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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.

12 Comments »

  1. Even after the Ministerial Pay review headed by Mr Gerard Ee, the proposed revised Ministerial pay is still very high. If the PM thinks that reducing the Ministers pay to this figure is going to win them votes, then I think he is sadly mistaken. It would have been better to retain the Ministerial pay and reduce the GST back to 3% or increase Workfare and WIS, this would work better as an incentive to win votes. But the problem with PAP is that it is all about winning votes. Are they genuinely concerned about the welfare of Singaporeans? Clean government is an “impossibility”, otherwise why do we need CPIB? Open up the CPIB files to the Public and see how clean the government is. Ministers are expected to be clean not because they are paid high, but because they must be ethical by nature.

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    • There is only one right goal for an Opposition Party. The fact that they don’t have the same goal and that furthermore they fail to state their goal openly is the source of all the conflict and egotists hopping around and changing shirts.

      I agree with you totally and on these pages over the last year I have continued to put forward my views that competition is healthy and that we need a free market in ideas in politics just as we need one in business. I am with LKY on this. During the election didn’t he challenge the Opposition to come forward and have the guts to openly state their goal?

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      • I agreed with you on failure to state their goal openly is the source of all the conflicts. Members change shirts because their party is lack of direction and they do not see potential with the party and this is something to do with their leadeship style. Therefore the members cannot contribute to the society as their party is passive and did not take an active role in the political scene to increase their party’s visibility. As they do not have clear direction from the party, they tend to lose focus which leads to internal fighting and caused bad publicity. But if the party is well organized with clear directions, it will help to attract more talent who share the same beliefs to join them to contribute.

        In reality, it is very difficult to get every party to have the same goal as they are from different parties. What I mean the unity for opposition is referring to the common goal. This goal is different from the individual party’s goal and unity is different from unified fascists of communist.

        Your party is heading to the right goal but more effort should be put through to persuade all political parties to have the common goal. Most party tends to focus on their own goals and forget the common goal, some also do not have the know hows to define their party’s direction. Therefore a strong unification figure is required to collaborate other’s party progress and help to steer the smaller parties to the correct direction to achieve the common goal.

        In my opinion, free market refers to economic system characterized by competition to bring down prices of the goods and services which is different from the political system. We can have different voices or diverse view from different parties (not a competition) in our political system, but it is important that they must work hard together to acheive the common goal. (Coalition govt)

        I have written a political thread, perhaps you might want to have a look on this new political science :

        http://forums.asiaone.com/showthread.php?t=35169&page=111

        UN Model – Coalition govt
        Party Positioning

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        • Hi RP,
          In brief I’ll answer with a quote from my latest blog article and then come back to you on the rest.
          ” Of course each child is an individual. Even with two children it is often clear that they are like chalk and cheese and parents often express surprise at how different the second sibling is to the first. This is how it should be. How awful it would be if all our children are the same like clones. Parenting requires respecting and nurturing individuality whilst encouraging the children to cooperate. It is not necessary for any child to lose his individuality or subsume his essential nature to learn to play nicely with other kids. The key is cooperation.”

          https://sonofadud.wordpress.com/wp-admin/edit-comments.php#comments-form

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  2. Great post! I almost chocked when I read LHL’s comments about the perks of President Obama – that he has Air Force One. As if our ministers fly economy on Tiger! Poor them. First class on SIA is such a terrible and horrible experience!

    One other thing, citing that ex-US Presidents are able to make so much more after their service is perhaps the worst argument of all. If any ex-minister here really is *that* capable, they too would be able to stay in their top salary bracket in the private sector. But I guess the truth is a bitter pill to swallow or perhaps requires really clean and crystal clear glasses.

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  3. This is the problem in our system , they always set unfair rules to eliminate competition. Therefore unity is very important for all other parties for changes. Just a suggestion, it would be better to use a sharper font for easy reading as the current font is a bit faint 🙂

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    • Hi KK. I do have problems with the font. It also runs words together when I post. I guess I can add a plug in but I’m always grateful for any technical help with new media issues. I don’t follow your argument about Unity and competition. Diversity encourages competition. Communists are unified fascists have unity. What our Opposition needs is to develop a new kind of politics. That is a politics based on an ideological identity. A politics based on policies whether proposing or counter proposing. When Parties have a clear ideological identity then they can cooperate and then coalitions can be successfully formed. If the only uniting factor is that they are anti-PAP then that is not progress. Some Parties are better at this than others. Some admit to being more or less the same as everyone else and in fact the various members do seem completely interchangeable popping up in a different coloured shirt every other year. This gives us politics built on a foundation of sand. The danger is that this can only be a short term solution that can’t produce a genuine alternative strong enough to go the distance.

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  4. Another excellent post, Ken! I agree with all the points raised. Over CNY I bumped into a relative who has migrated to Australia. Had an interesting catch up with him. One of things he said left me a deep impression. In Australia, if you are a hard working blue collar worker (eg a plumber), you can live a good decent life. You can afford a landed home, car and leisure. In Singapore, if you are a blue collar worker, you are condemned no matter how hard you work! There is very limited social mobility in Singapore.

    I just saw on TV that LHL, who is currently in Davos, comment “If you are poor in Singapore, it is no fun. …” This is a gross understatement. If you are poor in Singapore, you are condemned!

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