06 April 2007

Two Side Issues from the Minister Pay Hike

Sidestepping the debates on whether ministerial salaries are justified, I'd like to discuss two related issue instead. They are not so much as original ideas, but something that I had came across months back in some readings, and browsing through all the commentaries and opinions on the blogosphere reminds me them. They are the government's selection process for a minister and their strategy for unveiling unpopular policies.

How does Singapore select its ministers? This question is actually not as obscure as one might think. At this point, it is important to clarify, in case of confusion, that the selection of ministers is highly different from MPs. In [1], ministers are compared to as "generals", while MPs and party activists are "foot-soldiers".

Most bloggers are right to think that being academically talented scholars is a criterion, but it is not the sole yardstick for minister selection. Quoting from [2],

On the recommendation of Ministers, MPs, senior civil servants, corporate leaders, and party activists, prospective candidates are invited to "tea parties" in groups of six to eight to chat informally with one of three Ministers, who take turns in meeting over 100 potential candidates a year. Some of these are invited to a second tea session, and those found suitable meet personally, first with [then] Deputy Prime Minster Lee Hsien Loong and then with the party whip. Those who clear the process to this point then appear before the selection committee of PAP Ministers, who probe extensively into a prospective candidate's character and motivation, and ability to be a "team player". After this, those still being considered are interviewed by Goh Chok Tong and Lee Kuan Yew. If they agree to the selection, the candidate is then given a final interview by the party's CEC to ratify the selection.

This is just the identification of a potential candidate. After this, the minister will be sent out to the grassroots for political work. He or she may be fielded in a constituency for elections a couple of years later. That's not all. From the same source [2],

Those among the selected candidates who are viewed as having minsterial potential go through an additional stage. They are given one-and-a-half days of psychological testing involving over one thousand questions. The PAP has adapted the system developed by Shell for its prospective new executive. The tests focus on three qualities - power of analysis, imagination, and sense of reality.

Thus it can be seen that a minister is selected through a rigourous process. Whether this process works in the future, given the supposed problem of lack of political talents and shifts in the political landscape, remains much to be seen. In addition, this selection process is elitist and may risk creating a disconnect between the leaders and population, as some has claimed already happening [3].

However, I'd like to point out that in [2], I have no idea which articles was referenced with regards to this process because the bibliography was cut off (what I have is a photocopied compilations of the two chapters).

Also seen in this ministerial salary hike is Lee Hsien Loong's way of announcing policies that he knows will create a wave of dissatisfaction amongst the public. Taking from [1],

... the government policies, largely crafted by Lee [Hsien Loong], were implemented with close attention to minimizing opposition, using an incremental approach. The emphasis lay in cooperation between the government and the public to solve a puzzle; the "solution" was to be arrived at gradually by the government, as it were, taking people along with it, step by step. For example, proposals to reduce the employers' contributions to the CPF were not produced with a flourish, out of a hat. They were gradually unveiled as a hypothetical last-resort policy, which became increasingly perceived as inevitable. The initial step was for Lim Boon Heng, Minister without Portfolio and secretary-general of the NTUC, to introduce the issues involved at a seminar in Pasir Ris. Although the presentation had been carefully prepared, the reception was quite chilly. However, the idea had really been just to broach the topic. The real presentation was done through a large number of discussions in the party, at the grassroots, and with trade unionists. The policy was formally announced in November 1998. By this time, many had been convinced that the government's proposals made sense.

Following this, a few paragraphs down, the authors summarised their strategy well,

The lesson was that, if you have to change your policy, prepare the people early and explain why the change is necessary.

Eseentially, instead of dropping a huge and smelly fart at one go, they let the gas out slowly and as noiselessly as they can, so that the public anger can be spread out over time and thus thinned out. From past events like the quoted CPF cut to the recent GST increase, it can be seen that this strategy is widely employed and does work rather well.

Nonetheless, it will be rather interesting to observe how the Internet may affect this strategy. Previously, any grouse is spoken over the coffeshop table and diluted by the time of the next election, but with blogs increasingly pervasive in local politics (particularly the anti-establishment camp), these unhappiness are recorded in words (see [4]) and may resurface when the need arises.

[1] Diane K. Mauzy and R. S. Milne, Singapore Politics under the People's Action Party (London: Routledge, 2002), 'Chapter 9: The successors', pp. 123.
[2] Ibid, 'Chapter 4: The People's Action Party - the Structure and Operation of a Dominant Party', pp. 48 - 49.
[3] See, for example, Minsters salaries - lets have a re-focus by theonlinecitizen and Earth to YPAP: Is there life out there? by kitana
[4] See the comments of Beating the dead ministerial salary horse by Aaron Ng.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The strategy: First broach the subject(issue) to test the water< then have wide discussions usually through unionists MPs< business leaders< professionals and academics< have the masses acclimatise(brainwash< indoctrination) Depending on the gravity of the issue and response check< implementation maybe modified and or staggered> In any case the policy makers invariably preempt the commoners> It is a very effective scheme