Humanosity says…In Singapore, they pay their PM $1.6m a year and all cabinet members get an annual bonus that is dependent on factors such as the median income rate and the unemployment rate. They have one of the lowest rates of corruption anywhere in the world. What other bold political experiments have been tried and how have they fared?
There’s almost nothing politicians from both parties can agree on these days, except that giving themselves more money is a very bad idea. Which is why a 2.6% cost-of-living adjustment on salaries for House members, who currently make $174,000 a year, withered into oblivion over the summer. The optics of the issue are the same elsewhere; in New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was praised last year for turning down a $9,000 increase on a base salary of $300,000 and freezing Parliament’s wages as well.
But what if the way we think about paying our leaders is all wrong? What if giving them more money resulted in less corruption, higher public trust and better government all round? There’s some evidence, from Singapore, that it does.
These indicators are all the more impressive considering that, at its founding in 1965, Singapore had very few natural resources. It is often talked about as a place where pragmatism has triumphed over ideology, where big, decisive moves were made out of necessity from the beginning in order to attract foreign capital. One of those moves was ensuring that Singapore’s public service was technocratic, not political. In a small country—the population hovers around 5 million today—this meant making government competitive with business as a career path.
A career in the bureaucracy is regarded as so secure, it’s sometimes called an “iron rice ball.”
Government salaries in Singapore have been informally benchmarked to the private sector since the country’s founding. Dramatic reforms in 1994 codified the high salaries seen today. Salaries for ministers are based on those in professions they could have pursued: banking, accounting, engineering, the law. Still, these salaries do not fully match the private sector, “to reflect the ethos of sacrifice that political service involves,” as a 2012 government white paper affirming the policy put it. (This public service discount amounts to 40% less than the median income of the top 1,000 Singaporean civilian wage-earners.)
There are also annual bonuses. A “national bonus” given to the prime minister and the cabinet is based on a few factors, including the real median income growth rate and the unemployment rate, which is currently 2.2%. From 2013 to 2017, each year’s payout represented an additional three to five months’ salary. Ministers also receive a performance bonus determined by the prime minister. Because the prime minister doesn’t have anyone who can grade him—there’s a president, but her role is largely custodial and does not involve setting policy—he doesn’t get one.
While the bonus is derived from a complicated formula, the salary itself is a simple proposition, unencumbered by what the Singaporeans refer to, dismissively, as “perks.” The prime minister is given a car and driver, and that’s it—unlike the American president, who receives a $19,000 entertainment allowance, a big house and a pension, among other goodies. (There is an official state residence in Singapore, but it’s used only for functions.)
The no-perks policy has been essential in building trust between politicians and the people, says Lutfey Siddiqi, a visiting professor in practice at the London School of Economics’ IDEAS think tank and an adjunct professor in risk management at the National University of Singapore. “The structure of pay is very simple so that nothing can be hidden or obfuscated,” he says. Do the people ever get annoyed about high salaries for politicians, though? Not really, says Siddiqi, a longtime resident: “As long as the social contract keeps working, there is not that resentment you see in other places.”
Do higher government salaries actually pay off for Singaporean citizens? Paying public servants a competitive wage has been intrinsic to the country’s economic transformation, argues Marie de la Rama, a lecturer in management at the University of Technology, Sydney, whose research interests include the corporate governance of family business groups in Asia. “High salaries are part of the meritocratic civil service culture where talent is rewarded, not underappreciated,” she says. Dela Rama’s research has found that a political culture—good or bad—trickles down from the top. “If senior leaders emphasize transparent, accountable and trustworthy actions, then the acceptable scope for bribery and other malfeasance is narrowed,” she wrote in a recent co-authored paper about corruption in the Asia-Pacific region…..
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