Why Singapore Has the Cleanest Government Money Can Buy

Dear Bloomberg editors,

I refer to your 25 Jan 2012 editorial on why Singapore has the cleanest government money can buy which was reproduced by the Straits Times on 27 Jan 2012.

Our public service has no lack of the best and brightest; many of them take up scholarships at the age of 18 and by the time they are accelerated through the ranks to reach prominent positions in the civil service, they would have more or less been entrenched in the public service. There is no need to pay millions to attract these already well entrenched, well paid civil servant high fliers.

Over herding them into government leaves little for the private sector. Perhaps that is why Singapore has yet to produce our own Steve Jobs or Bill Gates and has to continue to depend very much on First World investments.

While Singapore is amongst the least corrupt and best governed according to the Transparency International and the World Bank respectively, it is not the cleanest government money can buy in 2011, which according to the Transparency International, is New Zealand followed by Denmark, Finland and Sweden. Not only do these countries have cleaner governments than ours, their ministers cost only a fraction of ours too. Our contemporaries: Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands and Switzerland show that we do not need to pay our politicians million dollar salaries to be least corrupt and best governed.

The World Bank has other indicators like ‘voice and accountability’. It wouldn’t be fair to pay ministers on the basis of good performance on some indicators while ignoring poor performance on other indicators. Furthermore, government doesn’t just comprise a handful of ministers but includes thousands of civil servants too. We can’t attribute good government performance solely to a handful of ministers while ignoring the contributions of thousands of civil servants.

The region comprises many Third World nations; it wouldn’t be fair to compare First World Singapore with Third World nations like Cambodia. While it is understandable why low civil service salaries in poor countries can lead to corruption, it doesn’t make sense why already high ministerial salaries in prosperous Singapore is not enough to prevent ministerial corruption so much so they have to be boosted to stratospheric levels. Does it mean that our ministers are potentially corruptible if paid just $999,999 a year and must therefore be paid more than a million dollars a year to keep them from getting corrupted?

Singapore also has our own form of amkudari. Many of our high ranking military officials retire into high positions in government linked companies. Relationships between ex-colleagues in public service and government linked companies exist too.

The old saying in Asia is less relevant now in new Asia where Asian MNCs make real, good money. Singapore was already very capitalist and efficient when we were a British colony. We didn’t have to pay million dollar salaries at the highest levels of public service then to make Singapore efficient. Million dollar salaries is not the reason why Singapore continues to be efficient today. Excessive capitalism, as protestors in the Occupy Wall Street movement have realized, is detrimental to society. Wall Street’s excessive capitalism is not what Singapore should strive for at the highest levels of public service.

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