Sunday, 27 May 2018

Clean wage, Clean Government, missed opportunity?

We should just let it go, let it go. It has been frozen for years, and now the Auditor-General's Office (AGO) is thawing it.
Come August this year, charging teachers for parking fees will melt into reality and they can expect to pay either a monthly or annual sum for occupied spaces in schools.
However, letting it go or otherwise, MP Seah Kian Peng had recently raised the issue again in Parliament.
He said: "For too long, we have made decisions based more on an economic compass, as if the use of one dollar has the moral equivalence of the loss of another...It is time we recognise money is merely a proxy for value, and at times, a very bad one."
MP Ong Ye Kung's reply to MP Seah is simple. It is about equalizing the civil service. It is about fairness to all. It is about "cleanliness".
He first talked about teachers being flagged by the AGO "for going against the civil service's policy of paying clean wages," that is, wages with no hidden benefits. In other words, he is saying that the government shouldn't "subsidise" teachers with free parking.
And then, he put the matter to fiscal rest when he said: "This finding went against years of MOE practice. Yet, we have to respect our internal system of checks and balances. We cannot pick and choose which (AGO) finding to address or comply with - we take them all seriously. This is about upholding the value of self-discipline."
Now, to be fair to Ong, at one point of his speech, he did resonate with MP Seah's POV when he said that "governance and running a public service system is not always about taking a purist market approach."
Ong added: "Perhaps for the same reason, for a long time, we didn't charge parking for teachers in schools and servicemen in camps".
At this point, I wonder, what Ong meant by "perhaps for the same reason, for a long time, we didn't charge parking for teachers in schools and servicemen in camps"? And this is to be read with: "this finding (that is, AOG's unclean wage) went against years of MOE practice (that is, allowing for free parking)"?
It is tempting to ask: How did MOE (and our servicemen) get away with it for so long? More relevantly, why did they get away with it for that long? What then broke the camel's back of the AGO to finally put a stop to it and charge teachers for parking?
If "governance and running a public service system is not always about taking a purist market approach," a noble sentiment which MP Seah shares, why change now?
Are we then returning to a purist market approach by charging teachers after a long respite, because our government can't stand the cognitive dissonance on the economic front and therefore has come to their dollar and senses?
I ask this because, admittedly, if it has been going on for years, if not decades, for our teachers and servicemen, then it is invariably entrenched, even silently accepted by the majority at large.
So, considering human nature, uprooting it now would surely disrupt expectations, to put it mildly. And it has indeed ruffled many feathers according to the last survey on the social media landscape.
Many are not happy about it, and MP Seah must have felt the anguish on the ground to deem it fit to have the issue canvassed in Parliament.
Yet, Ong came forward to justify the charges as about "upholding the value of self-discipline".
Are they then going to instill further self-discipline by charging servicemen (which they are doing for some camps now), parliamentarians, ministers and volunteers during meet-the-people sessions?
In the end, this is Singapore. This is how the government rolls. This is what Ong calls a clean government.
And in his own words in "defending the clean wage policy as a moral idea," Ong said that "all public servants subscribe to it", adding: "This is one of our core practices to ensure a clean government.
Well, just for corniness sake, it is also a fine city.
But levity aside, I always thought that when a politician answers another in parliament, and if it is a good and sensible answer, it leaves one with less questions than before. It also leaves one thinking about why he had asked the question in the first place.
However, when Ong defended the clean wage policy as a moral idea in Parliament, somehow, it left more questions for me than before. It also made me want to repeat my question I'd asked in the first place (because I don't think he got the point).
I mean, how is returning to a presumably purist economic approach as manifested in the carpark charges for teachers this August considered "a moral idea"?
At best, it is amoral, or a neutral point. As Professor Sandel puts it: "Explaining how markets work is central subject of economics. So why has economics failed to provide a convincing basis for deciding what should, and what should not, be up for sale (or whether teachers or servicemen should or should not be charged for parking)?"
To that, he said: "The reason lies in the conception of economics as a value-neutral science of human behaviour and social choice."
That's the essence of MP Seah's point, which Ong had curiously overlooked.
And if the moral element here is about fairness to all, that is, across-the-board treatment, then it is a slippery slope because the benefits, monetary and/or otherwise, that ministers get - starting with their astronomical paycheck and the other perks enjoyed by them - far outweigh the take home pay of the majority by a considerably unbridgeable margin.
Fairness to all is a parliamentary ideal that once the well-endowed parliamentarians step out of parliament becomes a reality gap that our highly unequal society is hard pressed to bridge.
In other words, one man's clean wages is another man's perception of dirty wages.
Having said that, personally, I don't think Ong even answered (or addressed) MP Seah's concerns directly, or specifically.
You see, it seems to me to be quite obvious that AGO is doing its job to use a fine-toothed comb to scour the nooks and crannies of society to see whether they have left anything out for fair and expedient extraction of revenues. That is their technocratic job to be carried out with exactitude, I fully understand it.
Just as no one is left behind, so no one is left unaccounted for (for economic rent-extracting purposes of course).
But MP Seah's point goes further and deeper than that. In Parliament, he called for a rethink on the role of “economic reasoning” in policymaking here.
To flesh it out fully here, his point is about the larger picture, and not just about some issue of self-discipline (or for that matter, about free parking specifically).
In other words, "in the broader front," as reported, "Mr Seah urged the Ministry of Finance to lead a “reform”, and bring about “an explicit recognition (in the Government) of the limits of price, cost and expenditure as a proxy for value, and to allow for greater use of discretion by public officers in recognising moral reasoning as a legitimate form of argumentation”".
It bears repeating that MP Seah "stressed that his call was “not an appeal to populism”. Rather, it is an appeal to the ideas of justice and community that have informed Singapore policy making at the start of our journey 53 years ago.""
And "instead of taking the “cheap, efficient and quick” approach," he added. "Singapore has to look at what is “fair, just and right” in order to truly tackle inequality and other national issues.""
“We must… make (the) language of morality our vernacular in policy matters. It is time we recognise that money is merely a proxy for value, and at times, a very bad one," so rallied MP Seah.
I believe all that had unfortunately flew pass Ong when he replied in what I felt was a non-sequitur manner about AGO's enforcing internal checks and balances and emphasising that the issue is about self-discipline.
Alas, maybe the real issue is more about more self-reflection?
It is said that the eagle who flies high in the sky does not worry about crossing the river below.
Applying this metaphor here, I think MP Seah was taking the bird's eye view of things in the long run of how our government ought to build trust and confidence and close the income and social divide more effectively.
But Ong seems to me to have let a good point slipped by in Parliament by contending with the technocratic struggle to cross the "checks and balances" river on a purely economic approach by not directly addressing the issue at large.
Personally, and this has to be said, the issue is not just about charging teachers or servicemen for parking.
It really goes beyond that to what growth is our government going for or pursuing, that is, is it about putting a price on every nook and cranny spaces in Singapore so as to extract a pound of economic value in order to put more into the nation's already overflowing reserves, or is it about taking the high road to a more compassionate, humane, sustainable and trust-engendering society along the line of what MP Seah has said, that is, "to rethink the role of the market and of economic reasoning."
For there is a saying that we ought to treat everyone the same by treating everyone differently (because of the different stations, growth and fortune in life).
Alas, in Singapore, it seems like we treat some people differently by paying lip service to treating everyone the same. And this is sadly the result of the ever widening income and social divide between the elitist section of society and the rest of the population. Cheerz.

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