Sunday, May 29, 2011

I have loved and lived

She may be pushing 70 but the effervescent author and political commentator - who recently grabbed attention with her blog posts on the General Election - has a zest for life that puts someone half her age to shame, Crispina Robert discovers

by Crispina Robert

May 29, 2011

Dr Catherine Lim saunters into the lovely wood-panelled Astor Bar at the St Regis eight minutes earlier than scheduled. She is immediately recognisable with her short cropped hair and dazzling smile. But more than her diminutive figure, our eyes fall on what she wears - an off-shoulder pearl-encrusted white blouse that not only shows off her tiny waist but, oddly, is both dramatic and appropriate for drinks at a six-star hotel.

I remark that it is a lovely top and she promptly launches into a story about how, in its previous life, it was the wedding gown of a former student. The original owner had outgrown it and Dr Lim, who clearly loathes trashing things of beauty, swooped in, cut off the bottom and made it into a blouse that is getting all the attention its new owner desires.

And in her slim-cut black slacks, heels and fire-engine red lipstick, at 69, Dr Lim still turns heads.

"Make sure you step on a scale every day,'' she says when I ask how she manages to look so trim and healthy.

Dr Catherine Lim Poh Imm, arguably Singapore's best-known author, is an intriguing study in contrasts as our nearly three-hour dinner demonstrates: She is at once a formidable intellectual (she talks animatedly about quantum physics, genetic engineering and paradigms of the mind), yet possesses a coquettish femininity that shows up in the way she admires a beautifully arranged dish or elegantly applies a fresh coat of lipstick in the middle of the conversation.

The eighth of 14 children to an accountant father and housewife mother, Dr Lim came to Singapore from Penang in her mid-20s to do her post-graduate degree in Applied Linguistics at the National University of Singapore. She began teaching English (in her family, the women are always either nurses or teachers she says) and by this time, she was married and had two children: Daughter, Jean, 45, now a doctor in Hong Kong, and Peter, 43, a journalist in the United States.

But that is probably where the ordinary story of a typical civil servant with 2.0 children living in a middle-income suburb ends. Feeling increasingly unhappy, Dr Lim decided to end her marriage. In the early '80s, it wasn't the done thing but she explains that she saw marriage as an "institution that was thumbing me down".

Looking back, she feels her ex-husband simply married the wrong woman. "Poor man, he should have married someone less problematic!" she says with a laugh. She also decided to leave the Civil Service (yet another "institution") and become a full-time writer, especially after her first novel Little Ironies in 1978 proved a hit.

Since then she has published 19 books, but her most famous piece came in 1994 when she wrote The PAP and the People: A Great Affective Divide, published by The Straits Times. This was followed by another article, One Government, Two Styles, which earned a searing rebuke from the Government, then headed by Mr Goh Chok Tong.


In 2007, she took her work online and lately, her blog posts on the General Election have gained her renewed attention.

Politics is clearly a passion with Dr Lim and she launches into mini monologues about the recent election. She takes the trouble to explain that it's not about any vindication of her own views but that, within the space of a fortnight, the political landscape in Singapore had shifted permanently.

"I am not one to go for rallies but I could feel a palpable sense of change in the air," says Dr Lim, who adds that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's apology midway through the hustings cemented her suspicions about how this was a completely different election.

She says a confluence of factors - a young, sophisticated electorate that compares upwards (to mature democracies not struggling nations), the impact of the Internet and the strength of the Opposition - came together in one heady mix, leading to the loss of a Group Representation Constituency, the first in Singapore's electoral history.

Despite these shifts in the political landscape, she has some niggling worries about the long-term outcome.

"There are many sound things about the Singapore system - meritocracy, the emphasis on hard work and discipline - don't throw these away! I am very scared now on behalf of the administration, the expectations are so high, poor thing ... give them time for goodness' sake. Sometimes a problem can only be solved incrementally,'' she says seriously.

It surprises me that she takes no pleasure in saying see-I-told-you-so. In fact, she feels very strongly that, in a crisis-ridden world, a strong government is crucial.

"The Western model of liberal democracy is declining and developing nations are looking for an alternative system,'' she says, adding that Singapore is poised to develop a unique political system that marries strong governance with free market capitalism.

"I sincerely hope they don't throw the baby out with the bathwater,'' she says on the desire for change.


But her truest allegiance to her adopted land is how, despite many opportunities to make her life elsewhere, Dr Lim has stayed put.

"This is testament to the PAP Government and I will say it - I cannot imagine living anywhere else. This place works, it is clean, my phone can be fixed in half a day and I can take a cab home at 2am without worrying about my safety."

Indeed, her charmed life in a District 10 apartment where she lives alone is one filled with purpose. She is planning to write two more essays on the GE and is working on a book of 33 short stories. She cooks her own meals, heads to the gym twice a week and has a busy social life filled with lunches and dinners with girlfriends, family and yes, it is true, the many suitors who want her attention.

I ask her why she hasn't remarried and she shakes her head vigorously, "Oh no! That's not for me. I rather enjoy my freedom and independence. Besides, after a while I get a little bored, to be honest!"

While she is busy with life, Dr Lim is under no illusions that death might come suddenly or illness might rob her of her fierce independent spirit. She has given her children specific instructions on what to do. "No heroic measures to keep me alive and please, no wake or funeral - Catherine Lim is the mind!

"I don't want people coming to look at a dead piece of meat in a coffin. They can have a memorial but it must be happy and elegant. I told my daughter, don't serve cheap wine or curry puffs but champagne and catered food!" she says, chuckling uproariously.

And, ever the perfectionist writer (she makes endless rewrites to get prepositions right), she has penned her own obituary. Isn't it a little morbid? I ask her.

"Oh, not at all! There is no fear. My epitaph: I have loved and lived life richly and deeply and I embrace its closure with an equal joy," she says, repeating the line twice for effect. "Do you like it?'' she asks, not really waiting for an answer because she knows it is true, all 18 carefully chosen words.

[She is a better Singaporean than me. I trust the PAP because I am not as smart as them and I trust that they are doing the right thing and most of the time, they are. But certainly they are not perfect and perhaps they have gone off-track. Catherine Lim is a better Singaporean than me because while she is clearly appreciative of the PAP, she is not uncritical of them. And so because she can appreciate and be critical, she is a better Singaporean than me.]

Better engagement is the way forward

May 29, 2011

The N-S Expressway project shows need to communicate well with affected parties

By Christopher Tan

Engagement, inclusivity and transparency are words which have been used fairly liberally in the last one month.

They are words filled with promise and hope, of a country where citizens have a say in issues that affect their lives and the lives of their children.

And it might as well start with transport, one of the things Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong apologised for in a moving election rally speech on May 3.

There is no need to harp on crowded trains and unpredictable bus arrivals. These are being addressed with infrastructural improvements, fleet expansion and extra actions such as bus priority schemes.

Relief should be in sight from as early as October, when the rest of the delayed Circle Line opens. It is to be followed by the completion of nearly one new rail project a year till 2020.

We can only hope that there will be no more hiccups between now and then, and that the planners have their projections right in terms of route and capacity (most, if not all, of the new railways will have stations that accommodate only three-car trains).

What is opportune now is perhaps for the Government to re-examine the way policies and projects which can have a profound impact on citizens are rolled out. This is because even the best of intentions can get off to a bad start if they are not communicated well and sufficiently.

The case of the North-South Expressway (NSE) comes to mind.

There is no arguing that with a fast-growing population, Singapore needs the additional capacity that the highway project will offer.

But the way in which it was announced on Jan 19, and the way the concerns of parties adversely affected by it have been addressed, fly in the face of engagement, inclusivity and transparency.

Last month, I interviewed residents at Nuovo, a residential estate in Yio Chu Kang affected by the NSE which runs from Sembawang in the north to the city centre in the south.

From their responses, it is clear that most of them understand the need for new roads, and they understand that road alignments will sometimes be close to residences.

What they find hard to accept though is the way the project had been communicated, the way their concerns were addressed (or not addressed) after they learnt of the project, and the level of accessibility of the authorities involved.

For starters, they first heard of the NSE through newspaper articles.

A few days after the news broke on Jan 19, there was a briefing by Land Transport Authority (LTA) and Singapore Land Authority officers facilitated by Ms Lee Bee Wah, then an MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC.

Despite that, residents felt the authorities did not have satisfactory answers to questions about why portions of the highway near residences could not be underground.

Another briefing was facilitated two weeks ago by Mr Seng Han Thong, a new MP for the ward. Residents felt officials were making a better effort this time at reassuring them that there would not be any appreciable change in noise levels.

But they still could not accept a reason given for why the expressway near their homes could not be underground: ventilation shafts would eat into training ground near Lentor Avenue used by the Ministry of Defence.

Residents felt some public engagement with parties affected by the new highway before decisions were made would have helped immensely. They felt they were left to deal with the foreseeable impact of the NSE - the noise, dust and pollution - by themselves.

I asked the LTA last month why it did not engage affected residents before finalising its plans.

It replied: 'The Government as a norm does not carry out consultations when finalising the alignment of major transport infrastructure projects... as these would involve commercially sensitive information affecting property values.

'This is to ensure that no party will have privileged information or have any undue advantage over others, and that this does not lead to unnecessary speculation.'

Is this really a valid reason?

In 2003, Seoul Mayor Lee Myung Bak proposed the demolition of a massive elevated highway in town to restore a covered waterway (the Cheonggyecheon river).

The views of thousands of residents, businesses and commuters were sought before a decision was made.

His office faced opposition from some quarters, including traffic engineers and civil engineers. Three thousand illegal street vendors had to be moved as well.

Still, the planners took pains to convince detractors, which included compensating those whose businesses would be affected.

The project was completed successfully in 2005, and the site is now a major attraction for locals and tourists. There was no traffic mayhem as well.

Mayor Lee went on to become President.

Admittedly though, the challenges of public involvement are real. And Singapore is not alone in the dilemma of balancing efficacy with the need to consult ordinary citizens for views that may or may not contribute to the greater good.

Dr Karen Bickerstaff, a lecturer at King's College London, noted in a 2002 paper Transport Planning And Participation: The Rhetoric And Realities Of Public Involvement that major transport projects tended to go through a 'decide, announce, defend' route.

