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Thursday, June 21, 2007 

The Politics of Money

Yes, after a long hiatus I’m finally back. Contrary to popular beliefs that I’ve given up on my ideals or that I’ve been arrested by ISD, both didn’t happen (much to the disappointment of some). The reason for the long break from posting any article was that I’ve been really busy with work and could only write this article because I took leave today. For the past months, it was quite a personal struggle to get grips over my career and my future. I was brought down to reality on how brutally realistic the working life is compared to our own utopia of morals, philosophy and politics. Yes, this sentence doesn’t make much sense to you at the moment. Hopefully, I explain it better later on.

I’m in the corporate banking line, a line which is unforgiving and sanitized of feelings. If there is one thing I learned is that loyalty doesn’t pay. Move to a bank, achieve your monetary objectives, and after three to five years, move on the other banks. Why 3-5 years time? This is because you will have enough credibility, experience and accumulate enough clienteles to sell out to other banks. Your value is the highest within this number of years. This is how the game is being played and you are expected to observe this. No one will pay you extra for doing the otherwise.

In the political science of this “world”, is that the people will plan and work with a short term horizon since they may not be here to solve the problems that might pop out only in 3-5 years time. As such, people might just focus all their efforts, rightly or wrongly, on the short term goals to achieve their targets, key performance indicators or similar. There are ethical and unethical people who will do all that they could and to sweep the problems under the carpet for enough time before they leave the bank. You can only hope that you’ve got the right man, with the right morals for the job. But in truth, it might just be a 60-40 issue that for every 10 people you hired, 6 are likely to aim for short term goals. Or you might just believe that man are born good but corrupted by society.

If you are thinking that Thrasymachus has sudden changed his blog from politics to a “daily lives – oh, another xiaxue blog”, you are wrong. Something which I have not commented on was the debate on Ministers’ pay raise. I was “off-the-market” and late in the delivery of this article as I was busy (see above, yes, a circular argument). As such, let me relate the reality of totally realistic and practical world of banking to the unreal expectation and philosophy on what a Minister should be paid.

Paying for a Philosophy King
Maybe for those who have read Plato’s Republic will understand why I’ve sub-titled this “Paying for a Philosophy King”. As Plato quoted Socrates in the book, “Until philosophers are king, or kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoners natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside, cities will never have rest from their evils, -no, nor the human race, as I believe, -and then only will this our State have a possibility of life and behold the light of day.”

In short, we all know what the ideal ruler should be, kind, intelligent, incorruptible, loving, wise, philosophical, embraces justice and equality and so on and so forth. We all want those qualities in a Singapore Minister, just that we don’t want to pay them. How Singaporean - wanting the best but at the cheapest cost, or if possible, free!

How much do you think England is willing to pay to have Lee Kwan Yew as their Prime Minister when he was aged 60? Probably, less than David Beckham but definitely more than Sven Goran Eriksson. How much do you think China is willing to pay to have Goh Chok Tong to be their Central Bank Chairman? Definitely much more than the amount of money spent on investigating on central bank corruptions. Or do you want to pay just USD300k to a Vice-President who cooks up a story to invade an oil-rich country, only to award all oil-related contracts to the his former company that stills pay him USD1m every year until his death?

The price of all the qualities you want in a politician and Minister is hard to quantify. Yes, a politician and a Minister should not serve not because of money but because of their passion to serve the people. Most people treat this as the central argument of the whole Minister’s pay debate. But this is not the crux of the issue. The issue is sustainability. Can the system, select the leaders among Singaporeans, who has the right morals and qualities without competition from the real world? I don’t think so.

You want a Minister whom has the trust of the nation and that his integrity to serve Singapore, not for a short term of 5 years, but beyond his terms and for decades. One who is forward looking, whose policies benefit not just his electoral results but the nation’s competitive future. You wouldn’t want a corporate banking-like Minister who thinks only on short term basis just to win votes and make him look good. If you think that a Minister’s role is just to attend events and cut ribbons, then that it is really naïve of you. It is really a 24/7 job, thinking and planning. There is more behind the scenes that the media doesn’t tell. Increasing the pay for the Ministers is also to up the stakes that a Minister can’t fail in his task. If we remain short-sighted, the future Ministers will too.

