On competency with heart
By Toh Hsien Min
This issue is a little late because, as Singaporean readers would know, there's the minor matter of an election going on in Singapore. Before anyone attributes blame to either the ruling party or its opposition, the only causality is that I've been reading the papers more closely than usual, watching the news and even attending election rallies, all of which took away from the time I had set aside to complete the issue. I have been doing this despite having the misfortune of experiencing the first election in my lifetime in which over 90% of Singaporeans will actually get to vote in the only walkover constituency. I have been doing this because the issues are indeed important. As both ruling party and opposition have been saying in recent days: it's about your future. Even if I don't get to vote this time round, it's only by knowing what's been said by both sides that I can better assess them in future elections.
One of the lines that has been going around since the last election, as it were, is the ruling party saying that the size of the crowd at opposition rallies is not cause for concern because it doesn't mean that all these people will vote opposition; many of them are just rally tourists and the opposition manage to provide very good theatre. It's not entirely untrue, but I would suggest that the opposition rallies are very, very good for picking up a feel for what the people's concerns are. At one rally, one of the parties kept harping on about casinos in Singapore, even though they never got a response on this issue. But one issue that hit home every time, at whichever rally I happened to be at, was on the size of ministerial salaries. In summary, the opposition speech would go something like this: cost of living is going up, people are struggling just to survive, and how much are government ministers making? One candidate even broke down a minister's salary into pay per day (it came up to about 4,500 Singapore dollars), and then asked the crowd, how many of you make that much in a month? Cue roar of disapproval among the crowd.
Certainly it's good theatre. But it's also a clear and present issue. The usual point-scoring on this then takes the line of: how do you expect people paid like that to be able to understand what you are going through? I think that's debatable, and I'm not sure that's the biggest problem with our parliamentarians' pay. Rather, it all comes down to setting incentives correctly. Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz writes on agency theory thus: "that the people who are making decisions do not necessarily reflect the interests of those they are supposed to be serving... The kind of incentive schemes that were being employed by firms, banks and financial institutions weren't consistent with any model of rational behaviour other than exploitation... At the level of markets, securitisation had some fundamental flaws, because you didn't have the incentives to monitor or manage it and created a moral hazard. To our leaders and erstwhile gurus, this came as a very big surprise." We know what happened there: bankers whose bonuses were tied to revenue went about generating revenue without regard for risk, bringing down a number of financial institutions and setting off a crisis whose effects are still being felt today.
In Singapore, because ministerial bonuses are benchmarked to GDP, there has been an inordinate amount of focus on GDP in recent years, and you see this when politicians talk about the economy. But as any entry-level economist knows, you increase GDP by increasing inputs, and whereas some inputs are relatively inflexible (land for instance), it's easy to throw labour at the problem if you can access a large population. Hence we have in Singapore the most open immigration policy in the world. It has worked, to the extent that GDP has indeed grown at breakneck pace in the past half-decade. But the extent to which this GDP growth has trickled down to the Singaporean everyman is questionable. Median incomes have not kept pace, and while purchasing power is a woolly concept there have been reports by disinterested third party institutions such as UBS that show that the average purchasing power in Singapore is below that of Malaysia and Russia. There is a reason Stiglitz has written a book titled Mismeasuring Our Lives: Why GDP Doesn't Add Up.
As for ministerial salaries in general, I've already written about this elsewhere. It's only partly about whether our parliamentarians are paid too much. It's more about what this means for the people they attract. I would in fact respect greatly a government that reverses this policy, for instance by announcing that ministers will get their salaries cut in half. If any minister resigns as a result, that would be a good outcome. There would be greater assurance that the people in government are not there just for the money, that they truly have the good of the population at heart rather than the good of their own bank accounts. As Singapore writer Catherine Lim puts it: "political leadership is less a salaried job and more a vocation, with all that this implies of selflessness and sacrifice on the part of the leaders, and trust, respect and regard on the part of the people". And there would quite certainly be less theatre at future rallies over escaped terrorists and Orchard Road floods.
The more I think about it, the more I feel that if I did meet a minister on the campaign trail, I would want to ask only one question: "If your total compensation were to be reduced by half tomorrow, would you resign?" In fact I'd like to ask every one of them that question and get them down on record.
I couldn't resist including a poem with what I thought was a subtle political nudge in it, but coming back to the dimension of the literary overall the slate of poetry in this issue has been strong, with some new candidates representing the voice of the young alongside some old stalwarts. Kai Chai has managed again to pick out four short stories to stand in a group representative constituency. In the single member constituencies, we have a substantial essay by Manfred Weidhorn on aspects of ambiguity, a review of the graphic novel version of Gone Case, and an Acid Tongue that looks at the state of the literary world in Canada. We trust we have your vote.QLRS Vol. 10 No. 2 Apr 2011