But in a 1998 White Paper, the British government charted a new course.

It decided that first, an inclusive approach will ensure better support for plans. Second, locals have intimate insight into issues in their neighbourhood and can contribute. Third, public participation is key to raising travel awareness.

But Dr Bickerstaff and other academics recognised that, in practice, involving the public is easier said than done. And there has been little evidence of how involvement actually impacted transport plans. Hence, there are doubts about the efficacy of the practice.

Even so, the British and Korean exercises brought into focus normative arguments about public involvement. Meaning, governments should involve the public not only because it is beneficial, but also because it is the right thing to do.

Will the authorities do the right thing here?

The LTA recognises that there 'will always be difficult trade-offs that have to be made for a major project like the NSE, but we need to make a decision taking into account wider interests'.

That is true.

It is also true that most people will have a 'not-in-my-backyard' stance when it comes to infrastructural projects built near their properties.

But it also means that those whose backyards will soon be fronting a six-lane expressway should be compensated.

Policy studies refer to them as 'losers'. Right now, there seems to be a reluctance on the part of the authorities to even commit to relatively small mitigating measures such as noise barriers and double-glazed windows.

And that may not be defensible.

[Doing the "right" thing takes time.]

Here's how to raise a genius

May 29, 2011

By Irene Tham

Parent alert: Turn off the TV set and computer if you want to raise smart children.

Far-fetched? Not compared with this: Fathers, if you want to get your children into Harvard, start cleaning the toilet.

These suggestions from University of Washington molecular biologist John Medina, 55, may sound radical or, as some would put it, absurd.

This is because most parents have little scientific knowledge about how babies' brains work, said Dr Medina, who specialises in the genetics of psychiatric disorders.

Applying the understanding of brain sciences to early childhood education is his lifelong interest.

Dr Medina was the founding director of the Seattle-based Talaris Institute, which was established in 2000 and supports early childhood research projects as well as developing parenting programmes for caregivers. And he is director of the Brain Centre for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University.

Dr Medina is adamant about this one rule: 'Get the blue light out of their eyes.'

He is referring to exposing children to television and computer screens before they are two years old.

It is a no-no because blue light emanating from electronic media keeps them awake, and can lead to attention deficit disorders later in life.

'Exposure to electronic media of any kind can be very dangerous in the first couple of years of life,' he stressed.

The conservative scientist also believes that children above two years old - if allowed to be glued to digital screens - will be robbed of the opportunity to form competent human relationships, thus affecting their 'theory of mind'.

A psychiatric term, theory of mind refers to the ability to shift perspectives - a trait lacking in children with autism or those experiencing severe pain.

The ability to shift perspective reflects a child's quantitative reasoning and therefore his ability to do maths, he said.

His lifelong interest in how brain sciences influence the way children learn has been captured in his latest book, Brain Rules For Baby: How To Raise A Smart And Happy Child From Zero To Five, published last October.

He spoke to The Sunday Times recently, when he was here at the invitation of early childhood training institute Asian International College.

Over two days here, he spoke to more than 100 early childhood educators from global education group Knowledge Universe, which operates the Learning Vision, Pat's Schoolhouse and Odyssey, The Global Preschool brands.

Dr Medina spoke with conviction and passion about how parents and educators should 'start over' if they want to raise smart, happy and moral children.

And the answer is not teaching children to read French by the time they are three, or do differential equations by the time they are six.

'The single greatest predictor of academic performance that exists is the emotional stability of the home in which the kid is being raised,' he said.

Breaking what may be bad news to fathers, he said that men should do more housework for the sake of their children.

The second biggest source of conflict in the United States - the first being sleep deprivation once the baby arrives - is the inequity of household chores, with women doing 70 per cent of the housework. The numbers may not be very much different in Singapore.

'Guys, get a clue,' he said in a thunderous voice.

'If you want to stop the source of conflict, stop the World Of Warcraft and fix dinner.'

How a child's parents get along at home affects his 'executive function' score - a measure of impulse control and the ability to do well in maths, said Dr Medina.

'It is only with emotional stability that the kid can mobilise whatever IQ he already has,' he added.

Because babies' brains are highly stimulated, they can sniff out parental conflict.

And perceived unresolved conflicts can 'rewire their nervous systems in a way that hobbles their ability to do maths, language arts and certain motor skills', he said.

The human brain is designed to 'solve problems related to surviving', so the child will feel threatened by unresolved conflicts and will grow up particularly scared, and not creative or bright, he explained.

'It doesn't matter how much calculus maths you give them.'

Conversely, a child's nervous system will be fine if the amount of fighting and resolution is equal.

'They will also learn that conflict and its resolution are a normal part of life,' said Dr Medina.

His earlier book, Brain Rules: 12 Principles For Surviving And Thriving At Work, Home And School, was a New York Times bestseller for nine months in 2008.

Although it was his first visit here, he had heard about Singapore's stressful education system and would like parents to hear this: 'Education is not a race.

'Tiger Mum Amy Chua is wrong. The more stress you produce in children, the more likely they are to not mobilise their IQ.'

He was referring to the Yale law professor whose book Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother recently created a stir and became a bestseller.

Stress, in particular, stubs out creativity, or what Dr Medina describes as 'fluid intelligence'.

Fluid intelligence is the ability to improvise as soon as something is learnt - a skill employed by jazz musicians.

It is as important to the process of learning as 'crystallised intelligence', which is characterised by memory work or repetition.

The interview was peppered with lots of laughter as he explained how an over-emphasis on either of the two forms of intelligence will create either a robot - which does not win Nobel Prizes - or an air guitarist, who does not have knowledge.

Drills are important, but just as crucial is playtime, which unlocks the creativity in children, he added.

It is for the same reason that he thinks that an accelerated syllabus is bad.

'Make education a race and the learning is destroyed.'

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Transforming the PAP

May 27, 2011
3 Ps behind PAP's image problem

The men and women in white are members of the People's Action Party, but some have accused them of being proud, arrogant politicians. Why? And what can the PAP do about it? Li Xueying, Cassandra Chew, Elgin Toh and Teo Wan Gek report

THEY seem a breed apart, dwelling in a pristine bubble far from the madding crowd.

That, at least, is the stereotypical view of a People's Action Party (PAP) politician. He or she is likely to cruise around in a luxury car, never having to take public transport.

When he goes to the ground, the PAP MP tends to arrive after everyone else, speaks mainly to grassroots leaders and then makes a quick exit.

Undergraduate Elly Mohamad, 24, says these politicians are 'atas', a Malay word to describe people who think they are above everyone else. That image is at odds with the PAP ethos of being 'servants of the people' - as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong reminded party members at a Young PAP event last month.

'Never forget we're servants of the people, not their masters,' he said then. 'Always maintain a sense of humility and service. Never lord it over the people we're looking after and serving.'


THE May 7 elections saw the PAP's historic loss of six seats, its worst performance since Independence.

Among other things, the 6.5 percentage point vote swing - from 66.6 per cent in 2006 to 60.1 per cent this year - has been blamed on a widespread perception that the ruling party, in power for 52 years, has become arrogant.

It was first surfaced during the hustings by former foreign minister George Yeo, who said the PAP has to take a 'very hard look' at itself and review the way it governs. He identified the problem on two levels: It has to listen harder; and it should not dismiss people's unease over the pace of change driven by globalisation.

'We need a transformed PAP,' he concluded.

That has to go beyond just rhetoric. The PAP has to acknowledge the grievances, he said.

He recounted how he told Mr Lee during the campaign: 'It's not enough to just say, we're servants, you're masters, because that's just one line. Until people are convinced that you've heard, they are not sure that you have.'

The next day, Mr Lee apologised for his government's mistakes and after the elections, promised that the ruling party would evolve to accommodate more views and participation.

But what really is it about the PAP that has led people to think of it as arrogant?

It can be drilled down to three Ps: poor public relations, personalities and policies.

Poor PR

MANY take umbrage at the way the PAP handles people's concerns - at least, publicly.

Housewife Annie Ang, 60, said: 'They have been in power for too long; they have forgotten to listen to the hearts of the people.'

For instance, many Singaporeans were unhappy that they had to wait three years for an unqualified apology from the Government on the escape of terrorist detainee Mas Selamat Kastari. Mr Lee apologised for it during a lunchtime rally at UOB Plaza during the recent campaign.

Retiree Saleem Akhtar, 59, said: 'They need to change their style. When they are wrong, they just try to argue and explain their way out. If you made a mistake, just come out and admit it. What we want is accountability. You acknowledge, and we move on.'

Mrs Ho Jong Lin, 55, an assistant general manager of a manufacturing company, pointed to another instance of ministers brushing people off when they voice their worries.

'When we talk about rising health- care costs, the PAP will compare us to other countries to tell us we are better off. But that's such a turn-off.'


FOR others, the problem lies with individual MPs and ministers.

Mr C.T. Lingam, 77, a retired technical officer, said he has written letters of feedback to five or six different ministers. Only one replied. 'I'm very hurt,' he said. 'Good ideas are submitted but not being looked into.'

Mr Timothy Lim, 48, a sales director, was disappointed his former MP in Aljunied GRC did not follow through on his case after he went to her at a Meet-the-People session.

He added that he had not seen his MP before the elections, saying if 'after five years they do not feel like your MP, then the personal touch is missing'.

The perception of arrogance is exacerbated by instances of MPs arriving late for community events.

Worse, some speak only with grassroots leaders before exiting quickly. They not only leave a bad impression, but also leave without a good sense of what moves ordinary Singaporeans.

Observed a grassroots leader from Moulmein-Kallang GRC: 'So they are close to only a limited pool of people, hear from only the limited (group of) people what's happening, and they don't really know what's happening to other people, those on the buses or trains.'

In 2004, then-party whip Lim Boon Heng had to issue a reminder to MPs to be punctual.


WHEN it comes to policies, one source of tension seems to be between the PAP's aversion to being viewed as populist and yet, at the same time, reassuring people that they are being heard and their concerns will be addressed.

The ruling party prides itself on being able to push through necessary but unpopular policies, which will yield results only years down the road.

