Clean wage versus pay with perks

Dear Mr Calvin Cheng,

I refer to your 10 Jan 2012 Straits Times article.

You refer to hospitalization benefits, housing benefits and tax exemptions as hidden perks in other countries. But hospitalization benefit is not a perk. No one will want to stay in a hospital for two weeks every year just to claim hospitalization benefits. The hospitalization claim goes to reimburse hospitalization charges; it doesn’t go into the politician’s pockets. Hence, politicians in other countries cannot fatten their pockets no matter how many times they get hospitalized. Conversely, our politicians receive Medisave every month regardless of whether they get hospitalized or not.

Similarly, housing benefit is also not a perk but reimbursement for necessary expenditure arising out of politician’s duties. The Green Book states very clearly that British MP claims, including housing claims, must reflect actual usage and must be incurred while performing parliamentary duties. It defines clearly conditions for additional housing claims such as when main home is in constituency, for overnight stays in London or when main home is in London, for overnight stays in constituency. These claims as they are spelt out in the Green Book are not perks for they do not add to the British MP’s pockets but merely compensate for the additional expenditure they incur such as when a Scottish MP stays in London to attend parliament. Not only the claims themselves aren’t perks, the abuse of those claims is also not perks but petty corruption. Paying the politician millions doesn’t mean that the politician is not corrupted anymore. It just means we are helping the potentially corruptible politician by giving him what he wants to take for himself and more.

You mentioned in a New Paper report, the US president’s tax exempt allowances for entertainment ($50,000) and unanticipated needs (up to $1 million). But the US president is not just the chief executive of the US; he is also the US head of state. He is like our president and prime minister rolled into one. As such, the US president’s allowances for entertainment and unanticipated needs should be compared with our president’s entertainment allowances and Class IV expenses for special services which amounted to $73,000 and $659,300 respectively in 2010. All these expenses were paid for by the state. The salary review committee only mentioned that our president’s use of the state car is taxable. Presumably all other benefits associated with our president are non-taxable, including the employment of four drivers. If most of our president’s benefits are tax exempt too, why make an issue out of tax exemption?

Similarly, the free accommodation in the White House should be compared with free accommodation in the Istana. The White House’s army of servants and staff should be compared with our Istana’s army of servants, staff and aide-de-camps. The total cost of SGD $11.6 million for running the Istana in 2010 is comparable to the US $12.8 million operating cost of running the White House (“To serve the President: continuity and innovation in the White House staff” by Bradley Hawkes Patterson).

Why wonder about the Chinese president’s ability to afford respectable accommodation when we know that China provides its president with an official residence just as Singapore provides our president with an official residence?

Your arguments about ‘clean’ versus ‘unclean’ wages appear very unclean. When drilled deeper, they turn out to be groundless false comparisons. It is self-deceiving and shameless to claim that we alone implement ‘clean’ wages while nobody else in the world does. Our wages are no cleaner than those of other nations and the salary league tables truly reflect our politicians’ astronomical high pay vis-a-vis other nations, benefits accounted for.

While the man on the street cannot fathom the million dollar salaries that our ministers receive, it doesn’t mean that he has no right to judge those salaries because it is he who puts ministers into their positions. If granted the million dollar salary is excessive to begin with, then spending all that salary is also excessive and the minister only has himself to blame for spending excessively if he ever has to downgrade from say a bungalow to a semi-detached which is hardly a downgrade as far as the man on the street is concerned. Many of the new political appointment holders were getting far less than $1 million before they joined politics so it would be speculative to say they would, by the time they reached their 40s, achieve and settle into a lifestyle that requires $1 million salaries. Whatever that their lifestyles entailed before they joined politics would have been adequately met by their former salaries that were far less than $1 million. It is not a given that they would have to forgo houses, cars, children’s education any more than they could have afforded with their former salaries.

The time of Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Dr Goh Keng Swee wasn’t a time of revolution for Lee and Dr Goh never led a revolution but merely cooperated with our colonial masters and received power from them. If it was pure luck that we got good people as our leaders compared to rapacious leaders who impoverished other countries, is it also pure luck that Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and China got good people who led them to equally impressive growth and prosperity today? How do you explain good luck falling almost exclusively on East Asia alone?

Our country’s future doesn’t depend primarily on our leaders alone, for what can our leaders achieve with a country full of idiots? Our future depends instead on our collective strength as a nation and the people comprising it. It is wrong to attribute the prosperity that all Singaporeans contribute to entirely to our politicians and pay them on that basis. While political work is not charity work, neither is it Wall Street work. We have been denouncing the astronomical high pay of Wall Street bankers. Wall Street is not an example we should follow.

While Grace Fu doesn’t deserve the rudeness that she received, neither do Singaporeans deserve her insensitive remarks.


One Response to “Clean wage versus pay with perks”

  1. George Says:

    Really first class rebuttal!
    Please keep this up.

    This is the sort of ‘my party, right or wrong’ PAP camp followers that PM Lee has unleashed on Singaporeans when we all thought he meant constructive, reasoned and rational responses from the PAP when its members engage netizens.

    I supposed we should have known better than to expect pearls of wisdom from the mouth of swines.

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