By Augustine Low
In the realm of broken promises, the PAP has had its fair share. Singaporeans have on the whole chosen to turn a blind eye, to live and let live.
But Minister Chan Chun Sing seems to have conveniently forgotten about it. He, like PM Lee Hsien Loong, has been talking about building trust and keeping promises in recent months. Speaking at the inaugural S R Nathan Hard Seats Lecture, Chan reiterated that the key to building and maintaining trust is for leaders to be accountable and responsible, stressing: “That means making good on promises.”
Must Chan be reminded of the greatest of the promises not made good, the one that rankles the most, the one that ought to have consequences for the PAP? The promise is this: If we get paid what we want (i.e. the world’s highest salaries) we will deliver clean, efficient government, corrupt-free institutions and men and women with the highest integrity and performance.
They got exactly what they wanted. Ministerial and Civil Service salaries have been benchmarked against the top private sector earners since 1994. For a quarter century now, our politicians and top civil servants have been the world’s highest paid by a long, long mile.
Let us ask the Minister then, has the PAP made good on its promise for being rewarded with top dollar?
Costs keep going up but standards of public services (like the sluggish SMRT and the short supply of hospital beds) keep slipping. The Auditor-General has in recent years been rapping government agencies for lapses ranging from inefficient and inadequate financial controls and unauthorised investments to poor management of public funds and irregularities in contracts and procurement of services. Government agencies have been cheated and scammed, it seems, far too easily. Not only has performance been compromised, so too integrity – public servants and GLCs been been nabbed for corruption.
Over the years, the PAP has made very robust defence of the policy of paying top wages. None more robust than the speeches by Lee Kuan Yew. It’s worth revisiting what he said in Parliament in 2000, in his final very impassioned defence of the policy:
“Our market based pay and allowance give no excuse for slippage. It is the duty of Ministers and MPs of all parties to be alert, to report incidents of KKN (Corruption, Collusion, Nepotism), and to set the example by maintaining high standards in protecting the integrity of our institutions. And you need two things for Singapore’s continued well-being: strong institutions and good men to run them.”
The thrust of the promise: with such high wages, there is no excuse for slippage and Singaporeans can be assured of top notch integrity and unblemished performance.
Lee Kuan Yew put in no uncertain terms what Singaporeans get in return for paying their leaders top dollar. But today not even the PAP can argue that there has been no slippage, and that integrity has not been compromised. If fact, Singaporeans can turn around and say there has not only been slippage but dearth of accountability and dearth of solutions to problems.
Yet Ministers continue to see salaries (with provision for up to 12 months’ undisclosed bonus) befitting their performance. As Ng Eng Hen said: “I will tell you squarely in the face that you’re getting a bargain for the Ministers you get.” While Grace Fu had the cheek to warn that cutting salaries “would make it harder for anyone considering political office.”
Let’s get real. Chan Chun Sing and his colleagues cannot claim that the PAP has always made good on its promises. The title that our political leaders hold – the world’s highest paid – is an albatross around their neck because it begets the biggest broken promise of all.