For instance, as noted by Pioneer MP Cedric Foo, it cashed the political chips it gained after successfully managing the Sars crisis in 2003, to restructure the Central Provident Fund (CPF) and cut contribution rates - 'a problem that needed fixing though we knew it was unpopular'.

But has it swung too far in the direction of tough love, such that people feel PAP politicians care little for them?

Procurement manager Beni Ong, 52, believes so.

In the past, PAP MPs 'know what it's like to fight for every vote', he said. But today's MPs are 'more like technocrats, recruited to run and administer policies, but not to look into the problems of residents'.

He added: 'They think they can let the grassroots organisations do the job. But they forget that the grassroots are often feeding them false information, because they are always very positive.

'All they think about is policies and not the people.'

Change needed, locally and nationally
CLEARLY, it can no longer be business as usual for the PAP.

Insight spoke to 15 MPs and all agree that much needs to be done to alter the perception of PAP arrogance.

They point to feedback received during the election campaign and decreased vote shares - especially in areas they knew previously to be PAP strongholds - as clear signals.

Said Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC MP Teo Ser Luck: 'This GE was a very good lesson for all of us.'

Change, they said, will have to take place at both the national and local levels.


At the local level

THE relationship between MPs and residents has to be strengthened, they say.

Mr Liang Eng Hwa is taking one firm step to strike at the image of the MP placed on a pedestal.

The MP for Holland-Bukit Timah GRC has told his grassroots leaders that starting this term, he should not be called the 'guest of honour' at grassroots events. Rather, they should tell residents that 'the MP will also be attending'.

He will also arrive ahead of time to mingle, instead of turning up only at the appointed time.

MPs are also thinking of ways to reach out to people beyond the routine MPSes and grassroots events.

Mr Edwin Tong, an MP for Moulmein-Kallang GRC, acknowledged that the grassroots events have been reaching out to 'the usual suspects'.

Meanwhile, it is difficult having meaningful conversations at MPSes, as people are impatient after the long wait, said Sembawang GRC MP Ellen Lee. She hopes she can persuade residents to 'stay on to have a decent conversation'.

Mr Tong has started to organise small informal coffee or makan sessions with residents of two to three blocks at a time. There is no speech, no programme - just chit-chat.

'I would like to do the same with schools, condominium residents, hawker associations, unions etc, the people we seldom see,' he said.

Mr Liang is going one step further - meeting residents in one-on-one sessions at kopitiams. For instance, one e-mailed him with concerns about the layout of the new Bukit Panjang MRT station. They will have a coffee together this week.

In cyberspace, the party's online efforts would have to be beefed up to better reach out to the young.

Mr Zaqy Mohamad, a Chua Chu Kang GRC MP and Young PAP vice-chairman, acknowledged that the party does not yet have a good formula for packaging content.

'Our MPs are on Facebook, they put up pictures of block visits, but there are no substantative elements that explain to residents why certain things are done,' he said.

So to gather feedback on the transport system in Chua Chu Kang, he is conducting surveys of the bus services on his page.

Meanwhile, MPs could visit schools informally to give talks that would raise political awareness.

'We can teach about democracy, and also how to analyse policies and manifestos,' said Mr Zaqy.

But it is not just about talk. MPs have to take action to follow up on interactions with residents, said Mr Teo.

'Sometimes we have good intentions, but when they are executed on the ground, they are less than perfect because of a lack of follow-up, so we end up disappointing residents and confidence falls.

'If we want to transform, we cannot just change at the intent level at the top.'

Ultimately, MPs must remember that they need to be the face and the voice of the residents, said Mr Tong.

'It used to be that politics was about the party.

'Now, it is becoming more about what the individual candidate can offer to the residents. And I think it is up to each MP to take the initiative.'

At the national level

THE philosophy of how the PAP Government crafts its policies has to evolve, and its process revamped, said the MPs.

One important change is that policymakers need to be more mindful of short- term pain, and not be overly focused on the long-term good.

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said: 'Even for policies that are good for Singaporeans in general, there could still be negative impact on certain segments of the people, especially in the short term.'

This means that policymakers have to be 'engaged with the people at every step of the policy implementation process'.

'We may need to fine-tune our policies to minimise the impact, find ways to help them cope, and explain the trade- offs in our policy choices,' said Mr Gan.

'This way, we can help our people more effectively and gain their support for our policies.'

West Coast GRC MP Arthur Fong notes that some Singaporeans are caught between policies.

One instance is when old housing blocks undergo the selective en-bloc redevelopment scheme (Sers) and residents have to plough back their compensation into their CPF accounts, leaving them with little liquid income.

'This is good in the long term in ensuring that they have sufficient retirement funds,' said Mr Fong.

'But sometimes, we need to consider their needs too and be more flexible in mandating that they channel the money back into CPF.'

A second change that backbenchers like veteran MP Inderjit Singh hope to see is an opportunity to be involved in the policymaking process much earlier.

'We need more upfront involvement of the MPs, even before the policies are formulated, rather than at the tail end of the policymaking process,' he said.

Currently, MPs are tapped for feedback after policies are more or less crafted, but before they are passed in Parliament, he said.

He believes that policies which would have benefited from earlier discussions with MPs range from the housing income ceiling, now being reviewed, to whether more Singaporeans should be allowed to stay in rental flats.

Such a process will mean some time lost, conceded Marine Parade GRC MP Seah Kian Peng, 'but I think it's time worth losing'.

'Because once the communication is done well, everyone can catch up later. When everyone is on board, they can move at double the speed.'

But how much longer can this process stretch without compromising the capability of policymakers to move in time?

Mr Singh said it is a 'matter of judgment and the PM has to decide'.

'If that is what it takes for a policy to be effective and to be right, then it's okay for us to lose the efficiency.'

A lifting of the party whip on more Bills in Parliament will also go some way in convincing people that a full debate is taking place and that all concerns will receive a complete airing and be taken into account, added the MPs.

PAP MPs also recognise the need to better communicate the thinking behind policies. That has to go beyond speeches in Parliament because as Mr Zaqy said: 'Ministers give one long speech in Parliament. Who remembers?'

Office holders, civil servants and MPs will have to do constant explaining on the ground - in layman's terms.

There is a need to convince younger and better-educated voters of the necessity of certain policies and teach them about trade-offs, said Mr Zaqy.

Added Nee Soon GRC MP Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim: 'The policymakers should be more open and upfront in what are the challenges that we face as a society.'

Immigration is one area where more openness and explanation are needed, MPs said.

A lack of communication has also allowed untruths to perpetuate. Said Sembawang GRC's Ms Ellen Lee: 'We have been accused of not doing a lot of things, when actually it has been done or is work in progress.'

Finally, policymakers must be prepared to admit mistakes and be ready to change when their policies are found to be wanting.

Nee Soon GRC MP Lee Bee Wah said policymakers should not see 'fine-tuning as a loss of face'.

'Rather, see it as an act of faith to the people affected,' she added.

The Prime Minister said as much during the election, when he sought Singaporeans' understanding for missteps by the Government.

'When these problems vex you or disturb you or upset your lives, please bear with us. We're trying our best on your behalf.

'And if we didn't quite get it right, I'm sorry but we will try and do better the next time.'

His humility struck a chord with many and has set the tone for the PAP's transformation.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

SGH warns against evangelising

May 26, 2011

Christian volunteer told to leave after complaint by a Taoist patient's son
By Yen Feng

THE Singapore General Hospital (SGH) has put up signs in all its wards to remind visitors against proselytising after a volunteer was found recently to be evangelising to a patient and was told to leave.

The signs - believed to be the first in hospital wards here - read: 'At SGH, we respect the religious and ethnic beliefs of Singaporeans. No staff, patient, visitor or volunteer is allowed to impose their religious beliefs on another.'

The move to spell out guidelines on proselytising follows an incident involving a Christian volunteer and an elderly patient who is a Taoist. The patient's son wrote to the Health Ministry last month seeking an explanation, and the ministry asked SGH to investigate the matter.

The patient's son, who would only give his surname as Chan, said the volunteer had approached him and his father on April 2, asking if they wanted to learn origami. The volunteer is a member of the Church of Praise in Lavender Street.

Mr Chan, 38, said: 'I told her no, then she started asking me about my father. That was when she told me she's a stroke patient and that the Lord saved her.' She began talking about her faith, he added.

In a statement to The Straits Times, SGH said the incident was 'isolated' and it has asked the volunteer to leave. It added that all volunteers are expected not to impose their religious views on anyone. 'Any volunteer who breaches this code of conduct will be asked to discontinue their involvement with the hospital,' it said.

When contacted, the Church of Praise described the incident as a misunderstanding. It said the church member had been volunteering at SGH for six years.

Pastor Pang Yan Cher said the church may now cease its activities at SGH. 'We would not want to put SGH to further inconvenience, as well as unwittingly affecting adversely the delicate balance of the different religions we have been working so hard to achieve in our country thus far,' she said.

For Mr Chan, whose father is still receiving treatment at SGH, the incident left him upset and he hoped public hospitals would not 'allow religious evangelists to harass people during difficult times in their lives'.

Three other public hospitals - Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH), National University Hospital (NUH) and Alexandra Hospital - said they too do not allow any kind of religious proselytising.

There is no hard data on how widespread the practice is: The hospitals either did not comment on how many cases are reported, or said they were rare.

But social workers and health-care professionals told ST it happens often enough, at least anecdotally, to prompt hospitals to have strict guidelines to prohibit any form of proselytising.

'It's hard to say no when you're ill and somebody says they want to pray for you to get better,' said Ms Jenny Teo, 46, a counseller with Care Spring Community Services. 'That's how it begins - the religious talk.'

At NUH, patients can ask for spiritual counselling, but neither staff nor volunteers are allowed to proselytise.

Over at TTSH, volunteers get a list of dos and don'ts which include 'prohibiting the preaching and sharing of religious beliefs', a hospital spokesman said.

Religious organisations and their affiliated groups, on their part, said their guiding principle is this: Patients' needs come first. Sultan Mosque's manager, Ustaz Khair Rahmat, said even though prayers play a role in their hospital visits, 'it is more important to give the patients a listening ear... regardless of race and religion.'

