The Incentives Argument: Ministerial Wage in Singapore

Singapore is well known for paying its ministers and political leaders high salaries. In Singapore, the average entry-level minister is paid $1.1 million annually. Their pay is benchmarked to 60% of the median income of the top 1,000 earners who are Singaporean citizens, with the 40% discount to signify the “ethos of political service.”[i] Singapore’s ministers earn around twenty times more than the average annual salary of around $50,000 in Singapore, and around ninety one times more than the average cleaner’s annual salary of around $12,000. The rationale given for such high pay has been to attract talent as well as curb corruption.[ii] In more recent years, the rationale given has shifted away from preventing corruption towards mainly attracting talented people.[iii] In this article, I use ‘The Incentives Argument’, a chapter from Gerald Cohen’s Rescuing Justice and Equality, to explain how the underlying attitude behind the rationales given for the ministerial salary is problematic and unjust.

Implicit to the rationale for paying ministers a high pay is that benefits for the ministers will ultimately benefit all of Singapore. This is clear through Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s late minister mentor’s comment that, “If Singapore gets a dumb government, the country is done for. That is why Singapore needed an extraordinary government, filled with top talent…If Singapore ever loses this kind of government of capability and integrity, it will just sink into nothingness[iv] The idea is that talented and uncorrupt ministers drive Singapore’s economy and run Singapore efficiently, therefore benefitting everyone.

Cohen rejects the idea that economic inequality can be always justified, simply if it benefits everyone. Policies that either allow or further social and economic inequalities are often justified on the basis that it is to everyone’s, including the worst off, advantage.[v] However, Cohen rejects incentives that produce inequality but are considered just because they make everyone better off. [vi]In particular, he critiques incentives granted to talented people who would otherwise not perform as those rewards induce them to.[vii]

Cohen uses The Kidnapper’s Argument, to demonstrate how the same argument can seem reasonable or unreasonable depending on who presents the argument. The persuasiveness of an argument is speaker-audience relative.[viii] Arguments may sometimes sound reasonable in an impersonal form, yet clearly unreasonable in an interpersonal form.[ix] Specifically, the argument may no longer be persuasive if the presenter of the argument “is the person, or one of the people whose choice, or choices make one of the argument’s premises true,” an argument may no longer be persuasive.[x] The impersonal form of the kidnapper’s argument is:

1. Children should be with their parents.

2. Unless they pay him, this kidnapper will not return the child to its     parents.

3. So this child’s parent should pay this kidnapper.[xi]

The interpersonal form of the kidnapper’s argument is:

  1. Children should be with their parents.
  2. Unless you pay me, I shall not return your child.
  3. So you should pay me. [xii]

Though the argument is the same, it intuitively seems morally wrong when the kidnapper presents it. The argument seems unreasonable because the kidnapper is the one that makes the premise 2, that the child will not be returned, true. [xiii] It is not out of his control to choose not kidnap the child or choose to return the child. Furthermore, if he truly believed in premise 1, he would not choose to not return the child. He is doing something bad by not returning the child, and should be ashamed to voice his argument.[xiv] When evaluating whether to adopt an attitude or policy, it is important to test whether it seem reasonable in its interpersonal form as well. Furthermore, when the presenter makes, or helps to make the premise true, they have the burden of justifying why it is true.

The rationale given for ministerial salaries can also be compared in its impersonal and interpersonal form. In its impersonal form it is:

  1. Ministers should not be corrupt.
  2. Unless we pay the ministers high salaries, ministers will be corrupt.
  3. So we should pay the ministers high salaries.

When adapted into its interpersonal form:

  1. Ministers should not be corrupt.
  2. Unless I am paid a high salary, I will be corrupt.
  3. So you should pay me such a high salary.

As the ministers are part of a group, it may seem less obvious that they are making the premise true. However, this does not make the argument any more just, because it can be compared to a member of a kidnapper band saying, “Giving us the money is the only way you will get your child back”.[xv]

Just like in the kidnapper’s argument, it is unreasonable because the ministers make premise 2 true, by choosing to be corrupt. The key issue is that the ministers are able to choose to be uncorrupt, but are simply unwilling to. Yet, they portray their own choice as a force of nature in which they lack control over. If the ministers truly believe in premise 1, they will choose to be uncorrupt even when paid a lower salary. While the temptation may be greater with lower salaries, people always have the choice. Furthermore, if one wanted to be corrupt, it is also unlikely that the giving a high salary would be enough to serve as deterrence.

