Knee jerk

Straits Times 24 Mar 2007

Beyond knee-jerk reactions, hard issues remain – Chua Mui Hoong

A common response that Ms Chua gets from folks is “Wah, $2 million, so high, 100 times more than me. Are you saying he’s 100 times better than me?” She feels that sensible people know better – that pay is not a measure of anyone’s worth and that true quality is beyond price.

The notion that pay shouldn’t be a measure of one’s worth is a lofty ideal that is far detached from the real world. I remember a local Chinese newscaster once said on national TV that a person’s career achievement (position and pay) is a measure of the qualities that he posseses that which the society recognises. We would be lying to ourselves if we believed that the world at large behaves in accordance to Ms Chua’s lofty ideal for if it truly did, we wouldn’t find thousands of graduate women unable to find suitable grooms or thousands of lowly educated men having to resort to marrying Vietnamese and mainland Chinese. I am not denying there are those who could see beyond dollars and cents but they are few and far between.

Ms Chua also says that “pay is just the compensation the market gives you for your skills in your lifetime”. If it is the market that determines our pay, then why are we letting our politicians determine their own pay? Where is the market for political compensation so to speak? If by market, we mean political parties like the PAP or the Worker’s Party, then surely our market is being monopolised by one party? We all know how distorted prices become when the market is monopolised by just one party and consumers end up paying more. So where is our antitrust authority to ensure fair play and prevent anti-competitive behaviour? How do we know we’re not being held ransom?

Ms Chua then tries to illustrate how dependent our skillsets are to luck and timing by contrasting the fortunes of a finance professional with that of a Chinese scholar in poetry and calligraphy. The former is having it good right now while the latter can only blame himself for not being born in Tang dynasty China.

So here we are telling ourselves to accept the realities of our choices yet here we are too allowing our elites the luxury of asking themselves how much they would’ve been worth had they chosen a different path altogether. So while our elites have the best of all choices without actually having to choose, the common folk can only blame it on luck, timing or himself for choosing whatever he has chosen. But given the limited choices that this economy presents itself, choices that are largely those of the elites, who can we blame for choosing what little we could choose from? Who can our engineers blame for giving all their lives to the government’s drive for electronics manufacturing only to find themselves jobless and their skill sets useless at the end? Similarly, who can our young, aspiring scientists blame for committing themselves towards the government’s calling for biotechnology should it fail someday?

Ms Chua then dismisses ‘sour grape’ views like “This guy can’t be worth $2 million, he used to work for me / I beat him in a Maths test once in Primary 5 / someone says he’s just average” with the notion that people can and do improve.

But this fails to address the fact that the elite circle is a very exclusive one that a non-elite has almost no chance of stepping into no matter how much the latter improves later on in life.

So far from being knee jerk reactions, the disdain and cynicism the common folks have for ministers’ obscene pay are rooted in thorough understanding of the underlying unfairness.

However Ms Chua said it very well when she said that anyone who feels that $1 million is not enough and wants $2 million before becoming a minister should remain instead in the private sector for the good of the country.

Low Thia Khiang’s suggestion of pegging minister’s pay to 100 times those of the bottom 20% is very sensible as it encourages the ministers to improve the lives of the poor.

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