Clean Is Not the New Transparent
In his Parliamentary speech, the PM highlighted the clean pay of our Ministers. Gerard Ee also drew a lot of attention to this descriptor and everyone else involved on the PAP side. When the PAP attempt to entrench a phrase or a word into the public lexicon this way then we know we are being subjected to propaganda. Then of course the Main Stream Media exists only to drill these phrases into the national subconscious. However we are getting better as a nation at examining the double speak. I very much doubt that The PM will be able to refer to himself or his cabinet as ‘Servant Leaders’ any more without an accompanying hullabaloo. These days they restrict themselves to mentions of ‘sacrifice’ and ‘considerable sacrifice’. Even that didn’t go so well for Grace Fu.
What is their motive behind the selection of ‘clean’ to describe the rationale for high pay? One reason is that they can no longer say that high pay is to prevent corruption. That has been stopped in its tracks by the voice of the people who point out the absurdity of the argument. They choose to talk about ‘clean’ because apart from being uncomplicated and simple it has connotations of transparency. They know that the demands for transparency from the people and Parties such as The Reform Party are growing in strength and this is an attempt to head it off at the pass. However we must remember that there is a world of opacity between clean and transparent. My coffee table may be clean but you can’t watch TV through it.
Clean is safe. Transparency leads to accountability and that in turn to democracy.
The PM also drew comparisons between our Ministers’ clean pay and the “hidden perks” of politicians in other countries. He cited theUK’s experience as an example. He points out that it was accepted that MPs in the UK would be able to top up their pay by claiming for expenses, and that over time the system was abused. It is always dangerous to compare one Nation’s system to another in this puerile way without the whole story.
Yes, Britain was involved in a scandal over MP expenses. The PM omits to point out that being an MP in the UK is a full-time job that requires two homes in different parts of the country. The complicated expenses allowance system came about to offset the costs that MPs in Britain have to shoulder due to the requirement to live in their constituency whilst Parliament sits in Westminster. Those living around London can commute but MP’s living in the North for example could be 600-700 miles away from London.
In contrast, being an MP in Singapore is very much a part-time job. Parliament only sits for something like 30 days a year which is the shortest sitting in the developed world. And most PAP MPs have other jobs, many of which allow them to earn a multiple of their Parliamentary salaries. A not insignificant proportion of these jobs are with government-linked companies or organisations. The ‘finger in every pie’ is sadly a common theme on this blog
The PM also misleadingly claims that paying enormous salaries prevents Singapore politics from turning into a rich man’s game. He cites the US in particular using the examples of Michael Bloomberg and Mitt Romney. He cannot really mean this when everything the PAP has done has been to try to make a political career an unwise career option unless you are from the ruling party. There have been endless and interminable libel suits designed to bankrupt political opponents as well as attempts to use “grievous miscarriages of justice” to destroy brave individuals’ professional careers.
The PM then cites President Obama as someone who has become wealthy through politics. Again he shouldn’t attempt to make facile comparisons. Both Obama and former President Bill Clinton came from humble backgrounds. If they have become wealthy it is because the US allows a diversity of views that our government tries to stamp out. If they had been in Singapore they would have been destroyed at the outset as not suitable by virtue of not coming from the elite, top talent. Furthermore the USA allows greater social mobility than Singapore. Anyone from a humble background can end up owning a landed property through hard work and talent. Here 87% of the people have the government as a landlord on a leased property with a grievous obstacle to social mobility as a consequence.
The PM’s father, former MM Lee once spoke along the lines of how there would be little social mobility going forward as by 1990 all those with high intelligence would have already risen to the top. In any case I am sure Obama’s wealth is modest by comparison with most of the cabinet. Unfortunately there is no requirement here to publicly list assets and directorships of family members or put them into a blind trust as is the norm in the US. That the salaries are ‘clean’ is debatable but they are not transparent.
The comparison with Obama is unfortunate in every sense. If he had been in Singapore we can imagine the musings on how he made Little India look pitch dark and how as a dud from a humble background he had to be kept out of Parliament. And of course Obama would never have been put to stand in an SMC but kept as an entrenched token of minority representation in a GRC.
Belief that politics should only be for the wealthy is deeply ingrained in the PAP’s thinking and is the only true rationale for any pay decisions. In fact during the 1980s the former MM Lee went as far as to muse on the possibility of having multiple votes for graduates and property owners. Youngsters may find that incredible but he did.
The bars to political fundraising, the GRC system and the raising of electoral deposits to astronomical heights are all designed to prevent ordinary people from exercising their fundamental and democratic right to choose their representatives. As recently as 2006 this was effective in giving the PAP walkovers in nearly 50% of the constituencies. Fortunately 2011 saw that the tide was turning and people were no longer prepared to put up with a system that could see people going without the chance to vote for most of their adult lives.
As an illustration of how only those with deep pockets can afford to be in politics if they are not members of the ruling party, all the candidates for the recent Presidential election belonged to the top 1% of income earners. This is not surprising given the size of the deposit that one has to put up to run which is forfeited if you fail to gain more than one-eighth of the vote.
In contrast the UK sets deposits at a modest $1,000 equivalent which means that most constituencies see multiple-cornered fights. This is as it should be since there should be a chance for all competing views to be heard. The electorate is educated and sophisticated enough to be able to make up their own minds without the government deciding for them who should be heard in the first place. The need for deep pockets is so deeply ingrained here that it has affected the structure of politics in general in Singapore and given it an elitist bias. We must guard against this. Democracy should not and must not be the preserve of those with deep pockets.
So, Mr. Prime Minister, I do not find convincing your assertion that paying high salaries to ministers in Singapore is needed to prevent politics becoming a rich man’s game. I would turn this on its head. The only way someone from a humble background can have a political career in Singapore is if they are prepared to become a “yes-man” and toe the line.