Not many nations will you find the governments lowing taxes to below 20% and yet having a budget surplus. We have that. We are a small nation but even a far-off country like Egypt, our name looms large. Many things that we attributed it to “Singapore” are really the works of a couple of great men who we sometimes fail to appreciate. Until we have a bad government, we may never realize how good our present one is. Without going into all the things each Minister had mentioned about the pay debate, I will only ask of you to consider the differences between reality and ideals. It is easy for an opposition to oppose the hike, but it is even easier to fail to appreciate our current government. I’ve seen a department taking a nose-dive for the worse within 6 months just by changing a single leader and the impact of a crap Minister will just extrapolates this to a greater extent in a Ministry. As such, I urge you to think objectively and be more far-sighted in your judgment.

On a side note, no, I’ve not sold my soul to the finance world. I’ve never given up and never will. I am still dreaming of my own utopia. You should too.

I beg to differ. After reading your views on the ministers' pay, I have decided not to visit your website again.

"After reading your views on the ministers' pay, I have decided not to visit your website again." Hmm hmm....

Well, democracy at work. =)

Truly welcome that decision.


It's alright. Your blog would be wasted anyway on people who go around hoping to read stuff that fit and validate their beliefs. Guess their brains aren't big enough to accommodate opposing views, and they ultimately choose not to read them.

We are actually in a Catch-22 situation. We are finding it difficult, as a nation, to attract individuals who possess the right attributes (as you have indicated - kind, intelligent, incorruptible, loving, wise, desire to help their countrymen etc) for political office. As a result of this, we resort to material attractors and incentives in a hapless attempt to attract the right individuals for office.

Sadly and ironically, these individuals, if they exist, are unlikely to be tempted by the material things as an exchange for their enrolment in public service. Instead, our endeavours may attract a group of individuals whose value system is based on materialism. This creates a vicious cycle of recruitment, governance and policy-setting that shifts the direction of the nation towards a materialistic end-point.

As time passes, we move further from our original objectives of trying to find a team of individuals whose value systems are not based on materialism but on the things that are most distant from that. The leader needs to have a heart of love that has room for compassion. He needs to feel genuine love for the countrymen that he is leading. Without that, all decisions and actions that arise will be geared towards economic figures, towards material successes.

If the father of a family brings home the bacon but fails to teach and guide his children well in terms of moral values and personal ethics, he is not a good father; he has not discharged his duties fully. In the context of a country, the bacon is representative of economic figures while moral values and personal ethics are equivalent to social graces and value systems.

The question on the tip of your tongue right now after reading my commentary post above is probably "what is your idea of the best way to attract the right people then?". As with the solution for this national quandary, my answer is simple - we need to work on the fundamentals. It is a time-consuming process but it is a solution that yields the greatest benefits for the people of our country.

We need to examine Singapore's current operational platform - the emphasis on figures and numbers; we need to evaluate and ask if we have shifted the true happiness of people to the back-seat in our pursuit for advancement both economically and technologically. Yes, beautiful economic figures and cutting-edge technology create jobs. If the fundamentals of true happiness are not addressed, then all the jobs that we create will not create the happiness that our people really need. All we will end up with are empty shells that are enchanting on the outside but totally devoid of substance.

"Cut to the point", you may say.

My point is that we need to relook our policies and orient them along the direction of true happiness. Education is the first and foremost area to revamp. Moral values and ethics have been sitting in the back-row for so long that our countrymen have lost the instinct for social graces and civil behaviour. The Ps and Qs do not come readily these days. Anger springs to mind when we read the papers on road rage and the latest trend of bus-captain-abuse. Maids getting burned with irons and forced to drink their own body waste. We will need to give very much more greater priority to these elements of education which have been neglected. Bring them to the forefront and polish them till they shine. Filial piety, others before self, basic manners; once these are restored, the young will respect the old and the old will care for the young. These are the pillars of human civilisation. Without these pillars, everything else sits on weak ground and will crumble at the slightest tremor.

There are many areas that we will need to look at as well; health-care, community development, national security. The foundation for these, surprisingly, are the same as that for education. Cultivate the right moral values in our countrymen and all these areas will be strengthened accordingly. Spend a moment to think about this and you will realise that the ripples that the shift in educational paradigm creates are far-reaching and tremendously beneficial. To break the vicious cycle, we need to nip the problem at the bud and not just tackle the worsening symptoms.

if you remove the monetary rewards, you mean to tell me they will quit? the rewards they are getting from their job is far greater in value than the people's money they think they are entitled to.let's not forget they are extremely good men and women(eg in decadent west) that will even do the job for free if given a chance to make a difference in the world(no need more as these have already earn their keeps and are contented and self assured)! only those with that kind of public spirit( a necessary aspect among others) can lift humanity BEYOND the politics of money are a step closer to being extraordinary.

and i do give credit where it is due but they fall short of being extraordinary because they can't attach value to humanity apart from a pimp's wage.

