Ministerial pay and principled politics

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Former prime minister Goh Chok Tong’s comments at a panel discussion has reignited a lively debate on ministerial pay. This is not an unfamiliar topic, and much of the recent discussion relates to the question of whether a significant salary is necessary to attract the best talent, and whether this approach is compatible with a society with high levels of income inequality.

In other words, the focus has been on the impact of salaries on people’s willingness to join the government. There are many arguments about this, which are familiar to most Singaporeans; I will not repeat them here. Instead, I want to ask the question: what is the impact of salaries on a minister’s willingness to leave the government (or his/her fear of being sacked)? This question is just as important because of its impact on our political culture.

High salaries would disincline a minister to resign from government on the grounds that his colleagues are proposing something that is contradictory to his principles, or at the very least, express a dissenting view. In other words, high salaries harms principled politics.

Why is principled politics important? This is because the business of politics and government is unlike other jobs. There might be only one right way to boil and egg, but there is no one “right” way or straightforward answers in politics. It is therefore not incorrect to hire a skilled, unopiniated cook to boil your eggs. However, a society run by skilled but unprincipled politicians is problematic. Politics is not about sitting at a factory line and repeating steps that are set in stone; instead, it involves dealing with complicated issues that people disagree strongly about – whether in relation to social welfare, defence, education policy, civil rights, or community and culture.

A politician who is unprincipled would only care about the complexity of these political questions to the extent that he only cares about keeping his job. If he knows that bringing up an issue would offend his colleagues or hamper his career prospects, he would not bring it up. He would say ‘yes’ to a lot of things that his senior colleagues suggest, since he cares too little about anything to say ‘no’. Instead of stirring discourse about issues that people are divided about, he would rather his tenure to be as uneventful as possible.

As former permanent secretary Ngiam Tong Dow said:

“When you raise ministers’ salaries to the point that they’re earning millions of dollars, 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.”

we are only human – the more money offered to a person to do a job, the more likely that person will be willing to compromise on his/her principles and do it – ministers included

To be clear, I am not saying that today’s politicians are in politics because they are motivated by money. As pragmatic a society as we are, I believe that most of us, government ministers included, are not motivated purely by money when it comes to deciding our careers. We have some principles that form a huge part of our identity and which we will not give up easily. For example, most people would not join a company that exploits elderly people, or a company that is sexist or racist, even if the pay was better than the alternative. However, we are only human – the more money offered to a person to do a job, the more likely that person will be willing to compromise on his/her principles and do it – ministers included.

Ask yourself: when was the last time a Singaporean government minister resigned from cabinet on grounds of principle?

One might respond to the above by arguing that good pay does not lead to unprincipled politics, since many ministers took pay cuts when the left the private sector to join the public sector. Hence, they can simply return to the private sector if they disagree with their colleagues; in fact they’ll be happy to leave, since they will be getting a pay raise the moment they resign from government!

This point is debatable – first, not all our government ministers took pay cuts when they joined politics. Many of them were already in the public sector. Second, given our current political climate and the relationship between politics and business, it is unclear if a minister can still get a good job in the private sector, having previously dissented against the government, or worse, having embarrassed his government colleagues through his resignation. Finally, the debate on ministerial pay cannot be separated from the debate on MPs’ salary, and since we know that MPs form the majority of Parliament, ministers need to rely on their support to pass legislation. As one can imagine, rarely is that support not forthcoming.

One might also respond as well that “resigning won’t solve anything”. First, this does not deal with the point on dissent. Second, resignations may not be a panacea, but the resignation of a government minister sends a very powerful message to the public and will be a source of embarrassment for the minister’s colleagues. What that statement is really trying to say is: “resigning will have such little impact that it’s not worth me sacrificing my salary!”

In summary, if we accept that money is a good reason for a person to become a government minister, then it must follow logically that it is also a good reason for that same person to make sure he/she stays a minister, even if principle dictates he/she should resign, or at least voice his/her dissent, and even if the public interest demands that he/she leaves the job. I am not trying to say that a high salary will lead to unprincipled politicians, I am merely suggesting that a high salary makes being principled a little more difficult than usual and that is not a good thing.

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