Mr Herman Lim, coordinator for First Hands, a programme run by City Harvest Community Services Association (CHCSA), said any reference to Christianity happens only when the patient requests it and with the approval of the social worker or the staff nurse. CHCSA, which is affiliated to City Harvest Church, works mainly with the terminally ill at TTSH.

Mr Paul Tobin, president of the Humanist Society (Singapore), called the move by SGH to put up the signs 'a positive step in the right direction'.

He said: 'To proselytise to a patient, who is at a moment of trauma and stress, is an unacceptable exploitation of that patient's emotional vulnerability.

'This is also an intrusion into the patient's right to privacy.'

[Stupid Christians at it again.]

Reviewing ministerial salaries: Seven lessons from the private sector

May 26, 2011
by Mak Yuen Teen

Last week, I taught executive and director pay to an executive MBA class and, during lunch, the subject of conversation at my table was ministerial pay in Singapore - a regular topic among the executives attending the programme over the years.

While most of the rest of the world is concerned with high executive pay, this must be the only country where ministerial salaries are of more interest.

Quite coincidentally, on Saturday morning, I had begun writing a commentary with the tentative title of "Ministerial pay: Lessons from corporate scandals and the financial crisis". That night, I saw on the news the Prime Minister's announcement that he was setting up a committee to review ministerial pay.

When you pay poorly, you might still get good people but, undoubtedly, the pool you select from will be smaller. You may also attract some who are willing to take low pay because they want to use their position for other benefit, such as taking bribes or getting directorships in companies.

When you pay very well, the pool will be larger, but you also risk attracting the wrong people who are motivated purely by money. People who are attracted to politics because of the money (or power) might still want to use their positions for their own benefit because for some, it is never enough.

I personally do not believe that high pay is effective for fighting corruption; I think it is an affront to the many who make an honest living on low pay to suggest that paying little encourages corruption.

However, it is very difficult to determine what is the "right" pay for CEOs, people with very specialised skills - and government ministers. For CEOs, certain "benchmarks" have been suggested, such as some percentage of profits, some ratio to average employee pay, the pay of sports stars and celebrities or fellow CEOs. None of these are wholly satisfactory.

Benchmarking ministerial pay to other professions has its limitations because they are totally different jobs, and different jobs come with different lifestyles and employment risks. When I look at my peers who have gone to the private sector, many are earning a lot more than I do now, but they do not have my more flexible lifestyle as an academic, and they are not able to achieve tenure which gives better job security.

In any case, I believe that the best people in any field are those who are driven first by their passion and calling.


As a corporate governance advocate, it has never been my concern if someone is well paid and earns it in the right way. I would be outraged if someone makes a lot of money but does so in an illegal or unethical manner, where it is not related to appropriate measures of performance, or the pay determined is through a contaminated process.

The corporate sector suggests the following "best practices" which should be followed in setting senior executives pay:

- An "arms length" process for determining remuneration policy and packages

- Benchmarks used should be comparable (similar job responsibilities, similar size and industry, etc)

- There should be a reasonable mix of short- and long-term pay

- Pay should be based mainly on factors within the executive's control

- Performance measures used for evaluation should have strong links with the corporation's long-term performance

- There should be minimal benefits and termination payments that are generally unrelated to performance

- There is good disclosure and transparency

A private sector approach which treats running a country as equivalent to running a corporation is, of course, flawed to start out with. After all, a government can always print money, raise taxes, determine whether it wants to make a profit (budget surplus) or a loss (budget deficit) and so on.

Tying ministerial bonuses to annual GDP growth can create the same perverse incentives as tying CEO pay to annual revenue growth. For example, it can lead to incentives to invest in projects with high economic payoffs, but with attendant high social costs and under-investing for long-term growth.

But if we are determined to follow a private sector approach to setting ministerial pay, then we should go the whole nine yards and adopt similar sound pay practices, which could involve the following. (Incidentally, when I showed someone the draft of this commentary, I was alerted to a 2007 speech by MP Denise Phua in which she made some similar points. I am glad there was such an alternative voice in Parliament and wish that her views were taken more seriously then.)


One, have an independent ministerial pay committee to oversee ministerial pay policy and levels (members must be independent and perceived to be so).

Two, adopt a small number of macro performance measures which capture overall performance in a holistic way (such as average GDP growth, average wage growth, Gini coefficient and unemployment rate) and micro performance measures which directly reflect a particular minister's performance (such as traffic accident rates, average expressway speeds, admission rates of Singaporeans into local universities, percentage of low-income families owning HDB flats).

Three, tie a minister's pay primarily to his individual responsibilities and performance, based on his portfolio (a small component can be tied to more macro measures but these may be more relevant to assessing the performance of the "chief executive", that is, the Prime Minister).

Four, benchmark targets such as GDP growth to trends in comparable economies, to better ensure that improvements are not largely due to external factors (for example, a significant increase in GDP growth - just like a significant increase in a company's stock price - may be driven more by general trends in the inter-connected global economy).

Five, defer a part of a minister's pay for a number of years and put in place conditions under which the deferred pay may be reduced.

Six, eliminate or significantly reduce pensions and other benefits not linked to a minister's performance.

And seven, publish a report each year on the actual amount of each minister's pay and its breakdown.

This may sound like an awfully tedious process for setting ministerial pay. Unfortunately, corporate scandals and the recent financial crisis have taught us that poorly designed pay schemes set through a flawed process and which lack transparency can create perverse incentives and undermine governance. The current approach to setting ministerial pay emulates the pay levels in the private sector but not the sound pay principles that well-governed companies follow.

If we are not prepared to adopt similarly robust processes and practices for setting ministerial pay, then perhaps we should just follow how other countries determine pay for their government officials.

We can then rely more on robust selection processes and strong enforcement of laws to take to task ministers who are corruptible, in order to ensure that we get ethical and competent government leaders.

However, even if we decide to "de-privatise" ministerial pay, I believe there are certain merits in adopting some of the good practices in the private sector approach - such as having a more independent mechanism for setting ministerial pay, having better measures of ministerial performance, creating mechanisms to encourage ministers to focus on longer-term consequences of decisions, and greater transparency in ministerial pay.

This may minimise the risk of receiving an "unexpected" performance appraisal from the electorate every four years.

Mak Yuen Teen is an associate professor at NUS Business School.

HDB flat prices: Opposition v PAP wards

May 26, 2011
special report
Differing conclusions on where value of flats is likely to be lower
By Jessica Cheam

ARE the values of public housing flats in opposition wards lower than in those of the ruling People's Action Party?

This was a contentious issue that surfaced during the recent General Election. Everyone from party leaders to members of the public took different positions, using statistics to back up their arguments.

Former minister mentor Lee Kuan Yew started the debate when he said that homes in Hougang, held by the Workers' Party (WP) since 1991, sold for less than similar ones in neighbouring areas because they belong to an opposition ward.

WP chief Low Thia Khiang rebutted these comments by citing figures from the Housing Board website that showed five-room flats in Hougang SMC sold for higher prices than those also in Hougang but located in the PAP-held Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC.

In response, former national development minister Mah Bow Tan pointed out that Mr Low had used flats in Pasir-Ris Punggol GRC for comparison, when the constituency nearest to Hougang SMC is actually Aljunied GRC.

Mr Mah then highlighted figures from the HDB website showing that five-room flats in Aljunied GRC fetched 15 per cent more than those in Hougang over the past 12 months.

Four-room flats in Aljunied GRC had a 16 per cent premium over those in Hougang, while three-room flats were sold for 3 per cent more.

The units in the calculations were located in Hougang Avenue 6, 8 and 10 for those in Aljunied GRC, and in Hougang Avenue 5 and 7 for those in Hougang SMC. The blocks were on either side of Upper Serangoon Road and roughly equidistant from the MRT station. They were also the same age - having been completed between 1980 and 1985.

In its analysis, the Ministry of National Development (MND) also pointed out that within Hougang Town, flats in Hougang SMC generally have a locational advantage over those in Ang Mo Kio GRC and Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, as they are nearer the town centre and the MRT station.

'This is why it is more meaningful to compare flats in Hougang SMC with flats in Aljunied GRC, and even then, only between those in comparable vicinities,' it said, justifying why it limited its study to the blocks it chose.


THE study prompted other analyses that strove for the opposite conclusion.

One notable study was by two PhD students and trained statisticians, Mr Chong Kwek Yan and Mr Giam Xingli, from the National University of Singapore and Princeton University respectively. But both made clear the study was their own, not that of their university.

The duo found that if one looked at 15- to 20-year-old flats, HDB's website data showed that flats in Hougang SMC were nearly 4 per cent higher in value than the same type of flats in Aljunied GRC. HDB's website makes available resale transactions of flats up to a year ago.

They argued that Mr Mah's analysis, which uses only 25- to 30-year-old flats, was not a meaningful comparison as looking at a specific group of flats by flat age is too narrow a comparison.

To capture the widest possible data set, the researchers broadened their calculations to include all transacted five-room flats of all ages from Hougang SMC and flats in the Hougang part of Aljunied GRC.

They also used statistical techniques to control for age of flat, size of flat, type of flat, and height/level of flat, all of which they said are 'factors that co-vary strongly with the value of a flat'.

Their conclusions: A resale flat in Aljunied-Hougang can be sold, on average, for between $22,600 more to $3,600 less than a resale flat in Hougang SMC.

Using the same methodology, however, a resale flat in the Hougang Town portion of Ang Mo Kio GRC was worth on average $26,500 less than a flat in Hougang SMC.

Similarly, a resale flat in the Hougang Town part of Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC was worth $18,000 less than a flat in Hougang SMC.

So who's right?

BOTH arguments have their merits, say statisticians.

'They're both right. It's normal for researchers looking at the same data to draw different conclusions,' said Associate Professor Low Chan Kee, acting head of the economics division, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Nanyang Technological University.

'There are so many factors in determining the value of flats and these assumptions will affect how researchers conclude their studies. The important thing is for readers to judge for themselves, to decide which of the two studies reflect what they look for in a flat - different facilities, the age of the flat, the location,' added Prof Low, who specialises in applied statistics.

While Mr Mah's analysis controlled for age and type of flat, as well as location, one could argue that the data set was too small to draw definitive conclusions.

