Thursday, April 05, 2007

Vintage Catherine: Be mindful of the affective gap

Be mindful of the affective gap
By Catherine Lim, For The Straits Times (5th April 07)

I HAVE followed with intense interest the current debate on increasing ministerial salaries to match those of the highest earners in the private sector. And I have noted the impassioned arguments from both sides: the Government insisting on its necessity if top talent is to be recruited to ensure good leadership, and the public expressing its reservations, doubts and unhappiness.

I would like to go beyond the emotion and the rhetoric, and see the issue in the larger context of the PAP model of governance, in particular its special brand of pragmatism in solving problems. It is a hard-boiled pragmatism which even the severest critic will concede has contributed greatly to the Singapore success story. And one which, paradoxically, even the strongest supporter will concede is liable to harden into inflexibility.

In the case of ministerial salaries, the PAP leaders' thinking seems to have gone along these lines: Singapore needs a good, strong government if it is to prosper or even survive. Hence, it needs to recruit top talent. Since there is competition for this from the private sector, it has to offer equally attractive salaries. It has to act quickly and decisively, otherwise the country will face a serious crisis of leadership, which can occur in three increasingly dangerous stages:

· Talented people will not be attracted to government service.
· Even if they are, they will soon be enticed away by the private sector.
· But even if they are not enticed away, they will resort to corruption as compensation for their inadequate salaries, and thus bring ruin to society.

Rounding up the austere dialectic is the urgent plea to doubting Singaporeans: Do you want Singapore to go the way of corrupt societies?

I would like to point out, respectfully, a basic flaw in this rationale. In keeping with the overall, hard-nosed realpolitik that has characterised PAP rule, it fails to take into account the affective factor that is present in any relationship, whether between individuals or ruler and ruled.

This factor comprises that special constellation of emotions, moods, attitudes and ideals which somehow elude being quantified and reduced to monetary terms. I first analysed its role in the relationship between the PAP Government and the people over a decade ago in a political commentary titled The Great Affective Divide, noting the emergence of a serious emotional estrangement despite the country's stability and prosperity.

Subsequently, I variously described the conflict in terms of the people's wish to see a greater role for Heart as opposed to Head, EQ as opposed to IQ, Heartware as opposed to Hardware, etc.

The policy regarding ministerial salaries illustrates this conflict. Its definition of the talent that is eagerly sought as ministerial material does not appear to take into account attributes beyond those of intellect. It assumes that what is good for the corporate world must be good for government, and that therefore there is a common target of talent out there, which both will compete fiercely for.

But in reality, the commonality of talent is only in those attributes of mind and personality such as great intelligence, far-sightedness, boldness of vision, creativity, determination of purpose, etc, that are the hallmarks of today's high achiever. Beyond this overlap, the emotional aspect comes into play.

And here, there is a dramatic parting of ways. For while the ideal political leader is imbued with nobility of purpose and altruistic instincts, the ideal CEO is impelled by the very opposite - raw ambition and ruthless drive. The first set of qualities is desirable for a life of public service; the second would be disastrous.

Indeed, a brilliant achiever without the high purpose of service to others would be the worst possible ministerial material. To see a potential prime minister as no different from a potential top lawyer, and likely to be enticed by the same stupendous salary, would be to blur the lines between two very different domains.

Next, the rationale goes against the very spirit of the social contract that it is supposed to protect. There is a compact, largely implicit, that governs the government-people relationship in every mature society in the free world, and it has as much to do with what is felt deeply in the heart as with what is worked out logically in the head.

By this compact, political leadership is less a salaried job and more a vocation, with all that this implies of selflessness and sacrifice on the part of the leaders, and trust, respect and regard on the part of the people. It is this reciprocity that defines a social compact and confers upon it a sort of sacrosanct quality. The ultimate reward for the leaders, whether or not they consciously seek it, is a revered place in the nation's history, in the hearts and minds of future generations. Hence, material reward is only secondary.

Nevertheless, no Singaporean with any practical sense of the real world would want to see a minister denied a salary commensurate with his status and dignity, or living less well than any prosperous Singaporean. If the average Singaporean still aspires to the famous '5Cs' representing the good life, he is only too happy to see a minister already well in possession of these.

But, at the same time, no Singaporean would expect a minister to feel disgruntled if he is paid less than the top CEO. If the disgruntlement actually causes him to leave his job, then he was not cut out for public office in the first place. Thus, to offer him a matching salary to enable him to stay would be to demean that office.
There is clearly a need to balance material needs and public service. The balance, in the view of many Singaporeans, has already been achieved with the existing ministerial salaries, if benchmarked against those of high-earners across a broad range of professions, and also against the salaries of ministers in countries such as Sweden and New Zealand, consistently ranked among the foremost, corruption-free democracies in the world.

The policy of increasing ministerial salaries may have the effect of upsetting this balance and, more seriously, doing away altogether with the compact of trust and respect. It will create a new affective divide, or reinforce any existing one, between the government and the people, and reduce their relationship to a purely impersonal business contract.

Even in a society often described as aggressively materialistic and coldly efficient, there are, fortunately, Singaporeans who believe idealism has a place, and that the fire, passion and commitment of the Old Guard, who saw Singapore through the difficult early years with little hope of financial reward, are still alive in some young Singaporeans.

The policy on ministerial salaries will, at the least, breed weary resignation in Singaporeans: What's the use of giving one's views at all? And, at the worst, give rise to toxic cynicism: What's the use of teaching our young such values as caring and selflessness and sacrifice if each carries a price tag?

