The best government that money alone cannot buy

Dear Professor Rappa,

I refer to your 13 Jan 2012 Straits Times article.

If you deem people’s sense of envy as having run wild when they compare their salaries with those of the ministers, wouldn’t you also deem ministers’ sense of envy as having run wild too when they compare their salaries with those of the top 1,000 earners? If people’s viewpoints arising out of such ‘envious’ comparisons are considered invalid as serious critiques of the issue, surely the ministers’ similarly ‘envious’ benchmark with the top 1,000 earners ought to be considered invalid as well?

While it is convenient to attribute the even distribution of the fruits of growth to globalization, the truth according to a recent IPS study is that our growth distribution is far more uneven than many other First World economies exposed to the same forces of globalization.

There is no basis to say that the middle class rich is jealous of the ultra-rich for they never said anything against Singapore’s ultra-rich like Mr Ng Teng Fong or Mr Wee Cho Yaw. Singaporeans know that these are self-made ultra-rich unlike many ministers who merely claim that they belong to the same ultra-rich category but cannot convince Singaporeans that they are of ultra-rich pedigree deserving of ultra-rich salaries.

A sizeable portion of Singaporeans’ wealth is locked in property. While there is no reason to begrudge our property wealth, we must learn to recognize them for what they are: paper wealth that cannot be used to improve our standards of living. Are we really wealthy or are we merely asset rich but cash poor? The question of why squander Singapore wealth with cheap politics assumes in the first place that Singapore wealth is a result of expensive politics. But Singapore was already prosperous during colonial times, long before we had expensive politics. Many First World economies like Switzerland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Hong Kong have become wealthy without expensive politics. Why pay for expensive politics when wealth can be found with much cheaper politics?

You remind Singaporeans highest paid doesn’t mean richest because the richest politicians get money from multiple sources. That is a misconception rather than a comprehensive concept because the so-called multiple sources do not lead to riches. For example, legitimate British MP housing claims do not make the British MP richer but merely compensate him for the extra expenses he incurred in say making a trip from Scotland to London to attend parliament. Illegitimate claims are few and far between; those uncovered in Britain recently form only a tiny fraction of all claims made. The important thing is that they were uncovered nonetheless so there can be no multiple sources to riches in First World nations.

Why ape politicians in blaming Singaporeans for expecting the highest standards? Is a simple flat to live in too much to ask for? Is proper train evacuation too much to ask for? Is flood prevention in Orchard Road, the symbol of our prosperity too much to ask for? If you think these are the highest standards, your standards must be very low indeed.

Not giving away billions of dollars to a friendly neighbour doesn’t show that our ministers are strong; it just shows that they are not idiots. We can poll Singaporeans to find out how many would give away billions of dollars to a friendly neighbour. If all say no, does that mean that Singaporeans are all strong and deserving of million dollar salaries as well? While paying more or paying less is unethical, the right ehtical amount is not for you, the ministers or a committee to decide. It is for all Singaporeans to decide.

Don’t confuse ‘ministers’ with ‘government’. What you probably wanted to say was that we should not risk our children’s future by thinking that good ministers can be had on the cheap. But not to be had on the cheap doesn’t mean they should be had on the expensive. If countries like Switzerland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and Hong Kong can have good, inexpensive ministers that enhance children’s future, why can’t Singapore? This is not the Great Singapore Sale but the Great Singapore Ransom.

While MPs spend long, repetitive, monotonous hours listening to the issues of their constituents, they only do so once a week. When spread over the week, the hours are not that long so much so that many MPs can actually hold a full time job concurrently. It’s not that people begrudge MP allowances or doubt that they work hard for their money. But the hourly rate of the MP is so good it’s hard to imagine they are working any harder than most ordinary folks in the street.

You ask Singapore to strive for the best government money alone cannot buy. The World Bank has been ranking government effectiveness since 1996. If we average out government effectiveness scores since 1996 to smoothen out the effects of specific events like SARs or the Global Financial Crisis, the best governments are those of Denmark’s and Finland’s. We should strive for these governments which are not only better than ours but have much cheaper ministers too.

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