a community of singaporeans

Be mindful of the affective gap

Posted by theonlinecitizen on April 5, 2007

From The Straits Times, April 5th, 2007

By Catherine Lim

I HAVE followed with intense interest the current debate on increasing ministerial salaries to match those of the highest earners in the private sector. And I have noted the impassioned arguments from both sides: the Government insisting on its necessity if top talent is to be recruited to ensure good leadership, and the public expressing its reservations, doubts and unhappiness.

I would like to go beyond the emotion and the rhetoric, and see the issue in the larger context of the PAP model of governance, in particular its special brand of pragmatism in solving problems. It is a hard-boiled pragmatism which even the severest critic will concede has contributed greatly to the Singapore success story. And one which, paradoxically, even the strongest supporter will concede is liable to harden into inflexibility.

In the case of ministerial salaries, the PAP leaders’ thinking seems to have gone along these lines: Singapore needs a good, strong government if it is to prosper or even survive. Hence, it needs to recruit top talent. Since there is competition for this from the private sector, it has to offer equally attractive salaries. It has to act quickly and decisively, otherwise the country will face a serious crisis of leadership, which can occur in three increasingly dangerous stages:

-Talented people will not be attracted to government service.

-Even if they are, they will soon be enticed away by the private sector.

-But even if they are not enticed away, they will resort to corruption as compensation for their inadequate salaries, and thus bring ruin to society.

Rounding up the austere dialectic is the urgent plea to doubting Singaporeans: Do you want Singapore to go the way of corrupt societies?

I would like to point out, respectfully, a basic flaw in this rationale. In keeping with the overall, hard-nosed realpolitik that has characterised PAP rule, it fails to take into account the affective factor that is present in any relationship, whether between individuals or ruler and ruled.

This factor comprises that special constellation of emotions, moods, attitudes and ideals which somehow elude being quantified and reduced to monetary terms. I first analysed its role in the relationship between the PAP Government and the people over a decade ago in a political commentary titled The Great Affective Divide, noting the emergence of a serious emotional estrangement despite the country’s stability and prosperity.

Subsequently, I variously described the conflict in terms of the people’s wish to see a greater role for Heart as opposed to Head, EQ as opposed to IQ, Heartware as opposed to Hardware, etc.

The policy regarding ministerial salaries illustrates this conflict. Its definition of the talent that is eagerly sought as ministerial material does not appear to take into account attributes beyond those of intellect. It assumes that what is good for the corporate world must be good for government, and that therefore there is a common target of talent out there, which both will compete fiercely for.

But in reality, the commonality of talent is only in those attributes of mind and personality such as great intelligence, far-sightedness, boldness of vision, creativity, determination of purpose, etc, that are the hallmarks of today’s high achiever. Beyond this overlap, the emotional aspect comes into play.

And here, there is a dramatic parting of ways. For while the ideal political leader is imbued with nobility of purpose and altruistic instincts, the ideal CEO is impelled by the very opposite – raw ambition and ruthless drive. The first set of qualities is desirable for a life of public service; the second would be disastrous.

Indeed, a brilliant achiever without the high purpose of service to others would be the worst possible ministerial material. To see a potential prime minister as no different from a potential top lawyer, and likely to be enticed by the same stupendous salary, would be to blur the lines between two very different domains.

Next, the rationale goes against the very spirit of the social contract that it is supposed to protect. There is a compact, largely implicit, that governs the government-people relationship in every mature society in the free world, and it has as much to do with what is felt deeply in the heart as with what is worked out logically in the head.

By this compact, political leadership is less a salaried job and more a vocation, with all that this implies of selflessness and sacrifice on the part of the leaders, and trust, respect and regard on the part of the people. It is this reciprocity that defines a social compact and confers upon it a sort of sacrosanct quality. The ultimate reward for the leaders, whether or not they consciously seek it, is a revered place in the nation’s history, in the hearts and minds of future generations. Hence, material reward is only secondary.

Nevertheless, no Singaporean with any practical sense of the real world would want to see a minister denied a salary commensurate with his status and dignity, or living less well than any prosperous Singaporean. If the average Singaporean still aspires to the famous ‘5Cs’ representing the good life, he is only too happy to see a minister already well in possession of these.

But, at the same time, no Singaporean would expect a minister to feel disgruntled if he is paid less than the top CEO. If the disgruntlement actually causes him to leave his job, then he was not cut out for public office in the first place. Thus, to offer him a matching salary to enable him to stay would be to demean that office.