The two researchers' study, on the other hand, included a much larger set of flat transactions, including all flats aged about seven to 36 years old and comparing across four different constituencies.

But its analysis had one major flaw in that it did not account for locational differences.

When contacted, Mr Giam said they were unable to test if locational differences - distance from amenities and transport nodes as defined by HDB - account for price differences as geographic information system (GIS) data of flats is not publicly available.

'If the HDB is willing to release the data, we are willing to incorporate location in our analysis,' he told The Straits Times.

But he noted that if the HDB wanted a more comprehensive study, it could have compared prices of flats in Hougang SMC with those in Aljunied, Pasir Ris-Punggol and Ang Mo Kio GRCs that are the same distance from the nearest MRT station.

'Simply comparing Aljunied GRC and Hougang SMC also does not tell us any general relationship about political affiliation and flat prices, because no matter how many flats they include, it's still effectively a sample size of two,' he said.

If the same relationship is found between Hougang SMC and its neighbouring PAP-held GRCs, as well as Potong Pasir SMC and Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, then perhaps one can conclude with more confidence that the political party controlling it has an effect over and above all other factors, he added.

'But if the trend that they claim only holds when comparing Aljunied and Hougang SMC and not between other pairs of opposition versus PAP comparisons, then it may be something due purely to other unique differences between Aljunied and Hougang.'

Prof Low said both studies needed a wider scope to lead to appropriate conclusions for a statistician.

'If they want to draw a fair conclusion they need to conduct a very thorough study involving a lot of different factors,' he said. 'The study also needs to take into account whether the difference in flat value is significant and the possibility of sampling error.'

Mr Giam threw up a different suggestion: The best way to assess the impact of opposition control on flat prices is to monitor the flat prices of Aljunied GRC over the next five years or so.

The Workers' Party clinched a historic win when it won Aljunied GRC in the recent election - the first time an opposition party has wrested control of a GRC from the PAP.

'We all know that flat prices are likely to increase (with the general economy), but will the increase of flat prices in Aljunied and Hougang SMC keep up with the increases in neighbouring PAP constituencies like Ang Mo Kio GRC and Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC,' asked Mr Giam.

'Knowing this may help to advance our current understanding on how political parties affect flat prices,' he said.

But until more such data sets become available, the debate is likely to continue.

Additional reporting by Cheryl Ong

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Pluralism an ally of justice everywhere

May 25, 2011
By Asma Afsaruddin

RELIGIOUS pluralism is one of the few, truly, modern expressions. The term refers to the acceptance of a multitude of religions existing in harmony despite internal doctrinal differences and variations in external rituals and practices.

Although the term itself hails only from the 20th century, one might argue that the idea has been around for much longer and has been part of a Muslim ethos from a very early period.

This is not to deny that other religious traditions may also have developed such an ethos in the past or that they are capable of doing so in the future; I speak only from my personal observations, which are strictly limited to the religious tradition that I know best - Islam.

Religious pluralism may be inferred from the Quran itself and the abundant commentary literature on it from the early centuries of Islam.

The Quran valorizes Judaism, Christianity and Islam equally on the basis of a shared belief in the one God and righteous behaviour. It praises righteous practitioners of all monotheistic faiths as belonging to a moderate, balanced and just community.

Justice is extolled in the Quran as an ethical principle held in common by righteous believers, a natural correlate of their moral charge on earth to uphold what is good and forbid what is wrong.

The pluralist ethos imparted by these verses was largely endorsed by early Muslim scholars. Historical literature indicates that this general principle of inclusion was eventually extended to other non-Abrahamic religious communities, such as the Zoroastrians, Hindus and Buddhists.

However, roughly after the 9th century, this pluralist impulse began to be progressively diluted and compromised in response to various socio-political and theological developments.

Over time, many (though by no means all) Muslim scholars came to consider 'right' belief and 'right' practice as, exclusively, a confessional allegiance to Islam. While other religious communities were to be tolerated and even granted autonomy in determining their internal affairs, these jurists decided that they were not to be deemed equal to Muslims.

Today, we find that there is a resurgence of interest among a substantial number of Muslim thinkers in retrieving the early pluralist ethos, and making it part of contemporary Muslim-majority societies, especially since many of these societies are already quite multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious.

And yet, recent shocking examples of religious intolerance and sectarian hatred in some of these countries have dominated global news. In Egypt, on New Year's Eve last year, there was a brutal attack by militants on Saints Church in Alexandria; 21 Christian Copts were killed.

Though the reaction from the majority Egyptian Muslim population was one of outrage and horror - Al-Azhar University, the premier institution of learning in the Sunni Muslim world, took the lead in condemning the attack - media coverage focused on horror.

Less well-noticed were scenes of heart-warming inter-faith solidarity and loyalty that followed in the wake of the attacks. Mr Muhammad el-Sawy, a young Muslim entrepreneur, immediately organised what became known as a 'human shields' campaign. Under the slogan, 'We either live together or die together', he and his fellow organisers, aided by social media tools, rallied thousands of Egyptians - from ministers to movie stars - to turn up at the Coptic church on Coptic Christmas - Jan 7 - for a dramatic show of solidarity, a finger-in-the-eye gesture at the militants.

We are so accustomed to stories of injustice emanating from the Middle East, we might be tempted to dismiss this as a fluke. Except that this trend of inter-faith solidarity asserted itself repeatedly during the spontaneous pro-democracy movement that erupted in Tahrir Square in Cairo this year.

On the Sunday during the so-called 'Week of Resistance', Copts held their mass in Tahrir Square while Muslims formed a protective ring, defending worshippers against government troops. The Christians, in turn, created a protective cordon the following Friday when Muslims assembled for prayer.

During funeral prayers for slain protestors, Muslims and Christians prayed together, carried copies of the Quran and the cross during the service, and chanted 'One Hand!'. If religious supremacists were squirming, no one was paying attention.

Young people and many of their elders across the Middle East are realising that the desire for justice and freedom remains a common, basic denominator that cuts across religious, ethnic and other divides.

Religious pluralism is an ally of justice and freedom-seeking people everywhere. Egyptians recently proved that this new-found inter-religious solidarity is the wave of the future, regardless of the considerable challenges that lie ahead.

The writer is professor of Islamic Studies at Indiana University in the United States.

[I feel hopeful when I read stories like this, and I hope it ceases to be unusual, and religious attacks become universally condemned.]

Illusions of democracy

May 21, 2011

The Internet is an extraordinarily powerful tool. It has changed how we do business, how we do politics, and even how we change our leaders - at least some of the time.

But the ease with which we now communicate, the efficiencies we take for granted, can give us a false sense of how easy it is to follow through on some of these changes. Despite the importance of social media in fomenting revolution, and even in deposing deeply unpopular leaders, governing in the real world is not as easy as governing online.

This struck me last week when I listened to one of Egypt's new online generation talking enthusiastically about the future. His thesis was that once people have tasted freedom, once the oppressive leader is gone, they will naturally live as free people and build a new, democratic society without much central oversight.

I wish I could believe that it will all be as easy for Egyptians as running a Facebook group was. Generally, the Internet is a tool for people whose basic needs are already being met. Members of the upper middle class in any country, including Egypt, often seem to forget that for most people, the value created on the Internet cannot feed, clothe, and house their families.

In centuries past, revolutionaries were farmers or blacksmiths or merchants; now they are Google executives and Facebook friends. The Internet joins the elite of the world. But it also cuts people off from the past and a sense of history. The exciting things that happen online are not the same as what happened offline in countries such as Romania and Kyrgyzstan, let alone in Libya.

In fact, habits are often stronger and more persistent than either insights or presidents. People may want a world free of corruption, but it is hard to understand how such a world works. When you are starting a new company and you need to get it registered quickly, how can you get the bureaucrat to do his job and move your paperwork along?

In many countries the answer is obvious. And, from the bureaucrat's point of view, his or her salary might be pathetic, but it comes with a steady stream of facilitation payments. That bureaucrat does not feel corrupt; he plays by the rules he signed on for when he got his job, and he does not want them changed mid-game.

There are many people in this or a similar position, and they all depend on one another to make a corrupt system work. It is difficult for them to understand how it could be any other way. Of course, they know from the media - indeed, from the Internet - about transparency and freedom, but without quite understanding how it works.

I am often reminded of the Russian tech entrepreneur I talked to many years ago, back when the Soviet Union was falling apart. "It's great!" he said. "Our government is going to set free-market prices just like yours."

I do not want to be gloomy. People in the Middle East and other emerging democracies have definitely changed from their recent experiences, and their expectations have been raised. But they need to understand the challenges they face in building a new society.

The Internet may have made this transition seem too easy. In Internet communities, it is fairly easy to build consensus. Membership is voluntary, and people who do not like the rules can leave. Or they can be kicked out: There is no requirement for due process.

Moreover, many resources are infinite on the Internet. People are not fighting over scarce housing or lucrative jobs. They are befriending one another, sharing information, and accumulating status, points, and experiences.

But in the real world, even online, things are not so easy. Consider eBay, a wonderful and mostly successful melding of the online and offline worlds. It has a huge budget devoted to deterring and detecting fraud, and it can simply ban fraudsters. The company's success makes governance look easy, but that success is misleading. Unlike eBay, a country needs to put its criminals in jail and keep them there; it cannot simply cancel their accounts.

Every society has its bad actors, and it needs an established (and accountable) authority to deal with them. Otherwise, the bad guys will take advantage of the good ones. What that means is that the newly freed people of the Middle East must toughen their idealism with hard realism. They need to figure out how to negotiate and work with existing power structures - such as the army and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Like it or not, they cannot do that as a brigade of flower children; they need to pick leaders who can speak for them and negotiate for them. The modernisers need to form a coherent force - and most likely a political party - rather than simply relying on the wisdom (and good behaviour) of the crowd to govern the country.

That does not mean that activists should abandon the cause for which they are fighting. But it does mean understanding that even democracy has many rules - ideally rules that a majority has chosen. But they are mostly not chosen directly; those rules generally reflect compromises among elected representatives who can argue and negotiate in person, reflecting the overall preferences of those who elected them.

That may sound a little too much like the old system, but it does not have to be. Online, if you do not like the rules, you can simply leave and form a new community. Offline, you need to stay and help to change the rules for everyone.


