After three days of debate, the ministerial salary issue has been voted on within the house and it is more or less considered resolved at this juncture despite the opposing votes from the opposition. As many have said during the debate, the recommendations have been accepted by the government and it is indeed a positive move in the right direction. Yes, there is still much room for improvement such as the issue of how many months bonus the ministers should be entitled to but that is a debate for another day. The following are some highlights from the three day session of parliament that are worthy of attention:
(BG Tan Chuan Jin: video link) “We don't all wrap ourselves in a flag and proclaim our patriotism. I believe all of us on both sides of the House serve for the right reason. We all take different routes. The Honorable Mr. Chen for example left Singapore for many years. He became exceedingly successful and then returned to serve our people. Some of us have stayed on and served our nation in various capacities. For some of us, it is our entire lives. And in our own simple way, we are proud to have served and to continue serving. I admire those who proudly proclaim that there is no sacrifice in stepping forward to political service. It took me a long time to decide even though I had been serving in our Army. Political service is public service but somewhat different. Does this make me a less committed Singaporean?”
(Ms. Indranee Rajah: video link) “What this means is that each and every minister must show that he or she is truly indeed deserving of the high pay, and that the policies you initiate and implement must address Singaporeans' needs. Equally important is a minister's connection with people. People respond well to the ministers who are in tune with issues of concern to Singaporeans, who identify the solutions and take action on behalf of people. These are the ones that Singaporeans are happy to work with to achieve a better result for all. Singaporeans do not appreciate it if a minister talks down to them, or in a way which they feel is patronising or condescending, or who brushes aside their concerns or worries."
(Mr. Vikram Nair: video link) "When dealing with divisive issues I always think it is helpful to start on common ground. Surprisingly not withstanding the language used I think there is a lot of agreement between people in this house.”
(Ms. Denise Phua: video link) "I hold this glass of water in my hands. Is it half-full or half-empty? Some of us optimists will declare it is half-full. Others who are less positive will say it is half-empty. The cynics amongst us will wonder who drank the other half. I say it is both - half-full and half-empty."
(Mr. Pritam Singh: video link) “It should therefore come as no surprise to anyone in this chamber that the debate surrounding ministerial salaries are also the most emotive anywhere in the world as well. In the minds of many citizens, Ministers cannot make mistakes. The connection is logical. If you pay top-dollar, you expect top performance.”
(Mr. Chen Show Mao: video link) “Political service is a calling; it is a privilege accorded by the electorate to serve the largest number of our fellow Singaporeans. It is primarily a privilege, not primarily a burden or sacrifice. The principle of political service should come first and not be treated as a discount factor."
The debate on ministerial salaries was mostly an exercise by the incumbent to justify their salaries. What was missing, was the fact that most of the cabinet and the speaker of the house, had chosen to remain silent on the subject during the proceedings, preferring instead to let most of the backbenchers with a couple of exceptions, to mount the defense for them. Yes, the ministerial pay issue is an emotive subject. It is a wedge issue after all. What should have transpired is: the leaders who are most affected by the proposed changes to the current pay structure and the ones who put the current policy into place, should be the ones to stand up on the highest arena in all the land and tell us in their own words, why do they deserve the wages that they are asking for. With a deficit of trust (video link) created by the blunders and gaffes of recent years still fresh in the minds of an angry populace, a heartfelt oration with a promise for transparency and change could be cathartic for the nation and just the very thing that would signal a sense that humility is starting to reemerge from within the PAP.
During the debate, Mr. Chen Show Mao and BG Tan Chuan Jin, presented the most humanizing of arguments, spelling out why successful people such as them from two diametrically opposite sectors have stepped forward to serve their home and nation. It was heartening and even moving at some points to hear them speak. Perhaps the national narrative is not as toxic as people had thought it to be. With leaders such as Mr. Chen and BG Tan leading the way forward, Singapore truly would be in good hands. Meanwhile, Mr. Pritam Singh, though contentious at times, was the voice of the man on the street within the hallowed halls of parliament.
Mr. Singh pointed out what every one of us was thinking: that we expect top performances for paying top dollar. And that the total lack of transparency on the clean wage issue that the government boasts about added to the sense of cynicism that is prevalent in all our minds, causing further feelings of resentment to fester within us all; We expect and deserve complete transparency and accountability from our government regardless of political ideals and parties on the issue of ministerial salaries and Singaporeans are well within their rights to make this demand of their government.
The act of lowering ministerial salaries alone is not going to rebuild the public trust that has been eroded. This is a wedge issue precisely because there is a large segment of the population that is unhappy with the government’s performance. But it is frankly a distraction from the bigger picture and it is time for the house to move onto more pressing matters that are facing our countrymen. The government can and should earn back the public trust by doing its job and solving the national issues that prevent us from pursuing our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.