There is clearly a need to balance material needs and public service. The balance, in the view of many Singaporeans, has already been achieved with the existing ministerial salaries, if benchmarked against those of high-earners across a broad range of professions, and also against the salaries of ministers in countries such as Sweden and New Zealand, consistently ranked among the foremost, corruption-free democracies in the world.

The policy of increasing ministerial salaries may have the effect of upsetting this balance and, more seriously, doing away altogether with the compact of trust and respect. It will create a new affective divide, or reinforce any existing one, between the government and the people, and reduce their relationship to a purely impersonal business contract.

Even in a society often described as aggressively materialistic and coldly efficient, there are, fortunately, Singaporeans who believe idealism has a place, and that the fire, passion and commitment of the Old Guard, who saw Singapore through the difficult early years with little hope of financial reward, are still alive in some young Singaporeans.

The policy on ministerial salaries will, at the least, breed weary resignation in Singaporeans: What’s the use of giving one’s views at all? And, at the worst, give rise to toxic cynicism: What’s the use of teaching our young such values as caring and selflessness and sacrifice if each carries a price tag?

Catherine Lim is a freelance writer.

Read also: Singapore Bigger Than The PAP – an interview with Ngiam Tong Dow and “Ministers’ Salaries – The Missing Link?” by The Hammersphere.



10 Responses to “Be mindful of the affective gap”

  1. Loky said

    Very well presented indeed. I don’t know whether her arguments allude to this, but she made me realise something:

    1) Detractors may know full well that current ministerial salaries deserve to be increased to match even modest benchmarks; however, they may be arguing against the whole process *for the sake of arguing*, knowing that the government will characteristically never ever concede its stance. This whole public debate/outcry process thus serves only as an intellectual exercise for the sake of drama, a sort of way to subtly remind the “less aware” people that even the most logical arguments will not be accepted or integrated into any compromises.

    2) By the same token, the People who are able to voice their opinions in public via the press, may be doing it because they *resent* the ministers. Only the government thinks highly of its own ministers and their achievements. In the eyes of the man in the street, they are not doing as much or as well as they are expected to, and definitely, the current style of government is not well accepted. So instead of verbalising the vast area that is resentment, they just single out the more restricted scope of logical arguments against a hefty pay rise.

  2. shoestring said

    I don’t think the people who voiced their disapproval are doing so for the sake of arguing, nor do they resent the ministers (not sure why you put those in asterisks). Of course that is what the proponents would have us believe that these are just green-eyed monsters stirring up and unnecessary irrational storm.

    People are genuinely concerned about the kind of leadership we have, their attitude to public service and their succession, because they will have a long term impact on Singapore (which does not exist for the sake of just the elites) especially the human aspects. As of now, Singapore is all about money as far as I can see.

    This is a big issue, not a trivial one.

  3. Lim Yew Kwong said

    It is rather interesting to read about the debates over Minister’s and Civil Service upcoming review with the latest suggesting an up to 100% increase by as much as a whopping S$1million dollars. While I agree with what our Minister Mentor and the Prime Minister said in justification of the propose rise that has met with different degrees of resentment, the flip side is not only not been able to retain top talents which is very much needed to take Singapore forward, it will probably allow corruption to seep in, in which case it would have a disastrous effect on Singapore. The older Ministers and Senior Civil Service in particular really deserve to be paid their worth as they have proven themselves over the years however caution should be factored in as these younger Ministers have yet to prove themselves especially those that has just been elected into the government in the last election. These new Ministers or Senior Civil Service personnel cannot claim any credit till perhaps two terms in office which can be measured more accurately.

    I hope that the upcoming salary review is not only for the Ministers and Senior Civil Service but across the board such as members of the Armed Forces, Home Team rank and file.

    The percentage of resignations from the Police Force announced recently is not a good sign as these junior and senior officers sacrificed a lot more of their time, such as being on “standby”, giving up their public holidays, working irregular hours and are not compensated adequately either by overtime or time off in lieu.

    Some even forked out their own tranportation cost to take them to their assigned unit in the middle of the night where transport means is only by taxis at 50% surcharge.

    If the respective Ministries choose to turn a blind eye, it will show that the people at the top are only concerned with their own interests and highlighting their contributions but not that of the “rank and file” and more people are going to quit the armed forces and the police force once their contractual term ends especially the younger ones who has the potential to make it to the top of the ladder.

    Singapore’s security is at stake here and it is not something that only a few good men can do anything about it.

  4. Annie Lim said

    Harry and his partners in crime are just using all these lame excuses to raid the Singapore tax dollars!

  5. Leo said

    Ms Lim’s points were well put and as she built her argument and spelt out the disjunct between leaders and people, she held my attention.