If "moral education" is the answer, then, religiously incline countries would have been the model for an ideal society.

I think the world is suffering from two extremes. Either they have become too 'heavenly' and end up hypocritically corrupt or, affluent but superficial and legally corrupt.

"Not many nations will you find the governments lowing taxes to below 20% and yet having a budget surplus."

Not many nations will you find the governments having a budget surplus and giving themselves massive pay hikes.

We have that.

And by the way, you fail to draw parallels with the likes of the scandinavian countries - also parlimentary democracies.

That'd have been a much fairer comparison.

Good post anyway ;)

Hi T, I had been observing your blog for some time now. I am a young Singaporean who got curious about political scene. Out of all the political bloggers I seen, I must say that you are arguably the most pragmatic, objective and realistic about our national political scene. Really remarkable. You obviously take a lot of effort to do your homework in researching the issues. keep up the good work.
In my opinion, if only all 3 million Singaporeans dare to talk the talk, walk the walk in politics out in the open, PAP can do very little to us. After all, Singapore is larger than PAP. Nevertheless, we must recognize that without the PAP, Singapore would not be where it is today. Many Singaporeans are still ignorant about politics, taking good governance for granted and developing a clutch mentality on PAP. therefore we cannot really blame the PAP for Singapore being an nanny state cos it is the people who made it so. Hopefully Singaporeans can be more self reliant and less dependent on govt. Only then we can progress into a mature democracy. People gotta be more proactive. I agree that the Internet is making headways for more democracy in Singapore society.
This is only my preliminary observations for my 1st year as a novice political observer.

In this ever increasing competitive world, talent really commands a premium price. Personally, I am wondering to myself whether should I quit Singapore for the greener pastures perceived to be somewhere else.
I asked myself this simple yet difficult question," What am I most proud of my nation as a Singaporean"
I am proud of the fact that the nation led by PAP govt managed to accomplish then so called impossible task of making Singapore from nothing 3rd world slum to a 1st world city in a matter of decades. But maybe we moved too fast that we had no time to smell the roses in our journey. Hence, we tend to take things for granted and not treasure what we have today. We must cherish what we have today in order to advance on for a better future.

Hi, anyone knows who is the next cabinet Reshuffle? And anyone knows who will take over Dr Lee Boon Yang when he retire? Will it be Dr Balaji or Dr Balakrishnan?

Hi Kai

Before commenting on the other comments, may I just add on the tax rates of the scandinavian countries:

Corporate Tax: 28%
Personal Income Tax: 55%

Corporate Tax: 26%
Personal Income Tax: 53%

Corporate Tax: 28%
Personal Income Tax: 54%

Corporate Tax: 28%
Personal Income Tax: 59%

Corporate Tax: 26%
Personal Income Tax: 45%


Thrasymachus ,
you said :
"Not many nations will you find the governments lowing taxes to below 20% and yet having a budget surplus. We have that. "
Although I find that you are somehow objective, but you tend to overlook boarder issue.

First of all, why keep comparing 20% is good for nation and for business when in fact, it is a liability for Singapore in increasing disadvantages ?

What we have is just price competition in term of tax for business. We are heading for asteriod afterall what a small red dot compare against bigger giant like china, india, and innovative economic like Finland ?

The PAP has failed terribly building a nation of sustainable competitive advantage by failing to build a nation of culture innovative. And that's why not in the rush to implement initiative by MDA and IDA and stuff not that. Culture must be cultivated not engineered and definitely not just been bought and dump by money. We haven't learn to walk then we learn to fly. I see that many initiative will fail big times but still gov still cover up or say it is honest mistake.

The reason why we have a government that runs a budget surplus despite a supposedly low tax rate is because we also have a government that spends among the least on healthcare, education and public housing when compared to other developed nations. And don't even get me started on welfare for the poor and disadvantaged.

Can the system, select the leaders among Singaporeans, who has the right morals and qualities without competition from the real world? I don’t think so.