Catherine Lim is a freelance writer.

My comments:

Hi friends,

To me Catherine Lim is much more than a freelance writer. She is a freedom fighter.

She has more B*lls than all of us men put together!

I will not add any more comments for it may distract from her excellent and timely piece.


Dr.Huang Shoou Chyuan


aliendoc said...

Brilliantly written!

nofearSingapore said...

Eh.. I mean I thank you on Catherine's behalf

recruit ong said...

No leh i think Dr Chee has more courage. The two should make a good combination.

Anonymous said...

MM Lee quoted the figure of 4.5 million yearly earning of Minister Ng and Balagi when they were in private practice. Assuming that this is gross it would work out to $15,000 per day everyday working for 25 days per month, every month of the year.

Wow, I didnt know that surgeons make so much money. With one pair of hands working say an average of 7 hours per day, they are taking in $2000/- per hour. What kind of surgeries are they doing?

nofearSingapore said...

recruit ong: I agree about Dr. Chee's courage ( raw courage)

anon: do you believe everything you read in the papers? haha

Dr Oz bloke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dr Oz bloke said...

Dear anon, did it ever cross your mind that perhaps some surgeons out there are overcharging their patients beyond the now extinct SMA guidelines on fees?

It is possible isn't it? But then again, we should NEVER say these great surgeons are "overcharging" because they are the really bestest of the bestest so whatever they say you should pay, you should pay and you should consider it a bargain!

Dr Oz bloke said...

"The policy on ministerial salaries will, at the least, breed weary resignation in Singaporeans: What's the use of giving one's views at all? And, at the worst, give rise to toxic cynicism: What's the use of teaching our young such values as caring and selflessness and sacrifice if each carries a price tag?"

I sense that Catherine Lim is also going in that direction.

Frankly what's the point. The biggest joke of all is when we are told that the Ministers have to face high risks because they have to stand for elections every 5 years.

It goes to remind us how the majority of Singaporeans continue to vote the current Ministers into office despite the complaints and discontentment.

So what is the point I ask my fellow Singaporeans here? What is the point of making all these views, speaking up etc etc. What's the point?

The majority of Singaporeans are silent and they are the silent approving majority.

Don't waste your time and breath. Do something more worthwhile.

nofearSingapore said...

Hi drozbloke:
The whole election system ( GRC/upgrading for PAP wards only) has so skewed everything in their favour that it is wrong that majority of S'poreans voted for them.
If Sgporeans were given a choice without coercion and in a single member ward situation, the results would be markedly different.

But that is only hot air. The reality is that they TOTALLLLLY control everything and we cannot do a damned thing about it.


Exodus said...

Dr H: "But that is only hot air. The reality is that they TOTALLLLLY control everything and we cannot do a damned thing about it."

We can exit, the only choice left... but for some only. As Molly so well quoted from the latest gov campaign

Dr Oz bloke said...

Hi Dr Huang,

That's why I take a different approach from you. I don't subscribe to your "Everyone,even doctors,has a say in how Singapore is run. (But saying is one thing and getting someone to listen is something else). For the sake of society, someone has to push the boundaries and seek out the OB (Out-of-bound) markers. So why not me (or is it I)?"

I used to think that could happen then my cousin challenged me with 3 options

1) REALLY do something about it eg join politics, be an activist etc

2) migrate

3) shut up

I thought about point number 1 very hard and later decided that I really did not have that passion for Singapore and neither did I think I was really interested in risking my life for her.

So blow some harmless hot air is ok. But don't go expecting change will happen. Forget it man.

Anonymous said...

Hi the 2 docs
You are saying not to believe everything the ST says? How can. ST always reports faithfully what the gahment says. Otherwise have to apologize or kena sued. Or are you saying not to believe the figure quoted by MM? How can? MM can't be wrong.

As to the other possibility that dr oz mentioned. WOW!!. Sssssh.

Dr Oz bloke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Minister Lim Swee Say has spoken again. This time he said that he supports the salary gigantic rise not for himself but for other clever people like him. Even without pay rise he would not resign and stay the course to SERVE the people. Noble words. Now all he needs is to put the money where his mouth is. Dont take the pay rise or if he is afraid that his greedy colleagues may take his share, then donate money to charity EVERY MONTH.

Jeffrey Leow said...

catherine lim has written a beautiful article.

the government raising their own pays. it only goes to show they want to attract people who work for money, not for the welfare of the singapore people. either that, or they just love money themselves and want to give themselves a raise.

but i think its a decent gesture by PM Lee to donate his raise in salary.

nofearSingapore said...

anon 8.33 and jeffrey:
I will be keeping tabs of who is donating their extra pay to charity!

So troublesome- ask for pay rise and then say they donate to charity!

Just just have asked the ministers," Who thinks he must have pay rise, put up your hands" , then just pay those who put up hands.
Save all of us so much HOT AIR!


aiguowo said...

This government has always accused others of politics of envy. As it is the ministers are already drawing a big fat salary. Yet they are looking at those others who earn more than them. Who is practising politics of envy? I wonder.

Anonymous said...

Dr Huang, right on.
The male ministers of State Singapore should have their testicles removed, and female ministers should have their breast removed because these greedy ministers who always complain MoneyNotEnough should not deserved to have BALLS.

The bigger the balls, the higher the salary they demand. So better for them not to have balls !!!!