Esther Dyson, CEO of EDventure Holdings, is an active investor in a variety of start-ups around the world.

The return of politics

May 24, 2011
Politicians will have to put people at the forefront of policies
By Li Xueying

ON NOMINATION Day, a crowd of Singaporeans turned up at Deyi Secondary School to cheer their teams, waiting patiently in the field under the sun.

The candidacy of the People's Action Party (PAP) and Workers' Party (WP) teams was confirmed several hours later. The candidates addressed the cheering crowds. Some went down to the field to greet supporters. I saw some PAP candidates being feted and carried aloft by supporters.

But the WP team did one thing more.

Mr Low Thia Khiang led his team-mates to the gate of the field. They stood there humbly in line. And then, in the noon-day blazing sun, they shook hands with each supporter streaming out and thanked them one by one.

'That, truly, is a politician,' I thought to myself.

As Singapore enters a new chapter in its political development, MPs and ministers will have to relearn how to win not just the minds of Singaporeans, but their hearts too.

No longer can PAP ministers be just technocrats, intent on crafting the right policies, secure in the confidence that Singaporeans will swallow the bitter pill of 'unpopular but necessary' policies because it is good for them in the long run.

As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted last Wednesday in introducing his new Cabinet, ministers need to make 'not just policy judgments but political judgments'.

The PAP was born out of the political acumen of a small group of leaders. In the uncertain era before Singapore's independence, Mr Lee Kuan Yew was the consummate politician - a charismatic orator and a master strategist able to galvanise people to give their support to the Government's policies.

After remaining in power for decades with no serious challenger, the PAP has come to rely more on its track record and its ability to deliver a stable life in order to win elections. Some say it is the PAP's track record that wins elections; not necessarily the PAP candidates contesting in each election - many of whom are political neophytes, compared to the Old Guard, even if they had been in Parliament for a couple terms.

For example, two decades of walk- overs in many constituencies meant that four ministers in the old Cabinet had never won an election before May 7.

But political skills can no longer take a backseat in Singapore.

The world is more unpredictable and governance more complex. Not even the sharpest minds can grasp all the possible exigencies that can occur. At the same time, a changing electorate is no longer content with just having a government who helps put food on the table and ensures security on the streets. They want higher-order Maslovian needs fulfilled - to feel respected and valued, listened to, and to have a say in national decisions.

As former Aljunied GRC MP Lim Hwee Hua noted in a recent interview after losing her seat in the May 7 polls, this means that 'it is sometimes not the most optimal solution that is the best, but the one that is the least objectionable that is the best'.

As the former Second Minister for Transport, Mrs Lim probably learnt this lesson well. Distance-based fares for buses and the MRT, introduced last July, were a classic example of a policy that got its calculations right (it is fairer that people on longer commutes pay more) but its politics wrong (two-thirds of commuters may pay less, but this does nothing to please the one-third - including students and the elderly - who have to pay more).

What does this mean for Singapore?

One: Politicians can no longer divorce politics from policies.

Purist policy wonks may wish that they can continue to craft the most rational and efficient policies in what was once termed 'pristine near-laboratory' conditions in Singapore.

But Singaporeans are no lab mice. Politicians make decisions for real people. Real life is messy, with individuals' unique situations sometimes making nonsense of policy rules. Politicians will thus have to spend time to listen to what people want and take on board their preferences before deciding. And then they have to spend yet more time to explain, convince and explain again the rationale behind policies and their trade-offs, including those that no one likes: potentially higher taxes, for example, to finance more help for the low and middle-income which so many vocal Singaporeans seem to want.

Politicians have to spend more time on politics and will have less time to spend on policy details.

Singapore ministers over the years may have got too much into the weeds of policymaking. They should leave it to the able mandarins in the civil service to consider the details, and focus on the direction of policies, how the policies will affect Singaporeans, and how to get buy-in for these decisions.

Second: Singaporeans must be prepared for a slower pace in decision-making if they desire more involvement. Consulting and refining policy take time.

They must understand that slower decisions can have a real economic cost, and so must be prepared either to accept that cost, or understand the need for some fleet-footed decisions.

Take one recent example. When Singapore's economy rebounded strongly after the global financial crisis, could the Government have afforded to spend six to 12 months consulting Singaporeans on whether to let in more foreigners to meet businesses' demand for labour? Surely not.

If the Government put as much emphasis on politics as on policies, they could have done better in going for a dual-track response. Open the doors but calibrate the inflow so they do not overload domestic infrastructure. Concurrently, explain to Singaporeans what is being done and why it is necessary, and take steps to alleviate the anticipated big squeeze.

The return of politics in Singapore means politicians have to once again remember to put people at the front and centre of their policies, and that it is bad politics to force people to accept policies.

In the wake of the election, PM Lee has indicated over the past few weeks that the PAP has grasped this. He has promised that his government will listen, even as he called on Singaporeans to come forth with 'ideas and energies, to join our minds, our hearts and our hands to create a better Singapore'.

It is a hopeful start.

Media biased, says one in two

May 24, 2011

ABOUT half of Singaporeans polled last year by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) were of the view that 'there is too much government control of newspapers and television'.

Younger respondents aged 21 to 39 years old agreed with the statement in larger numbers - over six in 10 - as compared to five in 10 of those aged over 60.

About 49 per cent of those aged below 60 agreed with the statement that 'newspapers and television are biased when they report on Singapore politics, political parties and elections', slightly higher than the 42 per cent among those aged 60 and above.

Despite these reservations, respondents still revealed above-average trust in newspapers, TV and radio.

Asked to measure the trustworthiness of media channels as outlets for political news from a scale of 1 (untrustworthy) to 5 (very trustworthy), newspapers received 3.58 on average, the highest.

TV received a 3.55 score, while the Internet received 2.82 on average.

Younger respondents were slightly more inclined to see the Internet as trustworthy. Mr Wong Liangyuan, 25, an undergraduate, describes himself as 'equally cynical and wary' of both mainstream and online media.

The mainstream media may display a bias towards the incumbent People's Action Party, but online sources display one towards opposition parties, he said. Hence, when consuming news online, he focuses on the facts and figures.

The IPS survey also showed that despite its perceived influence among the younger generation of Singaporeans, the penetration of online political content through the electorate as a whole is not overwhelming.

When asked if they have seen two specific instances of 'viral media', only about one in five said they had.

The two examples were popular blogger Mr Brown's 'bak chor mee' podcast mocking the PAP's handling of opposition candidate James Gomez in the 2006 General Election, and a Stomp video of beauty queen Ris Low discussing her fashion preferences.

Some 20 per cent had come across Mr Brown's podcast, while 25.6 per cent had seen the video of Ms Low.


Singaporeans value growth over freedom of speech: Poll

May 24, 2011
By Rachel Chang

A MAJORITY of Singaporeans prize economic growth over freedom of speech, but believe that there are too many political restrictions here, a new survey has found.

Most also agree that Singapore should have a powerful leader who can run the Government as he thinks fit, yet want everyone to be able to criticise the Government publicly.

The Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) polled 1,092 citizens aged 21 years and above in July and August last year and found a generation gap in political orientation.

Those aged below 40 displayed a more 'liberal' political attitude than those aged 40 to 59, who in turn were generally more liberal than those aged above 60.

The survey asked respondents to indicate their agreement, or lack thereof, regarding four statements.

Two were 'conservative' in nature: 'Singapore should have a powerful leader who can run the Government as he thinks fit', and 'It is more important to have good economic growth than freedom of speech'.

These are tenets which political watchers have attributed to the People's Action Party's mode of governance.

On these statements, seven out of 10 respondents said they 'agreed' or 'strongly agreed'.

The other two statements were 'liberal' in nature, invoking criticisms which have been levelled at the PAP Government: 'There are two many rules against participating in political activities in Singapore,' and 'Everyone should be given the freedom to criticise the Government publicly.'

Six out of 10 agreed or strongly agreed that there were too many rules; five out of 10 agreed or strongly agreed that everyone should be able to criticise the Government.

According to IPS senior research fellow Tan Tarn How, who led the study, a substantial segment of respondents agreed with both the liberal and conservative statements, despite the contradiction seemingly inherent in this.

The other two scholars involved in the study are from the communications and new media programme of the National University of Singapore: visiting fellow Chung Siyoung and assistant professor Zhang Weiyu.

Among those who want a strong leader, 62 per cent think there are too many rules against political participation.

Among those who say there are too many rules, 76 per cent want a strong leader. 'This shows, somewhat surprisingly, that Singaporeans show a desire not only for strong leadership and economic growth but also for more freedom to take part in politics,' the researchers noted.

Some Singaporeans, like entrepreneur Chong Wei Yong, 33, do not see this as contradictory. He said: 'With so much collective wealth, Singaporeans should now have a say in how it is managed.'

Dr Kenneth Paul Tan, associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and visiting fellow at Harvard Kennedy School, noted that the statements are 'vague and contain too many ideas'.

He cautioned that the respondents may have been responding 'impressionistically' for the most part, and said that further questioning may have exposed flaws in their reasoning.

'I would be interested to know if the 60 per cent of respondents who agreed that there are too many rules can identify those rules, or if they know of anyone who has been prevented from engaging in political participation because of these rules,' he said.

Across the four statements, the younger the respondent group, the less conservative. Younger people were also more open about their political allegiances. When asked who they voted for in the 2006 General Election, only one in 10 refused to answer, in contrast to one in four in the older age groups.

As expected, younger people are more politically active online. A total of 25.5 per cent took part in activities like signing petitions and reading and writing about politics online, compared with 16.8 per cent of respondents altogether.

Mr Praveen Velu, 31, a National Solidarity Party volunteer, said the Internet has been a crucial tool for young activists: 'It's easier to exchange information, organise yourselves and find other like-minded people.'

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

New ministerial pay package "should also look at average man's pay"

By S Ramesh
24 May 2011

SINGAPORE: It may be a while before the committee set up to review salaries for political appointment holders completes its report, but views on the subject continue to be debated.

And political watchers in a radio discussion on Tuesday emphasised that any package proposed by the committee headed by Mr Gerard Ee must take into account what the average Singaporean earns.

