Some of you may recall that I wrote a mail to a cabinet minister some time back in April to express my disappointment with the Government and also personally with the Minister himself, after the recent revision in Civil Service pay (which also included Ministerial Pay). Well, the Minister wrote back, and asked me if I would be able to fit in a schedule to meet him for lunch so that we could talk about it. I was surprised to say the least, as I never expected an answer from him.
I thought long and hard about whether to reveal which minister it was, but didn’t feel comfortable doing so, as it meant obtaining his approval before publishing this post. I also felt that it was important to keep it focused on the discussion, and not the person. Why this particular minister then? Well, I have always felt a kind of a link to him. I’m not quite sure how to express it, except to say that I feel I could trust him, and that I respected him.
So, after my writing him, the Minister wrote back and asked if I would like to have lunch with him and possibly 1 or 2 more persons? I pondered a little over it, initially wondering what could possibly come out of a lunch discussion with the Minister? Policies and decisions had already been made. But after consideration, I decided I would accept his invitation, if only to hear him out.
The date was set on the 28th of May, as the Minister had a very tight April and May, with a number of regional meetings and the Malaysian-Singapore Ministers’ retreat, etc. The Minister’s PA wrote back to arrange. It was then, that I had my first pleasant surprise. I saw that TS from my previous company was also in the list of invitees. Its a really small world. I realised later on, that TS has been quite active in Young PAP or some time now, and he volunteers regularly at the grassroots level for the establishment. I won’t be surprised if he appears on the next slate of PAP candidates for the next elections. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
I arrived at the Minister’s office about 15 minutes early. Exchanged my NRIC for a Gold Pass, which was not difficult at all. They were expecting me. Actually, I noticed traffic from government domains to this blog about a week ago. Not sure if they were looking through my data. 🙂 I went up to the highest floor in the building, and was ushered to wait. An elderly gentlemen was already there. He is a 68 year old taxi driver, and ex civil servant with the NEA, but still very active in giving feedback to the government. Wow….I just wish that at 68, I’d still be this energetic. Lets just call him Ray.
Everyone at the Minister’s office was extremely polite and hospitable. The Minister’s PA ushered us in to a dining area, where there was a spread of chinese dishes (Fried Rise, Chicken wings, Ngor Hiang, Vege, and Fruits). I thought this was a simple meal… 🙂 But I guess they out do themselves. The atmosphere was very cosy, almost like being in someone’s home dining room. TS arrived just a couple of minutes later, and I realised then that he’s met with the Minister quite a number of times already, and the Minister has obviously him there (in my humble opinion) as a YP representative, and perhaps also a support person.
The minister strode in just after a few minutes, and he was smiling as he made his way to his seat. A little shorter than I last remembered him, but he was so easy going. He tried to make us all at ease, and I think he did it very well. It became really an informal lunch and discussion among friends. Strange at first, but I quickly eased up. Minister was very humble, and you know the usual “myths” we accord to a public person? Well, he came across so human….. 🙂 exactly just like his sister (His sister happens to be our family physician).
The discussion topic started with the pull out of UNSWAsia, and then subsequently the discussion on EDB’s involvement. The minister also asked about our family, getting to know us better… Apparently, Ray wrote to the minister about the S$290 public assistance, and the Minister went about explaining the issue from a holistic point of view. Yes, while the cash portion of public assistance was only S$290, the is a whole gamut of other subsidies which were not taken into consideration by people. The minister explained that there were four areas which he felt needed to be addressed from the point of view of this group of poor. Basically, they were 1) Food; 2) Shelter; 3) Medical; and 4) Education for their children. For each of these areas, he explained to us the amount of subsidies the government was giving out. I didn’t know, for instance that for these group of folks, their medical bills would be completely paid for by the government. Education as well, etc.
I must say, that although I didn’t write to the Minister on this, I could tell that he had given this extremely serious thought, and that he was extremely sincere and serious when he said that he can say with a clear conscience that nobody in Singapore needs to ever starve, or be deprived of food, shelter, medical care and education for their children.
I buy his explanation.
Then, Minister turned to me, and asked me if my thoughts on the minister’s salary increase still remained the same. I had written in late April about the Minister pay revision, and was extremely concerned that it tore our social fabric apart.
I told the Minister that no, my thoughts have not changed, although they’re a little more subdued through the normal passage of time. I told him that the formulas used to derive pay was questionable, and what made it worst was the fact that they decided on their own salary. I told him that I felt that it wasn’t so much about how much they were paid, but rather how ethically immoral it appeared to the populace. If, there can be a non-partisan council of Elders I suggested to determine pay for instance. If they were to come up with a similar price tag for the ministers, I was very certain that the people would not have made such an uproar.
The Minister agreed with me that there was disquiet among the people, and that this is a difficult situation. He explained that this was a policy passed in 1994, which is why there is no vote now. Also, that even if there was a non political council to decide pay, who would choose this council? People would then say that the PAP chose them, and it would never end. The other thing the Minister said was that the formula was derived by a third party consultant (I can’t remember the name), and that certain professions were deliberately not included (like Doctors) as their pay was extremely high.
At the end of the day, the Minister said that this was a responsibility that the PM took. He said that the PM told him personally that if the PM ever thought that he was not worth what he was paid, the PM would remove him as quickly as possible, if not, the people would remove both him and the PM. He agreed that this is a politically bad move, but that they would have to work extremely hard to show that this was the right decision.
Obviously, there is no clear and easy answer to this issue, but what came across to me clearly was that the Minister was very sincere and honest. At the end of the day, this what it boils down to. Honest, sincere and capable men taking the lead for our country. After my lunch and discussion with the Minister, I came away much more enlightened (on policies which I had skewed knowledge on) and more convinced that even though I don’t still don’t agree with how minister pay is derived, I am convinced that we have a good government in place.