ARTICLE PUBLISHED IN TODAY (SINGAPORE) ON 26 MAY 2011
At his second swearing-in ceremony as Prime Minister, Mr Lee Hsien Loong continues the tradition of using that august platform to send a message to Singapore and its citizens.
This time round, he wants a comprehensive review of political salaries. He has appointed the Government's preferred "correctional player", Mr Gerard Ee, to undertake the controversial task. It is the right signal to send.
Firstly, Mr Ee is not in politics. He will be able to reach out to individuals on both sides of the political spectrum.
Secondly, Mr Ee has a track record for plugging areas where the executive has failed. For example, when thousands of people lost millions of their hard-earned savings to shoddy investments dished out by Singapore's financial institutions, Mr Ee was the man tasked to work out amicable settlements and other confidence-building measures in the financial system.
In taking on his latest job, Mr Ee has already indicated that ministerial salaries will likely be cut. He told one journalist: "PM has said in his speech that salaries must reflect the values and ethos of public service ... The final answer must include a substantial discount on comparable salaries in the private sector and people looking at it will say, 'these people are serving and making a sacrifice'."
This is no surprise. There is no other way to deal with the tsunami of discontentment over high ministerial salaries. But should Mr Ee's work be limited to those of appointed ministers and their salaries? The scope of his task, as set out in the terms of reference of his committee, is "to review the basis and level of salaries" of such office-holders.
In his speech, Mr Lee had said that in reviewing existing policies, "nothing should be sacrosanct". Some have observed that the very review of political appointees' salaries shows there are indeed no more sacred cows.
If this is the case, there are two other things Mr Ee should take the opportunity to look into: Pensions for former and current ministers and the additional allowances given to parliamentary office-holders.
During the recent hustings, many were surprised by revelations that members of the top echelons of the public service still continue to draw pensions from the age of 55. People were surprised as pensions have been abolished for most of the public service and that the pension entitlement age remains at 55 even though the retirement age has been increased to beyond that.
The reactions were so strong that efforts were made to allay concerns, with the secretary to the Prime Minister, in a letter to the media, pointing out that the maximum annual pension of a minister retiring today would be 10 per cent of his annual salary, and that the entitlement age would be reviewed.
Surely - notwithstanding that the pensionable component of a minister's salary has remained frozen since 1994 - the new committee, in reviewing the basis and level of salaries to be paid to political appointees, should take into account the effect of pensions on the overall income that an office-holder would eventually receive from the state.
If it deems necessary, the committee should recommend the abolition of pensions for such political appointees, in alignment with the current practice applicable to a majority of civil servants since 1986.
On another note, the recent General Election has been widely described as a "watershed". People within the ranks of the ruling party have attributed this to a clamour for more alternative voices in Parliament. Like the presence of the dominant party, an Opposition voice is likely to be a permanent feature of our Parliament; the Prime Minister has said he wants an inclusive Singapore, regardless of political swing.
Currently, the Party Whip, Leader of the House and Deputy Leader of the House enjoy allowances for the additional duties they undertake on top of being Members of Parliament. The committee could concurrently review the allowances paid to these parliamentary office-holders, as well as the possibility of remuneration for the parliamentary Leader of the Opposition (which, in some other democracies, is considered a political office of stature).
Mr Ee's work in the review of ministerial salaries will have to achieve reconciliation on an issue that has divided Singapore. This will require a comprehensive approach taking into account the pensions and other allowances paid to political appointees.
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