Similarly, the rationale that talented people would be deterred to other lucrative roles is also problematic. The argument in its impersonal form is:

  1. We want highly talented people to work as ministers.
  2. Unless we pay the ministers high salaries, talented people will go to other more lucrative jobs.
  3. So should pay ministers high salaries.

The argument in its interpersonal form is:

  1. We want highly talented people to work as ministers.
  2. Unless I am paid high salary, I will go to a more lucrative job.
  3. So we should pay ministers high salaries.

At first glance, compared to kidnapping a child or being corrupt, it does not seem morally wrong for ministers to choose another job with a higher salary. It is important to note that I am not saying that ministers on the same moral par as the kidnapper. However, the issue at hand is still similar at its core, because both parties make the premise true. Talented people do not have to go to more lucrative jobs – it is a choice they make. By treating such a choice as simply force of nature, it disregards the will power of talented people to be committed to the public service. A much lower salary may deter talented people, since they are used to socialized expectations about how much they should get in return for their time and effort.[xvi] However, the rich cannot simply justify inequality by their own unwillingness to change their habits or expectations. [xvii]

Even if giving ministers a lower pay is disadvantageous for Singapore, we should still choose to give misters a lower pay. It is disputable whether a lower pay would really deter talented people. Additionally, the effect this would have on Singapore is also debatable. However, we can assume that at least some talented people will be deterred by lower pay, especially in Singaporean society, where people have been trained to be pragmatic. Perhaps this may result in negative consequences for Singapore, as the government claims. Even if this were to be the result, we should still choose not to incentivize ministers through high salaries. While some talented people in our generation or the next may be deterred by lower pay, this does not mean that will be the case forever. Because expectations and habits can be change, we should not take inequality endorsing attitudes as a given. Future generations of talented people should be encouraged to have more national spirit, and to take pride in the honor it is to serve one’s nation. It is important to note that this does not mean that the pay in public service should be so low that it causes people to suffer. Furthermore, it would be problematic if wages were so low that it resulted in the rich dominating public service, because only they could afford to choose a job with such a low wage. While these are valid concern, the current ministerial wages are far from such a reality.

Overall, Cohen rejects incentives that produce inequality, but are considered just because they make everyone better off. [xviii] In particular, he critiques incentives granted to talented people who would otherwise not perform as those rewards induce them to.[xix] Such incentives appear to be beneficial for all, including those at the bottom, only when we take inequality endorsing attitudes in society as a given.[xx] We cannot take the ministers attitudes and choices as given. Instead, we should aim to change such attitudes present in our society.

 

Notes

[i] Ministry of Communications and Information. 2017 Review of Salaries for President, Prime Minister, Speaker, Deputy Speaker, Political Appointment Holders and Members of Parliament, pp. 1–18.

[ii] Lee, Kuan Yew. “Speech to the NTUC on 19 July 1996.” Singapore Conference Hall, Singapore Conference Hall.

[iii] Ministry of Communications and Information. 2017 Review of Salaries for President, Prime Minister, Speaker, Deputy Speaker, Political Appointment Holders and Members of Parliament, pp. 1–18.

[iv] “Extraordinary Govt, Talent Keep S’pore Ahead, Says MM.” The Straits Times, 23 Apr. 2007.

[v] Cohen, G. A. Rescuing Justice and Equality. Harvard University Press, 2008, pp. 53.

[vi] Ibid., 35

[vii] Ibid., 35

[viii] Ibid., 36

[ix] Ibid.,35

[x] Ibid., 39

[xi] Ibid., 39

[xii] Ibid., 39

[xiii] Ibid., 40

[xiv] Ibid., 40

[xv] Ibid.,54

[xvi] Ibid., 50

[xvii] Ibid., 51

[xviii] Ibid., 35

[xix] Ibid., 35

[xx] Ibid.,33

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At Yale-NUS College, we are thinking about ideals of equality and democracy, and how they relate to practice, in Singapore and in the wider world.

This website showcases our reflections.

Articles were originally submitted as course papers for Professor Sandra Field’s classes Contemporary Egalitarianism and Democratic Theory.

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