    Then she got to this point, “For while the ideal political leader is imbued with nobility of purpose and altruistic instincts, the ideal CEO is impelled by the very opposite – raw ambition and ruthless drive. The first set of qualities is desirable for a life of public service; the second would be disastrous.”

    From all the jokes and stereotypes about politicians, I do not know if an “ideal political leader” as she describes exists.

    I would like to believe that such idealistic people exists. But the reality is that most people with talent choose to exercise their talent for their own benefit.

    There are few Mother Teresas or Dalai Lamas in this world and the fact that these are spiritual and religious leaders says something about their calling. For every Mother Teresa, there are tens if not hundreds of Saddam Husseins, Hitlers, Stalins, Pinochets, Idi Amins, and Ferdinand Marcos who are morally ambiguous if not downright evil, to the sadly incompetent like George Bush, Habibie and Abdurrahman Abdul Wahid.

    The reality is that hell is paved with good intentions. The situation in Thailand is an example. The coup was meant to reverse the damage of a corrupt Premier, but well intentioned or not, the effect has been less than laudable.

    Indonesia’s Suharto was also corrupt, but he nevertheless kept things stable. After he was overthrown, there was a series of ineffective presidents that did little to bring the country forward effectively. Well-intentioned though they may be.

    Ms Lim’s description of the politician reminds me more of a social worker. And while I respect and admire the social worker, I am not sure that a social worker would necessarily make a good political leader. A friend of mine once commented in the aftermath of the overthrow of Suharto: so what if he’s corrupt. At least he’s competent. Instead there’s now a series of honest, incompetent presidents. And we’re not even sure if they are honest.

    My point simply is this: the “ideal politician” does not exists. Or he does not exist in sufficient numbers to form the government. Ms Lim practically confers sainthood on the selfless, sacrificing politician. You may find one in every 2 or 3 generations. The rest of the time, you make do with people who would be CEOs.

    In the absence of competent selfless people, the reality is that we have to make do with competent selfish people. And to ensure the competent selfish people are not tempted to corruption, we must pay them well.

    Perhaps if we had, we would not have had the sad incident of Mr Teh Cheang Wan.

  6. LKY's Mother said

    I don’t mind paying even 20 million dollars to the prime minister provided that post is opened to global competition.

  7. […] by why under Singapore , Current Affairs  I’m not usually a fan of Catherine Lim, but this article of hers shares my exact sentiments. Particularly poignant was her concluding statement: “The […]

  8. […] may not necessarily equate to the interests of society, for if one accepts the fact that there is a great divide, then it naturally follows that there be a divergence between the interests of the ruling party and […]

  9. JEROME PANG said

    Keep up the good work of this site.Really good alternative views.
    My two cents worth on the Ministers Pay Rise.

    David Marshall In 1994:

    I’ve got nothing against money. I’d like to have money myself! I’d like to
    have a house and a garden and dogs and a car and a chauffeur but, look,
    I’ve got a flat. I’ve got a swimming pool attached to the flat. I’ve not
    even got a car but I use taxis. I have a dignified way of life without
    being wealthy.

    I don’t see the necessity of owning a Mercedes-Benz and a swimming pool
    and a couple of mistresses. I think we’ve got our values all wrong.

    You know $96,000 a month for a Prime Minister and $60,000 a month for a
    minister. What the hell do you do with all that money? You can’t eat it!
    What do you do with it? Your children don’t need all that money.

    My children have had the best of education. In fact, I’m very proud of
    them. One of them is a senior registrar to two major hospitals in Oxford.
    Another of them is a consultant in European law to the Securities and
    Investment Board in the United Kingdom. They’ve had their education. There
    are no complaints.

    I never earned $60,000 a month or $90,000 a month. When I was Chief
    Minister, I earned $8,000 a month.
    Look, what is happening today is we are encouraged to and are becoming
    worshippers of the Golden Calf.

    We have lost sight of the joy and excitement of public service, helping
    our fellow men. The joy and excitement of seeking and understanding of the
    joy of the miracle of the living the duty and the grandeur. We have lost
    taste for heroic action in the service of our people.

    We have become good bourgeois seeking comfort, security. It’s like seeking
    a crystal coffin and being fed by intravenous injections through pipes in
    the crystal coffin; crystal coffins stuck with certificates of your
    pragmatic abilities.

  10. Hi Jerome,
    Thanks for the compliment. We try to do our best. 😉
    Also thanks for the quote by David Marshall. It’s such a shame that we no longer hear words like that, huh? All we’ve heard is how “extraordinary”, “exceptional”, “special” and even “unique” our government is, so that they can justify their ridiculous salaries.
    I wonder what David Marshall would be thinking if he was around today.

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