I fail to see how offering monetary awards selects leaders with "the right morals and qualities". By offering high salaries, we are selecting people who could otherwise earn similarly high salaries elsewhere. But do we think these people are those with "the right morals and qualities" to lead the country? Are high-flying CEOs and lawyers necessarily those with "the right morals and qualities" to lead the country? It's not obvious to me that the answer to that is "yes".

hi T,
I've been looking forward to your continued posting, but this one really disappoints. Frankly, it doesn't even sound like you. If you are in the corporate banking line, you should know better that cutting corporate taxes is simply pricing Singapore lower than the competition. Goes to show we got nothing else to attract businesses.
I think you should just stick to analysing individual political characters. Those are nicer reads.


To compete on price is the most stupid strategy as business text has taught you. When size matter, the only way Singapore can compete effectively is through differentiation, and that is differentiated by human resources. Unfortunately, we have a gov who believe Singaporean is a liability and put more trust in FT.

How much lower tax can rebate for business for MNC and FT company at the expense of nation's money ? And yet the gov use the media to promote that they are very successful in business attraction by tax, where in fact, they are just losing money.

well you are no longer offering insight from the inside; found it too hard?

to repeat, with PAP what you see is what you get; you cannot "soften" it with better dressing


I cannot deny that Singapore is generally a well-run country with a government that has been largely corruption free (or least it has not been proven otherwise yet).

However, I disagree with your main point which is that because there is "competition from the real world", we must peg our ministerial pay to the top salaries.

My main contention is how much of this competition really exist. Forgive me for my ignorance but it would delight me greatly to be informed of the list of politicians that exhibit this purported mobility between the private and public sector.

I admit I'm largely basing my conclusion from my potentially skewed view of the public sector, in which majority of those who rise in ranks are people with incredible academic background (aka scholars). Yes, I am doubtful of the number of people with high flying careers in private sector were necessarily scholars.

On a personal note, I also didn't like your presumption that England would pay top money for Lee Kuan Yew or China for Goh Chok Tong for that matter. A successful minister in one country does not necessarily translate instant results for another.

My background on the history of Singapore is a little weak on this, but my impression from the various numbers of articles I've read is that the British did play a huge role in ensuring the survival of Singapore.

I'm not trying to totally discredit the old guards of PAP but I am uncomfortable when PAP claim that they single-handedly built up Singapore. The history of Singapore is far more convoluted than most would know, with numerous factors shaping this island-state. (Quick Tidbit: The late David Marshall first mooted the CPF plan for Singaporean workers.)

Okay, I've digressed. :p

Back to the issue, even if the pay hike does attract ministers who are "top talent" from the private sector, I am not convinced it would ultimately be better for Singaporeans.

Quoted from "Be mindful of the affective gap By Catherine Lim"

"For while the ideal political leader is imbued with nobility of purpose and altruistic instincts, the ideal CEO is impelled by the very opposite - raw ambition and ruthless drive. The first set of qualities is desirable for a life of public service; the second would be disastrous.

Indeed, a brilliant achiever without the high purpose of service to others would be the worst possible ministerial material. To see a potential prime minister as no different from a potential top lawyer, and likely to be enticed by the same stupendous salary, would be to blur the lines between two very different domains."

The shortest and quickest plan to chart continual unsurpassed growth for the Singapore Inc. might not mean that Singaporeans get to taste fruit of their labour. Just consult the employees working in world's largest retailer and the second largest corporation, Wal-Mart Inc, it’s almost self-explanatory.
Ultimately, I do not want my ministers to be so far-sighted, that he is not myopic enough to focus on me, the Singaporean on the ground.

People can be really selfish huh… :p

Money can prevent corruption theoretically but lusts for money will cause robbery, embezzlement, theft, cheat, profiteering etc and yes corruption. All kinds of misdeeds are happening all the time relating to money crave and craze!

Rugged Society
For many years after coining the term "rugged society" in 1968, LKY has urged singaporeans to retain the spirit of thrift, hard work and other old fashioned virtues. The term "rugged", in addition to the meaning of "hardy and robust", also has the intonation of "rough edged and not concerned with appearances". When hippies coming into singapore were denied visas at the airport unless they accepted an on the spot haircut, the rugged society was living up to its name in several senses of the word

today things are very different. Government ministries and public corporations now all have plush buildings, and arts have come into fashion instead of being dismissed as economically of no value. Money chasing is no longer looked on with doubt or even comtempt like it used to be, with Singapore Inc justifying its own unique socio-politcal system by the wealth its policies generated, while paying less attention to issues like equitable distribution of resources. A constant stream of important visitors, often as part of major international events like WTO amd IMF/World Bank meetnigs generously sponsored by Singapore, come to provide confirmation for the country's success.

