Wednesday, April 27, 2011

MPs' salary: Is Confucius out of fashion today?

In my last visit to Singapore I (or rather my sister) managed to retrieve an old plastic folder of my newspaper clippings. I used to write letters to the local press (nothing's changed) as well as occasional "Analysis" pieces for the Sunday Times.

In my folder I found a clipping from 7th April 1985, a letter entitled: If we took the Master at his word. Back then we were admonished by a senior statesman to follow a "Confucian ethic".

I attach the text of this letter in full below:

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It was interesting to have a People's Action Party Member of Parliament quote Confucius in support of Confucius policies.

For if we are going to take Master Kung at his word, life in Singapore would be very different.

For example, the Sage teaches that there should be no distinction of classes in education. If we accept that, streaming must go.

Leonard Hsu, in The Political Philosophy of Confucianism, writes: "Equity, in Confucius philosophy, condemns favouritism, partisanship, and selfishness in administration."

"The government should help the insufficient and deplete the abundant in order to maintain the level of balance. The poorest people in the state should be respected, and the noblest people should not be flattered."

On the question of salaries and due recognition, the Analects, one of the Four Books of Confucian teachings, records the following: "The Master does not mind failing to get recognition; he is too busy doing the things that entitle him to recognition."

"The Master said (the good man) does not grieve that other people do not recognise his merits. His only anxiety is lest he should fail to recognise others."

"Concerning the head of state or family, I have heard that rulers should not be concerned that they have not enough possessions and territories, but should be concerned that possessions are not equally distributed; they should not be concerned that they are poor, but should be concerned that the people are not content."

On the question of ministerial salaries, let us be reminded by the Chung Yung (usually translated as The Doctrine of the Mean), another of the Four Books, "it is possible for a poor officer to give up voluntarily his position and emolument."

If the poor officer can give up his meagre salary, what more he who has 30 times that to spare?

If only we could follow Confucius to the letter, there wouldn't have been those long Parliament reports and Saturday night movies* need not be shown on Sunday mornings.

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*This reference is to the TV schedule being distrupted by extended parliament sittings.

Clearly, Confucius and his myriad teachings: being gracious (being the junzi), the emperor being given the "Heavenly Mandate" to rule, and the setting right of the five relationships, etc. these have fallen out of fashion.

I was struck by how relevant this letter is despite it being 26 years old! Does that make me a woman of vision? Or simply old-fashioned.

Here in the UK we have a debate "in reverse". The British PM earns £145,500. But many CEOs and senior civil servants in the local council, BBC, and QUANGOs earn much more than that. See link.

Basically these people, unlike CEOs in the private sector, do not have to worry about income or making a profit, but are paid an incredible amount of money to spend it! Taxpayers have no choice but to pay the local tax and TV license fee, but the people earning these inflated incomes are not accountable to the taxpayer.

I personally feel that CEOs of local councils have no moral right to earn such amounts. They will be totally unemployable outside the civil service. What they have is a thick address book, a good network, and they do the "merry-go-round" moving from one council to another, getting a higher and higher pay each time, thereby pushing upwards the average salary. Ludicrous.

OK, I have to concede that we cannot expect these self-serving individuals to have any Confucianist principles. What to do?

Interestingly, I spotted another letter in my folder, dated 21st July 1985. It expresses my surprise and discomfort at the closure of the Singapore Monitor.

It was particularly bizarre for me as a senior staff member of the Sunday Monitor had just rung, a few weeks before, to try to get me to write for them instead of the Sunday Times.

We learned that the paper was facing a financial blackhole to the tune of $20million, or some staggering figure like that (if I remember correctly). My letter expresses how the closure was so sudden that allegedly even the editors were kept in the dark. The staff also did not have a chance to up their productivity or stage a management buyout, etc.

Guess who was at the helm (the CEO, no less) of this newspaper?

I give you a clue. His initials are MBT.

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