Friday, April 13, 2007

A Conundrum of Money

Dai Kor’s reference to NMP Siew Kum Hong’s distinction between Ministers who “lead” and civil servants (Administrative officers too) who “manage”, got me thinking about the ruckus regarding Ministerial and Administrative officer’s salaries.

“Sorry ah, dun mind if I ownself add 400K to my paycheck can?”

To be honest, such issues are never easy. PM too got emotional while talking about his moment of truth today. Inspirational? Maybe. But in reality, hey, not everyone cherishes nor strives for such awareness. We’ve never heard of a CEO asking his thousands of employees and shareholders for permission to raise his paycheck, but, we know of the CEO whose pay check is decided and voted by his Board of Directors (BODs). There are BODs who are from the company’s top echelon, and there are BODs who are independent of the company but are appointed by the company. The Government is like the former and that’s how they appear to have conducted their decision-making mechanism regarding their paycheck.

It seems to me that most in the blogosphere (and beyond) feel a little tired and let down by the whole debate that has been going on in Parliament. Debating Ministerial pay hikes, the benchmarking to top earners in the private sector and the lot was not really an opportunity for us to give feedback. It was, as Minister Teo Chee Hean rebutted, an opportunity for the Government to show the people some semblance of transparency in its decision to increase its own paycheck. Question is, was it just that? A motley parade of opinions for an already foregone conclusion.

I think many people share Low Thia Kiang’s sentiments that the emotional roller-coaster is too much of a high and has run the risk of becoming a circus show to “pacify the people”. As a result, there have been many criticisms. For one, I do not think that having and publicising higher salaries for our Ministers and Administrative officers is an invitation for more “unsuitable” people to step forward. I’m reminded of a forum letter (I apologise for not being able to find an online copy of it) a while ago asking if there was a “pathway” that one could take to become an MP. By asking such a question, was he demonstrating his insincerity? Or merely highlighting the fact that political talent is always identified and groomed by others and requires time and continuity. If at all our political leaders were “unsuitable” mercenaries, the fault lies in individual judgement and in the criteria used in identifying a ‘political leader’.

While I agree that entry-level civil service salaries should be increased, I also sympathise with KTM that the Government has not provided compelling reasons to justify higher salaries for Ministers and Administrative Officers. For brevity, lets assume that only scholars are allowed into the Administrative Service (which is not the case) and an average service term of 4yrs in a high-office Government appointment. With some 250 scholarships given out every year, and some 78 high-office appointments (total number of Ministries and Statutory Boards) with service terms of 4yrs, that works out to 1,000 scholars competing for 78 positions. On top of that, with the emphasis on leadership renewal in the civil service, one can naturally expect a decent resignation rate from our scholars. I can only suspect that the crucial junction of 30-something is not enough to ascertain the potential contribution a scholar can make to the civil service. So how? We lose them just like that after their bond? But this is only an analogy whose subjects are scholars. Yet it is perplexing that the mechanisms for identifying talent pool in the civil service have evolved into such a precarious state.

“My mudder always say is right under your nose”

Back to the point. I disagree that the circus show is all we have to console ourselves with. One thing that has emerged out of this salary ruckus has been the suggestions on ways to refine the decision-making process of Ministerial and Administrative officers paychecks. In particular, the idea by MPS Alvin Yeo and Ho Geok Choo to have an independent panel review the benchmark that pegs our Ministers salaries to the pay of top earners in the private sector. Such an idea may be new in Southeast Asia, but its not among some Commonwealth countries. The UK has a Review Body on Senior Salaries which provides advice on the remuneration of salaries to Ministers, senior civil servants, judicial office holders and other public appointment holders. So to do the Australians with their Remuneration Tribunal. Not too surprisingly, both are staffed by civil servants and/or appointed by the Executive and are at liberty to engage professional consultants in their evaluations.

Such a suggestion can go a very long way in taking off from the starting line redrawn by PM Lee’s question of what kind of government Singaporeans want.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Managers vs Leaders

NMP Siew Kum Hong made an excellent speech in Parliament regarding civil service salary revisions. He made the distinction between Ministers and other civil servants (including Administrative Services officers) by saying that the former *leads* Singapore while the latter *manages* the country. For the most part, Siew appeared to suggest that open-ended salary benchmarks for Ministers would erode the moral authority they require.

Therein lies the dilemma. The Government’s point is that if being a Minister paid too little, not enough of the able would step forward. Siew (and I believe many of the rational in the blogosphere) are making the point that if Ministers are paid too much, unsuitable candidates (i.e. those who are materialistic etc) would step forward. They would probably also be further out of touch with the populace given the lifestyles they can afford.

PM Lee announced today that he would donate his pay increment for the next 5 years to charity. This is an adroit political solution, since 5 years will bring him past the next election, and Singaporeans could vote him out then if the pay issue is so critical. I suspect that some other senior Ministers (e.g. MM and SM) may follow suit.

While this side-steps the current we-just-vote-you-in-now-you-go-pay-yourself-more dilemma, it will not address Siew’s point that those who serve need to do so more for love of country than love of money. Benchmarking against the top earners is simply not the way to do. I would reiterate my earlier suggestion that Ministers’ salaries be pegged to the median income.

As for other civil servants, I agree with Siew that they would essentially view the public and private sectors as alternative career paths, and they can work for whoever offers a better package, whether in pay/pensions, stability, career prospects or other intangibles. The government, on the other hand, should also view its employees in this light. Just pay what you need to get who you need. Do you need an Administrative Services scholar at $360,000 for the job? Or can a regular graduate at a fraction of the cost perform the same role? Admittedly, there will be some roles which have greater requirements than others. So just find the right person for each role and pay them accordingly.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Buy low, sell high – Building links with Iran

A few weeks ago, Saikor wrote a piece on Iran. The latest UNSC sanctions and Iran’s capture of 15 British soldiers lately brings the scenario he painted about the possibility of war in Iran a couple of steps closer to reality.

At this time when Iran is increasingly being portrayed as a pariah nation, it is interesting to note that Singapore is building up links with Iran, as SM Goh Chok Tong’s recent visit would indicate. As a former PM and Chairman of MAS, the signature of SM Goh’s visit demonstrates Singapore’s economic interest in Iran.

And why not? While per capita income may be low, Iran is a wealthy country (ranked abt 19th in GDP terms) thanks mainly to rich oil resources. With the government trying to diversify the economy and stem unemployment, there is much that a recently rapidly developing economy like Singapore could offer in terms of consulting services and trade.

This brings to mind the scenario in the 1960s, when Singapore sought Israel’s help in building up its defence capability. I was not around then, but it must have been a edgy decision. Israel was embroiled in its own difficulties in its part of the world (and perhaps very much still is). Singapore was surrounded by stronger and much larger Muslim countries, who might have responded with economic sanctions or worse. As it turned out, it was a fortuitous decision.

At this point, Iran’s stock is low. There are relatively few competitors for Singapore businesses, although Japan, China and several other countries have long-standing economic links with Iran. As per the adage to “buy low and sell high,” Singapore is clearly looking to invest – economically and/or politically – in Iran at a low point, and hopefully cash out at a high. It might seem to go against better judgment to be seen hobnobbing with the Iranians at this point, but Singapore clearly has a history of abhorring diplomatic common sense in favor of national interests when the two collide.