law and banking.

Fair enough, one can buy the argument that Ministers should be well paid. Using either staff strength or budget as a guide, a typical Minister would bear responsibilities greater than most CEOs and managing directors.

We can contest, however, what Minister’s salaries should be pegged against. Top earners have income from various sources – aside from earned income, most would have stock gains & dividends, overseas assets, rental income and other financial instruments etc. PM Lee has taken some pains to explain clearly how the formula has been adjusted to deal with some of these elements. The fact remains, however, that the average Singaporean enjoys a far less exciting remuneration package, but one that can go up and down nonetheless.

My suggestion is this: To motivate our Ministers to work the best interests (financially anyway) of the people, we should consider pegging their salaries – not to the top few or the bottom 20%, but to the median or average wage earners in Singapore. It would be a fairer approach.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Why War with Iran is an Increasing Reality

The relationship between the US and Iran has grown increasingly weary and tense over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Iranians are generally supportive of it, but the US doesn’t like it. On top of that, the war in Iraq has led the US down further suspicion that Iran is either providing assistance to Iraqi Shia insurgents, or is blithely ignorant to the flow of assistance to Iraqi insurgents from/through Iran. A spiral of attacks in Iraq culminating in the January 2007 attacks in Karbala, Iraq, definitely did not help. Several US dead soldiers later and allegations began flying that Iranian agents had trained the perpetrators. US President Bush has ordered a 2nd aircraft carrier group to be deployed in the Persian Gulf and according to the February edition of Newsweek, a 3rd carrier group is also scheduled for gulf duties soon. That’s a lot of ships steaming Iran’s way.

In addition, a strategic map of offensive (defensive?) bombing sorties has been planned out by the US and the UK, just in case. The option for military action is definitely on the table and surprise, a poll conducted by the LA Times in January this year found that 57% of US citizens favoured military action if Iran continued with its nuclear development programmes.

Like most people living outside of Iran and the US, I do not want to see a 3rd protracted conflict emerge in the Middle East; Iraq and the Palestinian territories suffice for the moment. But the indications are clear that Bush is sending in the military muscle for another round of ‘shock and awe’. While many people do not want to believe it, the Bush administration is not going to give up on the Middle East. With Afghanistan largely in NATO’s hands, Iraq is the US’s only other major on-going conflict theatre. Simplistically, that means more resources and more time.

But apart from its military exhibition in the Gulf, has the US laid the groundwork for/in Iran? The Bush administration has poured money on direct broadcasts of Iranian exiled dissidents into Iran in an attempt to rouse the lay Iranian spirit. According to BBC News, one such fellow is Ahmad Baharloo, who has been quaintly dubbed “The Iranian Larry King”. Another Iranian academic, Abbas Milani, has also been busy ‘advising’ senior Bush officials from his base in Stanford University. It is also publicly known that the US has been funding (for how long?) militant ethnic separatist groups within iran to raise the domestic pressure. The official Washington response has been denial, but at least one former US State Department official has admitted to US efforts in supplying and training Iran’s ethnic minorities to destabilize the regime. Even worse, there are suspicions that other Iranian groups and terrorist groups with an anti-Iranian agenda might be roped in. We may see more of the Mujahidin al-Kaqh. Sound familiar?

That’s because the hands laying the pre-emptive groundwork in Iran now, are the same hands that laid the foundations for regime change in Iran 54 years ago. Back then, the US and the UK orchestrated a covert geo-political ops to oust then Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. Known as ‘Ops TPAJAX’, influential Iranian figures were bribed, ‘strategic’ reports were planted in newspapers, and undercover agents incited street violence in Iran (Stephen Kizner’s “All the Shah’s Men” is worth a read)

Lets pause for a moment. I don’t believe in conspiracy theories since linking events separated by half a century amounts to just that. But the evidence is sometimes just too good (no thanks to the buffet of memoirs by former XXX agents). When Bush bravely announced during his State of Union address (and to the world) in 2002 the ‘who’s who’ of the ‘Axis of Evil’, he must have had his reasons, and more importantly, a plan for doing so. Saddam Hussein is out of the picture and US bases are firmly in Iraq. With this, the US is ideally positioned to further its goals in the Middle East. Next, North Korea has finally capitulated. Chris Hill is set to resume talks with the North Koreans who had indicated that they will cease all nuclear development activities at Yongbyon plant within 60 dsya starting 13 Feb this year. Whether they go the 1990 way of German reunification will be another interesting development worth any front row seat. (with kimchi)

