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Singapore, symbolism and 'shared sacrifice'

Published:Sunday | March 3, 2013 | 12:00 AM
French President François Holland
Bolivian President Evo Morales

Lawrence Powell - world watch

Jamaican politicians and economists are fond of citing Singapore as a success story and a good model for Jamaica's long-term 2030 development goals. Yet, in the midst of current IMF-imposed austerity measures to slash debt, some of these same public- and private-sector leaders seem to have turned a blind eye to other helpful lessons to be learned from Singapore - about the importance of shared sacrifice and fairness in tough times.

Last month, in a symbolic gesture of good faith, senior government officials in Singapore agreed to cut their own pay by between one-third and one-half. With worsening inequality between haves and have-nots, disruptive immigration pressures, and rising costs of housing and transport, the People's Action Party (PAP) - which has ruled the city-state since independence in 1965 - saw its share of votes plummet in the recent 2011 election.

As the country confronts tougher economic times, government officials are under pressure from opposition parties to reduce the visible disparities between treatment of affluent elites and the general public.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, acting on the recommendation of an independent committee that they substantially reduce ministerial salaries, graciously agreed to a pay cut of 36 per cent for himself, as well as a 37 per cent reduction in pay for the government ministers and a 51 per cent reduction for President Tony Tan.

Previous Singapore governments had justified ministers' extravagant salaries as being necessary to attract talented persons from the private sector to the political realm, and to help deter corruption. However, opposition critics in the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) argued that linking salaries to what might be earned in the private sector unfairly focuses only on the needs of the affluent.

In a report last November, SDP officials complained that "pegging of the salaries to top earners has led the PAP to focus on increasing the wealth of the richest in the country while neglecting the poor". The SDP has, instead, proposed that ministers hereafter tie their salary levels to a multiple of what the lowest 20 per cent of wage earners in Singapore are receiving - which has declined over the past decade. Hence, theirs ought to also decline proportionally.

The PAP could have rejected the committee's recommendations, but recognised that their future political legitimacy would ultimately be strengthened by symbolically embracing the pay cuts in a spirit of shared sacrifice.


Singapore is not alone in this. In France last May, when President François Hollande defeated Nicolas Sarkozy, the first item on his new Cabinet's agenda was a 30 per cent pay cut for themselves - to include the president and all ministers. As the new French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault explained in a France 2 TV interview, "This is about setting an example." He said it was about sharing the country's economic burdens fairly "to allow France to get back on its feet in a just way".

This sensitivity to fairness stood in contrast to outgoing President Sarkozy's arrogant increase in his own salary upon assuming office. Highlighting what she saw as the difference, the new government's women's rights minister, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, explained, "We are here not only to manage the country, but to reform it, to overcome privileges and to improve the lives of the French people."

In Latin America, President Evo Morales provides another clear example of a leader's attempt to symbolically demonstrate an ethos of shared economic sacrifice, not just in his political rhetoric but integrated into his daily practice. When he first took office in 2006, he immediately cut his salary by 57 per cent.

Since then, even his style of dress has become consistent with this ethos. International press photos show him consorting with world leaders wearing a common striped jacket, and attending his inauguration without a necktie. He studiously avoids wearing the expensive business suits politicians usually wear. The symbolic message in all of this is a sincere empathy for the less-privileged Bolivians that he represents - in the context of whose economic struggles he feels it would be unfair and unjust for him to flaunt the wealth and privilege of high office.

Yet another recent example of this is in Bermuda - where the incoming Cabinet of Premier Craig Cannonier has agreed to cut their own salaries by 10 per cent. In his speech after the swearing-in ceremony, Cannonier said that the new government wants to concentrate on creating a greater sense of "cooperation and collaboration" between government elites and the people.

"In keeping with this plan, our Cabinet ministers will take a 10 per cent pay cut, effective immediately. The people of this country are going through very tough times, and it is essential they know that their elected representatives are with them. We cannot expect for Bermudians to tighten their belts without their leaders doing the same. Sacrifice must be shared," said Cannonier.


As became all too evident in the recent public opinion backlash against extravagant PNP ministerial appointments and vehicles, symbolism definitely matters in Jamaica, too. Public perceptions of fairness are, inevitably, going to be an important part of the equation of getting Jamaica out of this present quagmire.

It will not just happen through economic and legal measures alone. To ignore that reality is to waste precious political capital - very much needed to get through such difficult times and continue to govern effectively. In particular, if the PNP Government (and private sector also, by the way) continue to appear reluctant to make symbolic sacrifices at the top that are seen as commensurate with those of ordinary Jamaicans, it leaves an easy political opening for the JLP to appear more 'fair' in the public mind next time around. All the JLP need do is offer to make those sacrifices in sympathy with the average Jamaican - if allowed back in power.

I know how Portia and Peter must feel. They are devoted public servants, who sincerely want the best for their country - concerned that arbitrarily slashing government pay and staff at this point might leave them with too few resources with which to fulfil their mission. But the goodwill of the electorate, based on a sense of fairness and perceived solidarity with the plight of common Jamaicans, is also a powerful resource.

In reality of course, pay and benefit cutbacks for Jamaica's governmental elite would have a limited impact in reducing the debt and revitalising the economy. But in the mind's eye, symbolically, in terms of people's perceptions, the gesture of prominent public- (and private-) sector leaders tightening their own belts would make a world of difference - in terms of building political capital, and political courage.

Lawrence Alfred Powell is honorary research fellow at the Centre of Methods and Policy Application in the Social Sciences at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and former senior lecturer in the Department of Government at UWI, Mona. Email feedback to and