MP Alvin Yeo's full speech on minister's pay

Speech by Chua Chu Kang GRC MP Mr Alvin Yeo at the Parliamentary debate on political salaries on January 16, 2012.

It is certainly fashionable now to lay into this whole topic of minister's pay, to attack perceived "fat cat" salaries and decry the loss of the spirit of public service that was the hallmark of our pioneer leaders.

But amidst the cacophony of sound, it is essential that we maintain a level-headed perspective about this debate, to temper idealism with realism, to remember that nothing exists in a vacuum (least of all, our country), to strike a balance between the ethos of public service and the need to attract and retain talent in our leadership.

One of the sub-plots that has drawn considerable comment is the benchmark adopted by the committee - the median income of the top 1,000 citizen earners, less 40 per cent. It is criticised by some to be elitist, there's no relation to the lot of the common Singaporean, and likens public office with the profit-driven occupations of commercial enterprise.

Far better, it is said, to peg salaries to the median income of all Singaporeans, or of the lowest 20 per cent - and now with the latest proposal by the Workers' Party, to that of senior civil servants - and then apply a suitable multiple to that figure.

I feel that much of this criticism overlooks what the committee was trying to achieve. The committee was not seeking to monetise the value of public service or to treat the Cabinet as an extension of the private sector, as the honourable member for Aljunied Mr Chen Show Mao has alleged.

Rather the committee was looking at the talent pool among Singaporeans, from whom the Government would seek to draw its future leaders. It is true that income-earning capacity, just as academic qualifications and lofty positions in corporations, are not a conclusive determinant of the qualities to be a leader. That is where the ethos of public service comes in, and what the 40 per cent discount was meant to address. But make no mistake, our citizens demand top performance from our ministers, who in turn are drawn from what is considered to be the likely pool of top performers.

Purely by way of illustration, there was considerable excitement in political circles when Mr Chen Show Mao himself threw his hat in the political ring. This was not because Mr Chen was considered to be a "median-income" sort of guy, or somehow an emblem of the lowest income quintile of society. But rather, with his sterling qualifications and his position then as a partner in a international law firm, he was proof that opposition parties could also attract the sort of top talent, that one day perhaps may form the Government.

What about the other suggested benchmark of median income, which is then multiplied by a "reasonable" number?

The first issue is how you derive this multiple - is it five times, 10 times, or 20 time? Whichever multiple you use will be arbitrary, and appear to be an exercise in backward rationalisation. You work out the salary figure you want, and then you derive the multiple to get there.

The second issue is - how does this method better justify the salary as identification with the man-in-the-street?

Once you apply a multiple, any multiple - five times, 10 times, 20 times - you lose that identification with the median income, and you can be equally accused of being elitist.

To me, the most significant metric that appears in the committee's report was the Mercer's figure of $2.29 million for the average pay for a CEO of a similar public-listed company. That was considered by Mercer as the closest approximation to a minister's job.

That may be so but in my view it is still not that close. The budget of a ministry runs into the billions of dollars, more than that of the typical public company. The number of employees of a ministry can be in the tens of thousands, bigger than most public companies. The impact of a minister's decisions and policies affect a far wider group than any public company.

When there is a breakdown of the MRT trains, the Transport Minister is called to account. When a portion of Orchard Road floods, the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources has to answer questions on ponding and pumps.

No one is complaining about this - that is the nature of public office. But if the closest approximation of a minister's job, which is still less onerous than that of a minister, pays $2.29 million, and the Committee's recommendation would mean that a minister earns less than 50 per cent of that, is that a not a reasonable balance to strike? Is that not an appropriate financial sacrifice to make for public office?

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