Looking at today's Singapore society, "rugged" would not be the first impression, "self-indulgent", "decadent", perhaps even "mindless", seem to be more applicable. But then, who am I to criticize? Other than posting some blog articles, what makes me different from others? Even if I wish to have things being different, what can one do?

But if individuals have little capacity to change anything and might as well not worry, the government should be worrying. The rugged society is no more, and something else, with a new catchy name, need to be coined.


You went for a brain change. I mean brain wash. Money can change a man's thinking but then so be it.

Have you wondered how ministers spend their money? They don't have an expensive lifestyle, there's no caviar in the fridge, and there's no chaufffeur for the Mrs. What they do have is $14 million bungalows, and couple of other properties for investment. The car used to be Japanese make, but now Lexus and Beemers are acceptable among the MIW. The reality is that they will still be very comfortable with $200,000 a year. The rest is pure greed.


new stuff..enjoy!

"Not many nations will you find the governments lowing taxes to below 20% and yet having a budget surplus. We have that."
For someone who apparently works in the financial sector, I must say that that comment is utterly clichéd and one sided, crafted to instill into the minds of the people that we should be grateful our taxes are lower than other countries.
I might not be a professional in this field, but from what I DO know, other countries DON'T have CPF, 7% GST, exorbitant rental prices and all the other 'Truly Singaporean' (un)necessities. As you said it- "We have that". Stop trying to delude the people into thinking that our tax is the lowest- after adding in your CPF and all that nonsense- it comes up to about the same thing. And you compare our size and market economy to the other European nations- we are SMALL and MORE manageable than countries 50 times our size. What MM Lee has achieved is certainly remarkable, and I shall not deny the fact that he was the one who actually had plans to do it, but what if we were a bigger nation? Would it still be as easy as how he did it? If you want objective- that's objective for you. Putting on a show and raving about how good he is makes me want to PUKE.

"Until we have a bad government, we may never realize how good our present one is." So you are saying we should be grateful and accept whatever rubbish is thrown at us 'because there are people worse off than us when there is the possibility to obtain something better'?

Again, stop using ad hominem tactics. If you want to be a pragmatist and realist- BE REALISTIC and UNDERSTAND that the current policies are not working. (btw, lame tactic. Seems the political propaganda tactics have not gotten any more sophisticated. What an irony) Instead of shunning the people off and insisting that your own views are correct, learn to understand why people are going against it.

Oh, and stop being such a capitalist while you're at it.

Money isn't everything. Why risk the morality and ethics of a country for money? Would money really solve everything?

I think it's time you PAP people searched within your own souls.

God bless and have a good day.

Let's be very honest with ourselves.

The HR of politics is oredi in a fault. In a way, the whole thing about minister pay or what is reflected down to MP's pay, civil tiny servants and such from Scholars to mini-ichams.

Are they not problematic? You tell me.

And I must be frank, I do not see well of anyone from finance sectors to be in politics, although I am a finance grad. But I am a longer background on other things than finance.

Is PAP not corrupted? Well... Since you are in the gahmen, we all know for ourselves. Remember, corruption is in two basic forms: Money and power.

I am not saying the party is lousier than, say, WP. But there is an obvious decline. The myanmar hole is big enough to put a few hundred and coming to a thousand of Singaporean bodies. Put in average sq feet of death... we'd have haunted city.

If you insist that the calibre of the ministers are fair for the grossly high pay, this is not what I'd press on you anyway.

What I am saying is pretty simple... Politics is no coporate game. And every election is no simple deal. It applies to all parties including PAP.

Do you even think that Lim Swee Say should invite Olsen in as NMP? We certainly have a HR issue.

Politics is no system. Every dynasties which dedicated to system were doomed from the start, which made reviving attempts ridiculously impossible.


Your masthead picture shows government ministers on the right side and opposition figures on the other. Yet I never see you writing about them? Do they not contribute to "singapore politics"?

Since you itemised how tough life is for PAP ministers, could you do a similar list for opposition politicians, to show that you're someone who can think for himself?

Would appreciate your help on this.
Best, singaporean

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The Idealist

  • Thrasymachus
  • Propagating In: Singapore
  • The Critic, The Philosopher, The Pragmatist, The Moralist, The Egalitarian, The Confused, The True-Blue Singaporean
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