23 Mar 2015
Politicians are the apparent "bosses", the rulers and legislators of a country, capable of rewarding, punishing and even expelling its citizen's .Yet, politicians are also known as "civil servants". By this term, it implies that the citizens of a country are the "bosses" of politicians; they can employ them, and come election time, fire them as they deem fit. Clearly, this paradoxical relationship, of being the leaders and the servants of the populace, puts politicians in an interesting quandary.
Such a dilemma present itself in the issue of the pay of "government officials". Only in politics does one see people actively campaigning against their own pay hike, rejecting better lifestyle for lofty office in "public service". In the United States, a bill legislating the rise of a pay for politicians by 33% met vociferous dissent in the House of Representatives and strong protests were registered in all mediums across the nation. In contrast, a controversial pay rise for all government officials in Singapore, where senior politicians gave themselves a 25% pay hike and a fat six-month bonus, was greeted in the state-controlled newspapers with resounding approval, stating reasons such as "rewarding our politicians for their good performances" and "attracting our nation's best into politics".
The arguments for materialistic reward and dangling a fat cheque to attract people into the profession is definitely inapplicable to politics, simply because being a politician necessitates a degree of sacrifice by politicians, which is why they are termed public "servants" and not "professionals". The abstract notion of " service to the people" is a quintessential quality of any good politician.
The first key argument for giving high wages to government officials is the need to attract people into the profession. Have we not heard of the cries and complaints of politicians around the world, about the sacrifices they have made for politics-late nights, a lack of privacy and constant pressure to perform for the people? Senior Minister Mentor Mr. Lee Kuan Yew argued in a recent debate regarding ministerial pay rise that government service is the toughest profession, and lest we offer high wages, we will not be able to attract the best and the most capable leaders to help serve the nation. The common adage of " if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys" is a common argument; perhaps the society will indeed be worse off, if we trade a lower salary for less-than-capable politicians. I disagree with his viewpoint.
Let us look at the promises made by the politicians in the Singapore General Elections 2 years ago. Batch after batch of PAP politicians, came up to make speeches of "let me serve you" and " my calling has always been to work for the populace". Implicitly, these politicians wants to express the idea that they want to serve the people and that there main motivation to join politics is a gesture of goodwill, not for financial remuneration. Is it then hypocritical after the elections to raise wages and talk about how high wages is necessary to attract top talents into politics? Any politician accepting high wages for a job after extolling his desires to serve the people is in fact guilty of hypocrisy and lying. The mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, is willing to be paid $1 a year for his services. Clearly a low pay is not an entry barrier of hiring top talents.
The second argument regarding the ideal motivation of a politician shows it is just hypocritical for a politician to demand high wages to enter politics as to demand high wages for a decent performance, given that politicians present themselves as being motivated by public service, and not by financial rewards. Claiming that high-pay makes politicians less corrupt seems like a necessary trade-off for better performance, until one realizes that the unnerving truth that politicians are saying that if they are not paid well, they will be corrupt and waste away the nation's resources. I feel that the government should peg the wages of politicians to the nation's GDP growth.
In Singapore, politicians are currently paid 30-40 times the wages of the average Singaporean. Politicians do this because they can; they are a privileged class of people who can set their own wages. However, this comes at a cost of alienation from the masses. A Zogby worldwide poll recently showed that 70% of the world's population currently living in democratic nations feels that the high salaries of politicians have created a barrier between the masses and the people. It raises the question of whether politicians can understand the bread-and-butter issues of the masses. There is not only a moral argument but also a practical concern we must consider when we pay politicians huge wages.
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