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Saturday January 7, 2012

PAP mood turns sour over pay cuts

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong intends to accept a government committee recommendation that his annual pay be cut by 36% to RM5.3mil.

IN 1976, when I first visited China, its 86-year-old leader Mao Zedong was near death, and I ended a series of articles for Singaporeans by asking: Would Maoism survive Mao? If not what – or who – would take over?

Today’s China, of course, makes my questions seem ridiculous. But at that time Mao was so much part of the country that an alternative was unimaginable.

I was part of the media team that accompanied (then Prime Minister) Lee Kuan Yew’s first official visit to the communist country.

The two men met for eight minutes; Mao was hardly coherent (he died six months later).

Lee was then a vibrant 52-year-old and at his political and intellectual peak.

Last year, when Lee was pondering being in firm control here for 46 years, the same questions cropped up in my mind.

Would Lee’s sacred cows – including the institutions, policies, wise (and not so wise) sayings that he contributed so powerfully for 46 years – survive after he’s gone, and for how long?

Part of the answer has come six months after Lee stepped down from office.

His corporatist strategy of paying Singapore’s Cabinet ministers sky-high salaries is being firmly rebuffed.

Faced with rising public anger, a government committee last week recommended that the PM’s annual pay be cut by 36% to S$2.2mil (RM5.3mil).

Cabinet ministers will get S$1.1mil (RM2.7mil), a 37% reduction, while the President’s yearly salary is reduced by 51% to S$1.54mil (RM3.7mil).

The PM said his government intends to accept the proposals.

The percentages seem enormous, but then so were the previous increases.

The last one announced five years ago saw these ministers being given an average pay rise of 60%.

The speed with which this sacred cow is being attacked so soon after Lee Kuan Yew’s exit has come as a surprise to some party hardliners.

The cut implies that for more than 25 years, the ruling People’s Action Party had been excessively overpaying its leaders – allegedly to attract talent or prevent corruption.

At the time, his colleagues’ support was mixed, some strenuously, others offering to contribute to charity (Lee forbade it).

His Defence Minister Teo Chee Hean said of the 2007 increase: “If we don’t do that, in the long term, the government system will slowly crumble and collapse.”

When the public reacted coolly, Lee painted a frightening alternative if Singapore ministers could not be paid more than leaders anywhere else.

“Your apartment will be worth a fraction of what it is,” he warned, “your jobs will be in peril, your security will be at risk and our women will become maids in other people’s countries.”

Today, his son – current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong – is finding that tearing down such a high massive pay structure is not so easy, because many party stalwarts have tied success to high pay.

Commentators said the PM’s immediate future would be tested on two fronts: One – a remaining large cynical public which feels their leaders are still overpaid compared with even the richest countries and, second – strong vibes reportedly coming from within his party.

To what extent will the exercise result in resignations by party aspirants drifting away for better paid private financial rewards is anybody’s guess.

At present, a little of the party mood is turning sour. The mainstream media is staying away from reports of internal PAP rifts.

However, several comments have emerged on discussion boards, apparently written by unhappy insiders.

One anonymous writer shouted: “PM MUST REJECT THE SALARY REVIEW.

“(Otherwise) all aspiring office holders in the PAP will be affected, so MPs, party cadres must know what their future salaries are, first, to ensure they have dignity.”

PAP Member of Parliament and former senior minister of state Grace Fu wrote about her feelings online. Her decision to join politics in 2006, she said, was not based on pay.

“The disruption to my career was also an important consideration,” she added.

“I had some grounds to believe that my family would not suffer a drastic change in the standard of living even though I experienced a drop in my income.

“So it is with this recent pay cut. If the balance is tilted further in the future, it will make it harder for anyone considering political office.”

Another apparent insider declared: “PAP cadres and MPs must speak up against the cuts.

“The salary review is too populist. PM should stand firm and reject it.”

The public is moderately supportive of the measure, although many still harbour resentment.

“After the pay cut, our Prime Minister (at US$1.7mil / RM5.3mil) still earns four times more than US President Barack Obama (US$400,000 / RM1.26mil a year) – and more than the combined salaries of (the leaders of) Britain, France and Germany,” said a cynic.

It is almost certain that high Cabinet pay will remain on the agenda in the next election in 2016, albeit less virulent.

A series of train breakdowns, floods, and shortages in housing, healthcare and telecommunications services have increased Singaporean unhappiness.

But PM Lee has also gained some political mileage among moderate citizens. “It shows that the PM is serious about putting it right without too much damage,” said one commentator.

A PAP supporter said: “With such pathetic pay, I don’t care if the opposition Workers Party (WP) wins in 2016 and takes over.”

This led to a cynical observation, that is, making it costly for people thinking of joining opposition politics to gain wealth and power.

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