Bush would surely like to bring his trilogy of evil axes to a close and Iran is the final act. The North Korean development will no doubt pile on the pressure for Iran. For if Kim can see the light, the US is one step close to Iran and Ahmadinejad will need more than national pride to resist mounting global pressure. Though the EU nations have been consistent in pressing for a diplomatic solution with Iran, they have also been equally firm in backing UN Security Council resolutions for further sanctions. US and Israeli officials have begun talks to discuss ways of cutting Iran’s business ties to the world and key European financial institutions are feeling the pinch and have re-evaluated their business relationships with Iranian banks and companies. When such efforts gather momentum, an isolated Iran may force the US and the world to confront another North Korean debacle. Only this time, no more sneaky underground nuclear tests for Ahmadinejad. It is certain that the US and the world is painfully aware that this is a tune nobody wants to sing again.

Ultimately, US military action in Iran will be shaped by events in the Iraq, as it is in Iraq that the US will find reasons for a protracted war, as opposed to a bombing campaign to knock out nuclear facilities for a simple violation of UN resolutions. As it is, members of the Non-Aligned Movement have publicly supported Iran’s nuclear programme and have asked the UN Security Council to remove the nuclear bit from its agenda. The US will need Iraq to supply reasons for military action against Iran if it wants to mitigate condemnation. For if there is evidence (and there are certainly indications) that Iran is involved in supplying or aiding the conflict in Iraq, you can be very sure that the entire gamut of state-sponsored terrorism-Hizbollah-Lebanon charges will be thrown at Iran. Top this off with a suspicious nuclear ambition and a leader who wants to wipe Israel off the map, there will be little left to stop the war machine. I’m sure Ahmadinejad would have been piqued at George Bernard Shaw’s wry observation that we learn from history that we never learn anything from history.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Why pity older workers?

Seah Chiang Nee wrote an interesting piece about growing old in Singapore. He notes that “despite economic prosperity, more and more elderly Singaporeans past retirement age are working as cleaner or toilet attendants, instead of playing with grandchildren.”

The anecdotal examples from Seah’s column suggest that many elderly Singaporeans are working because (1) the cost of living in Singapore is too high and (2) they have not saved enough to retire. It is easy to jump in and agree with Seah’s conclusion, but a more objective study suggests otherwise.

A 2005 cost of living survey puts Singapore as (only?) the 34th most expensive out of 144 cities. (Admittedly, in other countries, if you find the city expensive, you have the option of retiring in the countryside). Data from ADB indicate that Singapore actually enjoys one of lowest inflation rates amongst Asian countries. (Here, you would have to factor in that Singapore, as a city-state country with no significant oil/agriculture resources, would actually be more prone to inflationary costs than most other Asian countries). So when put into context, the argument that the cost of living in Singapore is high is actually quite weak.

I would agree with the second point. For whatever reasons, there are definitely a group of elderly Singaporeans who have not saved enough for retirement. There are individuals who have not saved enough for their retirement. It may be because they are low-skilled workers who had always found it difficult to make ends meet. They could include the middle classes who sought short-term gratification (car, private property etc) at the expense of their retirement plans. There might also be some who have fallen victim to addictions (like gambling) or illnesses.

Hence, unless they have savings or children to provide for them, many will have to go on working.

Is this necessarily a bad thing? I am of the view that working keeps one healthy. Seah himself, from his picture in The Star, appears to be well into his 60s and still maintains his column and blog. I hope to be like him when I am at his age.

However, not everyone has Seah’s talent for writing. Some will be taxi drivers, some will be tour guides, and some will be toilet cleaners (restroom enhancement specialists if you like). There is no shame in any of these jobs.

I come across elderly cleaners around my home and at my work place. I have spoken to them. The work is not always easy or pleasant, and the pay is meager. Some work is made easier with the right tools (carts and extensions – so they don’t need to bend, vacuums, cleaning aids etc). When I greet them, they reply with smiles and the usual jiak pa buay (have you eaten)?

Elderly workers need not be pitied. With a little help from their employers and the rest of us, working past 62 can be enjoyable.