The "Talkback" show on MediaCorp radio station 938Live saw three guests - former Nominated MP Gautam Banerjee and political commentators Eugene Tan and PN Balji - sharing their views on the topic of ministerial pay.

Mr Eugene Tan, an Assistant Professor of Law at Singapore Management University, said: "While we accept the principle behind a fair compensation package, the idea that ministers are paid way above the average Singaporean is something many Singaporeans have difficulty accepting."

However, it's argued that high salaries are not just a Singapore phenomenon.

Mr Gautam Banerjee, executive chairman of PricewaterhouseCoopers, said: "With globalisation and the companies getting larger, the salaries of the top individuals have increased disproportionately to the rest of the workforce. The formula has been giving these very large figures which the government has already brought down. They have never used the formula in its entirety because what the formula was throwing up was just too high a figure, just not tenable."

He added: "One of the things that people have always had with this formula is that you are always taking the highest of the high each year. You are always pegging yourself with the highest performers.

"You could do a number of things; you could take a broader number of people, you could take the highest individuals, you could take a medium of the top 50 and have something which you could sell politically, because at the end of the day, in the private sector it is also under a lot of review, especially after the financial crisis."

The review committee must also look long-term in order to attract the right talent.

Mr Eugene Tan said: "The committee has to balance the need to continue to attract talent within the ministerial ranks and at the same time come up with a set of recommendations which will have the 'buy-in' of the majority of Singaporeans.

"It is important for an issue like the ministerial salaries not to be excessively politicised. I don't think we can completely remove the political sting but it is important that it doesn't become an issue that takes away the moral legitimacy of the government.

"The whole process of looking at the ministerial salaries will be an important gauge of the new style of governance, reach out, engage and get Singaporeans to co-create. It will be an interesting process to watch.

"If the salary package is seen way too low, then I think it would be difficult. We must bear in mind that while serving in the Cabinet, taking part in politics is a calling, I am not so sure we should look at it as the politicians performing a public service close to volunteer service.

"It is important to recognise that the work they do serves a larger good and it is important we continue to attract good people."

Political watchers also do not rule out the possibility that in future, some top civil servants may indeed be paid more than their minister.

And they do not think the status of the president would be diminished if he is paid less than the prime minister.

Mr Gautam said: "You look at corporates, the chairman (who) is the most senior person in the organisation, is paid less than the CEO....The CEO carries a role....responsibility to perform and do more things and so the CEO's salary is more than the chairman. But the chairman gets the gravitas, the respect.

"(In Singapore), you still pay the president a salary, which is to commensurate with the position but it doesn't have to be the highest. And, also, the president is advised by a Council of Presidential Advisors and he has a good Council to advise him, he is not doing the job alone."

While the political watchers feel there should be public consultation on ministerial pay, they say mass feedback sessions could only lead to more noise and chatter. But they hope the review committee will be explicit with the principles it takes to arrive at its decision and also make public the final report.

- CNA/ir

Monday, May 23, 2011

Forget politics, what is the job worth?

May 23, 2011

by Tan Weizhen

SINGAPORE - Embarking on the very delicate task of reviewing ministerial salaries, one of the most politically controversial issues of the last 17 years, Mr Gerard Ee is determined to put aside all political lenses.

Let's view each ministerial job squarely for what it is - that is the approach that the chairman of the new salary review committee wants to take.

"We will start with a proper process. Forget the political part of the job, we will be redefining its worth by looking at everything else from the job scope to the hours put in," said Mr Ee. This task will "not be insurmountable" as it is what human resource practitioners do all the time.

The main challenge would be the next step: Applying a "significant discount" to comparable salaries in the private sector, that would signify the value and ethos of public service. This means "you can expect that, in all probability it will be a cut," said Mr Ee.

But, he asked: "How much should the discount be, and how do we come up with a figure that still ensures we have an honest and competent government? What will be fair to people?" These are questions that will always be debated as everyone will have a different view, he acknowledged.

At the end of the day, what matters is whether the committee's recommendations can be robustly defended, when people question if the job is really worth that much, said Mr Ee.

Yesterday, the eight-member panel that will review the salaries of the President, Prime Minister and political appointees was unveiled. The Government will base its new salaries - which will take effect from May 21, when the new Cabinet was sworn in - on the recommendations of these individuals from the private sector, social sector and labour movement.

Other points of reference it will take into account include general wage levels here. In other words, when the economy goes up or down, ministerial salaries should have a mechanism to reflect this.

Currently, the salaries are benchmarked to two-thirds of the median income of the top eight earners from six private-sector professions. The new model is very different altogether, Mr Ee noted: "You say 'for this work, for this skill, for this knowledge in the private sector, how much will you have to pay to have someone perform such work?'"

But some Members of Parliament who cut their teeth in the private sector think it would be tough to determine how much a minister should be paid based on his ministry's importance to the country or the size of his portfolio. Mr Zaqy Mohamad asked: "How do you decide which ministries are important or not? People will disagree."

MPs feel, however, that there are other pointers to take away from the corporate world - such as the practice of tagging pay and bonuses to the company's performance.

Mr Zaqy and Mr Inderjit Singh felt each minister's pay should be linked to the performance of their respective ministries, rather than merely to economic growth.

Said Mr Zaqy: "Of course, the salaries of overall ministers like the Prime Minister, and certain ministries like the Ministry of Trade and Industry, can be linked to GDP growth and other factors. But overall, link salaries to the ministry's performance. In the private sector, there is a strong link between salary benchmark, job scope and key performance indicators."

Headhunters note that in the private sector, top CEOs' salaries are wholly dependent on the company's performance. Mr Tim Hird, managing director of Robert Half, said: "Those further down the chain are paid according to a mix of individual and company performances. But the CEOs are there to increase the profitability of the business, and so they are rewarded according to how the company performs."

Determining how or whether such principles will apply to ministerial salaries is the job of the review committee, and looking at its members, Dr Gillian Koh of the Institute of Policy Studies said most would be "familiar with how the establishment functions". "Others, such as Mr George Quek (founder of BreadTalk) and Mr Wong Ngit Liong (Venture Corporation CEO) have an entrepreneurial background, and will know how the private sector functions."

Even so, Dr Koh added, this committee will "no doubt have to consult widely and include professionals that the ministerial salaries were previously benchmarked to".

Mr Ee said the committee would need to collect a lot of data and that it would not rush matters. Several times, he emphasised the principle of objectivity - be it in how he will go about the task or how he hopes the public would view the process.

In particular, he urged the public not to let emotional or personal associations get in the way when judging the results of the salary review. "I hope that the public don't associate any person with the job. If some dislike the minister, they may think he is overpaid but we should be reasonable. The system should be such that it reflects the value of the job."

[1 Pegging to the value of the ministry. Economic value? Then Minister for trade and industry, and perhaps finance and manpower should be paid most? Social value? Health, Housing and Education should be paid more? How to value social value? Political value? Community Development should not be valued if we see it as a political instrument to win votes for the govt? How to value defence?
2. Pegging to performance. Cyclical nature of economy means there will be booms and busts.In booms, GDP will grow as long as the govt does not do anything stupid. In busts, for an open economy like Sg, it would be impossible for Govt to prevent or isolate Sg from global cycles. In downturns the govt performance to be assessed is how the govt acted to provide relief, stimulate the economy, protect jobs, prevent unemployment, or raise employment. But again, these are hard KPIs that do not consider strategic consideration. Perhaps unemployment is as much due to a structural shift in economic activities. Subsidies, concessions and tax relief can hold companies here long after they have ceased to be viable businesses, in order to meet short term KPIs like low unemployment, but are merely postponing the day of reckoning.

How does one define the value of a new idea like "Jobs Credit"? Do we know how many jobs it saved?

3 Pegging to job scope and hours. Would like to see how this will be done.]

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Ministerial pay

May 22, 2011

Ministerial pay to be reviewed
Special committee will review basis and level of salaries, says PM Lee

By Lydia Lim

Ministers' salaries will be reviewed - that was the first dramatic change Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong chose to announce last night after being sworn in for another five-year term.

National Kidney Foundation chairman Gerard Ee will be the head of a committee to review the basis and level of these salaries, PM Lee said in a speech at the Istana, after he and his new Cabinet were sworn in by President S R Nathan.

Mr Lee made clear that while the country would always need committed and capable ministers who should be paid properly, 'politics is not a job or a career promotion. It is a calling to serve the larger good of Singapore'.

He thereby signalled that he and his new team know that unhappiness over high ministerial pay must be addressed if they are to renew the compact between government and people.

Mr Ee told The Sunday Times that a guiding principle of the review that his committee will undertake would be the Prime Minister's point that holding political office is about serving the public.

'PM has said in his speech that salaries must reflect the values and ethos of public service. That means that whatever we work out, the final answer must include a substantial discount on comparable salaries in the private sector and people looking at it will say, 'these people are serving and making a sacrifice',' he said.

He said he expects his committee to do an in-depth study of comparable salaries in the private sector, and to factor in other points of reference, such as general wage levels.

They have been handed a very serious task, he said, as the issue of ministers' pay is very important and has the attention of the electorate.

'We must be seen to be very fair and transparent. We must be able to robustly defend our recommendations,' he said.

Education Minister Heng Swee Keat said he fully supports Mr Lee's decision to review political salaries, 'so that we get an agreement on this important national issue'.

The policy of pegging ministers' salaries to top private sector pay has been in place since 1994 but remains controversial and unpopular.

The current benchmark for ministers' pay is two-thirds of the median income of the top eight earners in six professions, including bankers and lawyers.

The Government does not disclose how much each minister is paid but the most current figures released by the Public Service Division show that the annual salary of an entry-grade minister was $1.57 million in 2009.

The Prime Minister's salary that year was $3.04 million.

During the recent election campaign, opposition politicians attacked ministers' salaries as being far removed from the wages of ordinary Singaporeans. The policy had also failed to achieve its aim of attracting top private sector talent into government, they said.

Yesterday, political observers and economists welcomed the announcement of the review. Former Nominated MP Siew Kum Hong said it showed that there truly 'are no sacred cows'.

Others suggested that ministers' pay be pegged more closely to median rather than top incomes.

