Sunday, 12 August 2018

Emeritus' Trilogy: Ministerial Pay (Part II)

It was a mixed-feeling kind of conversation between ESM Goh and Edwin Tong. 

The papers report it this way. 

"Mr Goh recalled their conversation: "He said, at this stage of his life, he has got a house, he has got a mother-in-law to support, a father-in-law to support, his own parents and so on, what should he do?

"So I asked him, "Edwin, what are you in politics for? He said, "Here to serve." So I said, "Well, you know, between $2 million and perhaps half a million, later on you hopefully become a full minister, $1 million, you have to decide which is more important."

Here's the part that tipped in favour of service for Edwin Tong.

"He said, "Yes, I will take it on." And he felt very strongly that he could do the job."

Mr Goh added: "We dare not pay ministers a good wage.""

FYI, Edwin Tong valiantly took a 75% cut in salary as a top-notch lawyer in the private sector to take up the position of Senior State Minister. His yearly income of $2m was slashed to a meagre half a mil a year. 

Now, this whole drama plays out the main dilemma of government in a democratic society plagued by widening social and economic inequality. 

It is the same problem that had vexed LKY. 

He summed it up aptly: "The problem for the government is: how do you keep a society united when that lower layer can never catch up?"

Some may say that the word "never" is harsh but it is necessary to frontload unembelished reality before ungrounded idealism. 

For LKY, communism or the populist redistribution of income by forced taxation or nationalisation is a form of massive, across-the-board demotivation. 

It is like a twisted form of Robbin Hood where the PM and his sherwood cabinet team take from the rich and give to the poor and then develop an entitlement class of the poor expecting to be fed regularly while the rich is plundered for their enterprise and industry. 

Not unexpectedly, this creates two layer of demotivation: the poor (entitlement mentality) and the rich (deprivation angst).

LKY puts it this way: "The fundamental issue is, we must not demotivated people. Once we demotivate them and they feel that it is an entitlement - 

"Society should look after me. I am born, you are the government, you have to look after me" - then we are in trouble."

LKY continued with this classic self-improvement 101: 

"You are born, the government has to provide conditions for good healthcare, good housing, good education. You must strive. What you make of yourself depends on you. We can't equalise everybody's results."

Now, at this point, this has to be said. Both LKY and Mr Goh are even more concerned about pacifying or appeasing the top. 

Since they are considered the main driver of the economy, the stallion (in the likes of Edwin Tong) that pulls the wagon of the hoi polloi forward, Mr Goh said: "If ministers are not paid well, "very, very mediocre" people will be ministers in the long run." Think about that (he said). Is it good for you, or is it worse for us in the end?""

Mr Goh even lamented that he tried unsuccessfully to persuade two highly paid private sector high fliers to join his government and stand in the 2015 GE. He said one earned $10m and the other $5m a year.

Lesson? One, but much to think about.

Let me just say that I empathise with Mr Goh's lamentation and money-for-talent dilemma. His pursuit of the millionaires in private sector to join government is undeniably an earnest attempt to strengthen the core team. It shows he has the country's interest at heart.

But I feel that if the two of them earning millions (way above a minister's pay) refused the offer of public service due mainly to a drastic change in annual pay (and for no other reasons - which I doubt), then it may not be a bad thing after all. 

Between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, between serving with dignity and honor and serving for higher (or comparable) pay and wealth, I would rather my constituent leaders serve by virtue of intrinsic motivation, with dignity and honour, and if I may add, with heart and soul. 

So, if we lose out on the two highly paid private executives because the factor that tipped the scale as Mr Goh seems to imply is comparable pay, then we should not cry over spilled milk and instead look elsewhere for people who are prepared to put aside monetary incentives to serve with heart and soul. 

Let me clarify that the two (heart and monetarised incentive) are definitely not mutually exclusive, but the mix may risk an unnecessarily overladen heart when more complicated situation in government presents itself that demands one to make a choice between the two. 

In such a situation, there is no guarantee that one who enters public service mainly for money will be able to resist it (in one form or another) when he/ she is seriously tested. That is the risk one faces when extrinsic motivation is taking the lead over intrinsic motivation. 

On another note, taking from Mr Goh's cue, I really don't know whether we will get "very, very mediocre" people into government if we pay them less than a pay that is pegged to the top-tier earners in the private sector. 

I feel that we should not so quickly assume that money is the only motivation for public service.

While that is the general rule (or expectation) when one offers himself in the private sector, the motivation for public sector may very well be more naunced and layered than that simple equation of money means quality, or comparable pay means reliable leaders with character. 

That would go some way to explain Edwin Tong's reply when he said, "Yes, I will take it on" despite a drastic pay cut. Thereon, he would have to prove himself nevertheless, whether he is paid more or less. 

In any event, we should always be careful of misrecognition, that is, thinking that we are working on a set of principles (or that we are purely motivated by a set of trigger points) when in truth, or in reality, things, situations or human beings are a lot more complicated than that and we are actually working on another set of unacknowledged principles, because it is inconvenient to admit it. 

The misrecognition in Mr Goh's case may be found in this statement: "If ministers are not paid well, "very, very mediocre" people will be ministers in the long run". The set of principles? High pay. The result? Talent. The reverse? Low pay. The result? Mediocrity. 


You see, the reality is, some will work for free or very little - just as long as they have fulfilled their economic responsibilities to their loved ones (quality uncompromised that is).

Others will work only if they are paid well, or paid comparable to what they are able to make or are making.

And still others will work if they are paid enough - and this is where the current struggle is with our current government. What is enough? 

While leaders like David Marshall and EW Barker would find it confounding that ministers should get such huge pay since public service calls for one to serve beyond money considerations, others may find that money is an unspoken but necessary prerequisite since times have changed. 

However, my only concern about changing times is that, along with pegging the ministerial pay to market rates to attract the best, other things have changed as well like the widening income inequality, the struggling and neglected middle class due to escalating prices of daily necessities, and the growing disillusionment of the majority over minor issues like teachers' carpark, the class divide, decreasing social mobility and the aging population that all inevitably adds up. 

Maybe, that is the real dilemma of government, that is, "how do you keep a society united when that lower layer feels strongly that they can never catch up?" and not so much that they can't. 

It is therefore ultimately a heart and soul issue, and not so much a strictly technocratic, narrowly economic and fiercely pragmatic one as implied by Mr Goh. Cheerz.

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