Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Ministers' Salaries revisited

Excerpts of an interview of Mr Ngiam Tong Dow, published in the September issue of the Singapore Medical Association’s newsletter, and printed in TODAY.

1 Oct 2013

You have said you were worried that some of the politicians today do not have the same qualities as the pioneer generation. What are you hoping to see in the newer and younger politicians today?

In the early days, Lim Kim San and Goh Keng Swee worked night and day, and they were truly dedicated. I don’t know whether Lee Kuan Yew will agree but it started going downhill when we started to raise ministers’ salaries, not even pegging them to the national salary but aligning them with the top 10.

When you raise ministers’ salaries to the point that they’re earning millions of dollar, every minister — no matter how much he wants to turn up and tell Hsien Loong off or whatever — will hesitate when he thinks of his million-dollar salary. Even if he wants to do it, his wife will stop him.

Lim Kim San used to tell me, “Ngiam, if you want to leave your job, make sure you have enough walkaway money.” When the salary is so high, which minister dares to leave, unless they decide to become the Opposition party? As a result, the entire political arena has become a civil service, and I don’t see anyone speaking up any more.

Mr Ngiam has interesting ideas, but this one is off because of wrong assumptions.

Let's use a real example, instead of a hypothetical "Minister".

Let's take Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister (MEWR). The one who takes a lot of flak everytime somebody's
car get damaged by floodwaters and has to be scrapped (and loses the cheap COE), and the owner now have to bid for an expensive COE.

For the now, he is known as the Minister of Floods and Dengue. What's he trained for? His last pre-Minister post was as the Head (CEO?) of the National Eye Centre. He is trained as an Eye doctor/ Eye Surgeon. An eye surgeon at his level makes millions.

As a minister he makes a little more than a million. But hey! Job Security right?

As Minister for MEWR, he gets flak for floods. He gets flak for dengue. He even gets flak for Hawker Centre washing in opposition wards.

As an eye doctor, what does he know about flood containment, anti-flood measures, rainfall and weather prediction, Dengue outbreak and control measures, and for that matter, hawker centre washing?

If he really wanted a better life, he should go tell LHL off, get fired, and return to private practice. Even if he doesn't make as much as he used to, he at least would have his privacy, and peace of mind. He can sleep through a stormy night (like you and I) without waking up in a cold sweat wondering where else will flood.

Or take another Minister. Shanmugam. Minister of Law. For the longest time he resisted being "promoted" to Minister. Why? As a top lawyer, he makes MILLIONS. As a minister, just over a million. But at least he is one better than VB. At least he is not an eye doctor asked to look after floods and dengue.

Shanmugam at least is a trained Lawyer at the top of his game now made Minister of Law.

But even he would be better off telling LHL off, getting fired and getting back to private practice and making MILLIONS.

So Mr Ngiam's assertions is faulty, and his assumptions are wrong.

As for the "nobody speaking up", unless Mr Ngiam has a bug in the Cabinet or an informant, he has no evidence of that. The Singapore Brand is based on stability, reliability, and durability. Our culture is one of consensus, and public unity. He may well be right that in closed door meetings there is only "yes men" in attendance. But if he is right, it is pure coincidence, based on speculation on his part with no evidence except what he wishes, or hopes, or imagines to be true. ] 

[Update, 11 Oct 2013: Ngiam Retracts Comments.

"I also realise on re-reading the interview that I had not been fair in what I had said about Ministers and discussions in Cabinet. I retired from the civil service in 1999. Since then I have not attended any cabinet meetings, and have never seen one chaired by PM Lee Hsien Loong. Thus my statement that Ministers will not speak their minds before PM Lee is unfair as it was made without knowing what actually happens at Cabinet meetings today. I have been told by civil servant colleagues that Cabinet discussions are robust - as robust as they were when I attended cabinet meetings as PS (PMO), when Mr Goh Chok Tong was PM and Mr Lee Hsien Loong DPM."]

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