In his speech, Mr Lee pledged that his Government would review both its politics and its policies so as to better work with Singaporeans to 'create a just and fair society', a phrase the PAP used at its founding in 1954.

He spoke of renewal in three ways. First, a renewal of leadership to lead Singapore in a new phase of development.

Mr Lee has named a younger team to the Cabinet, and appointed four first-term Members of Parliament to the positions of minister and minister of state.

Second, a renewal in the Government's approach to policies, including a rethink of what is necessary and best for Singapore's future. 'Though Singaporeans trust that our policies are mostly sound, nothing should be sacrosanct,' he said.

The third renewal is of the values at the heart of government and society. Mr Lee pledged to work with Singaporeans to create a society which gives all citizens the best start in life, and leaves no one behind.

'A Singapore which excites our young and respects our old. A society that nurtures and inspires the human spirit, beyond material success,' he said.

Ministerial salaries: A short history

By Rachel Chang

It has been an albatross around the Government's neck since the policy pegging ministerial pay to the private sector was first implemented in the mid-1990s.

The issue of ministerial pay first surfaced in 1972 and has remained controversial since. In 1985, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew told Parliament that he had been a 'kept man' in all his years in public service.

His pay as PM was much less than what his brother and wife, both lawyers, were earning in private practice, he said. He himself would have earned as much if he had not gone into public service.

But it was only nine years later that the idea of finding a formula to peg ministerial salaries to private sector pay began gathering speed.

In January 1994, then Senior Minister Lee said such a formula would 'remove the need to justify pay revisions every few years as adjustments based on income tax figures could be made automatically each year'.

In October that year, a White Paper on Competitive Salaries for Competent and Honest Government was endorsed by Parliament after an intense three-day debate.

The benchmark at which a junior minister's salary would be set was two-thirds the average principal income of the top four earners in six professions: banking, accountancy, engineering, law, managing local manufacturing companies and managing multinational corporations.

The one-third discount was meant to be a 'visible demonstration of the sacrifice' entailed in becoming a minister.

Passionately imploring Singaporeans to support the benchmark, then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong told Parliament: 'It will be penny wise and pound foolish if you deny me the means to get the best people in government.'

After the White Paper was endorsed by Parliament, an independent panel set the Prime Minister's pay at twice that of the most junior minister. Mr Goh was to be paid about $1.5 million.

But if Mr Lee had thought a benchmark would negate the necessity of the Government periodically justifying ministerial pay rises, he was disappointed. The benchmark itself threw up a different set of problems.

It was the target of much public confusion and ire, little of which was defused by the Government's continued defence of the policy - such as Mr Lee's 1996 speech to unionists complete with figures from the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore showing what the top earners in the private sectors made.

Another headache for the Government: the difficulty of keeping ministerial pay pegged to the benchmark.

For example, while top private sector earners saw their incomes rise right through the 1990s, the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis saw the Public Service Division freeze pay increases in the public sector.

As then Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted in April 2000: 'Workers' wages fell across the board in 1997 and 1998. At the top, we expected incomes also to fall, after a delay.

'But this did not happen. To our surprise, the civil service benchmarks rose steadily throughout the crisis.'

This was because even during a recession, there would be people in the private sector who would do well. The people whose salaries were reflected in the benchmarks differed from year to year.

Although the benchmarks might call for ministers' salaries to be raised, the political cost of doing so while workers' incomes fell was seen as too heavy. And so ministers often took pay cuts during economic crises.

By 2000, ministerial salaries were at only 70 per cent of the benchmark.

That year, Parliament debated the Government's intention to raise them to 80 per cent, and then to 100 per cent over three years.

The benchmark was also tweaked, in response to criticism that its methodology skewed upwards. It would now be two-thirds of the median income of the top eight earners in six professions, as opposed to two-thirds of the average income of the top four earners previously.

By including a broader sample, it would be more representative. Also, only 50 per cent of the stock options awarded to the top earners would be taken into account in calculating the benchmark , as the options were often outsized.

But the move to have ministerial pay cleave more to the benchmark was quickly stymied again - by the crises following the Sept 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, and the outbreak of Sars in 2003.

With the economy in the doldrums, ministers took pay cuts rather than following the benchmark upwards.

As a result, by 2007, the gap had again grown: Ministerial pay was at only 55 per cent of the benchmark.

The debate that followed over the move to bring pay to 70 per cent of the benchmark was heated and acrimonious.

Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim said in Parliament that the average worker's monthly wage would be earned by ministers in two to three hours.

'Does the Cabinet not feel a tinge of discomfort in drawing taxpayers' money at such a rate?' she asked.

Then Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew rose to defend the policy, arguing that high salaries had kept the country's governance top-notch and uncorrupt for 50 years.

He painted a picture of what might happen if Singapore had sub-par ministers because it refused to pay for top talent:

'Your apartment will be worth a fraction of what it is. Your jobs will be in peril, your security will be at risk and our women will become maids in other people's countries.'

As a result of the revisions in 2007, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's pay increased from $2.5 million to $3.1 million.

He said he would donate his increase to charity over the next five years.

At the end of last year, ministerial salaries stood at about 70 per cent of the benchmark, after planned increments were deferred due to the 2009 financial crisis.

Deciding ministerial pay will be tough

By Chua Mui Hoong

When People's Action Party (PAP) leaders started talking about change, promising to listen to people's concerns and review policies, my first reaction was: Would they bite the bullet and review ministerial pay?

I wasn't the only Singaporean who wondered, judging from letters to The Straits Times Forum page and online blogs.

The issue of high pay for ministers has become so contentious that it is like a wound in the body politic.

It did not begin that way. In fact, the idea to have a formula to peg the pay of political office-holders to top corporate chiefs' pay was meant to remove the issue's political sting. Establish a formula, peg ministers' pay to it, and voila - you get a workable method to determine how much ministers should be paid. The aim was to establish a salary level high enough so the very able will not be required to accept a drastic fall in lifestyle as a result of entering politics, but not so high that it becomes an inducement in itself.

That, at least, was the theory.

In the 17 years since the formula has been in place, the result has been the reverse. Ministers' high pay has been criticised and debated extensively in Parliament - but always with the PAP defending the principle, arguing that it was necessary to pay top dollar to attract talent into the political ranks.

And yet, last night, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong chose to announce a review of political salaries at the swearing-in of his new Cabinet: 'One important area for review is political salaries. We will always need committed and capable ministers. Politics is not a job or a career promotion. It is a calling to serve the larger good of Singapore. But ministers should also be paid properly in order that Singapore can have honest, competent leadership over the long term.

'I know that Singaporeans have genuine concerns over the present salaries. Hence I am appointing a committee to review the basis and level of political salaries. The committee will be chaired by Mr Gerard Ee, chairman of Changi General Hospital and chairman of NKF (National Kidney Foundation).'

The review is very welcome. Coming after a decisive change in the Cabinet line-up, it signals the PAP's intent to act on its election promise of change.

But the hard work lies ahead. To be credible, the committee must consist of non-partisan, independent-minded people. Mr Ee, a social service veteran and trusted accountant, is a good choice as chair.

It is a cardinal principle that those who stand to benefit should not be involved in setting their own pay. Hence, the other members of the committee should not come from the ranks of political office-holders, or indeed from the civil service.

The committee's terms of reference should also be made clear, both so that it can do its work properly, and also so that Singaporeans' expectations are set right.

It should be wide enough to allow the committee free range to do what it believes is right for Singapore - balancing the need to pay ministers properly, as the PM put it, but not erode their standing in the public eye as public servants who have answered the call of duty to serve their country.

What has changed to induce PM Lee to announce a review of a pay formula that all three of Singapore's Prime Ministers - Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Mr Goh Chok Tong and the incumbent - have so stoutly defended?

We can only speculate, but the following are possible reasons:

First, the formula's failure to fulfil the objective of attracting private sector talent. In the last Cabinet, seven out of 18 ministers sworn in were from the private sector. At last night's swearing-in, only Foreign and Law Minister K. Shanmugam (former litigator) and Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen (former surgeon) among the 14 full ministers are from the private sector. The rest are from the public sector, the military or academia, although a few, like Mr Gan Kim Yong and Mr S. Iswaran, were in private sector jobs before holding political office.

The entry of high-earning, high-flying professionals like Mr Chen Show Mao into opposition politics - without the lure of multi-million-dollar salaries - also discredited the PAP's argument in the public eye.

Second, the depth of resentment over the issue has intensified
. Such feelings are impossible to quantify, but any trawl of online forums or coffee shop talk will suggest that high ministerial pay is the No. 1 pet hate of many Singaporeans. To be sure, unhappiness at this policy has been present from the outset, but it has been more recently amplified by social media online.

As many have noted, the issue has become the distorting lens through which many ordinary Singaporeans view the PAP government, and indeed all political matters. It eroded the moral high-ground the PAP occupied as a result of having provided decades of good government and the considerable personal sacrifice of its founders, and introduced a transactional tone into the people-government relationship: We pay top dollar, you deliver or get out.

Third, as some senior government figures have acknowledged privately, the current formula is flawed.

It is counter-cyclical because of the time-lag in getting income data. In a recession, the benchmark may go up as it is based on income from one or two years ago. But raising ministers' pay in a recession would be political suicide. Result: Actual pay given to ministers was typically 50 to 70 per cent of the benchmark for years. This creates a rather absurd effect of the PAP getting flak for very high salaries it deems politically untenable to pay to its ministers.

The formula is also flawed because it is pegged to outliers - the top eight earners in six professions. As many have noted, a windfall pay packet, say, or a once-in-a-lifetime deal, can propel someone into that top spot. But the next year, his pay may plunge.

The minister's pay however, always remains at that level, for it is pegged to the top earners, whoever they might be, every year. It is like striking lottery every year, the critics noted.

The review committee has to decide if a formula is a good way to determine political salaries. If yes, it should relook the current formula, and consider alternatives, such as linking it to median income.

Two things are certain about the committee's recommendations: it will result in lower political salaries. And whatever method it proposes will continue to be controversial.

But if the composition of the committee is right, it will have one strong plus factor: ministerial pay would have been determined by a committee of neutral people who do not benefit from it. That alone would make the entire review worthwhile.