Monday, April 09, 2007

First Hand News From A Stranger In Parliament About Proposed Revisions To Civil Service Salaries...

Okay, here's just a short post about my visit to the Parliament today before I go full steam into my exam revision...

(And if you all are wondering about the title of this post, let me inform you all that the public gallery for members of the public, who visit to observe Parliament sittings, is also known as the Strangers' Gallery)

Before I move on to my substantive, let me first clarify that since what I would be typing below is mainly based on mental notes I made while I was in the Strangers' Gallery, I may make some mistakes with regards to certain details and order of points. Apologise pre-emptively for them.

Well, the first thing I noticed was that there seems to be a high level of interest in today's parliament sitting, judging from the considerable amount of people in the Strangers' Gallery today (in comparison with the amount of people that were present when I visited the Parliament about 4-5 years back). I suppose this heightened level of interest is understandable, considering that today's parliament sitting would see Minister of Defence, Mr. Teo Chee Hean, who is also the Minister in charge of the Civil Service, announcing details about proposed upward revisions to public sector salaries.

Moving on, today's parliament sitting began with Question Time, i.e. the time in which members of the front bench (from ministers to parliamentary secretaries) have to verbally answer questions from the Members of Parliament (MPs). Several questions were asked and the most interesting nugget of information, to me anyway, which was revealed during this segment of today's parliament sitting was that, according to Ms. Grace Fu, Minister of State of National Development, Singapore is planning to re-open one of the granite quarries on Pulau Ubin as part of the efforts to diversify its sources of granite (for more information about this, please go take a look at this CNA report).

After Question Time, came the First Readings of the introduction of amendments to governmental bills. To me, it was interesting to note that there is a proposed amendment to the SAF Bill. However, since this was only a First Reading, not much details was released about what the proposed amendment is. Guess we all have to wait till the next parliament sitting to find out what amendments they are proposing to make to the SAF Bill.

Next, it was the highlight of today's parliament sitting: the Ministerial Statement by Mr. Teo Chee Hean with regards to Civil Service salaries revisions. I could sense suddenly that the people in the Strangers' Gallery together with me "woke up" when it was announced that it was time for Mr. Teo to speak.

The beginning part or preamble of Mr. Teo's speech did not really cover much new ground. Basically, he reiterated points about the strengths, achievements and importance of the Singapore Civil Service, the increasing & intensifying competition for talent worldwide, statistics about the increasing resignation rates of the civil service (interestingly, though, he failed to mention what this increase in resignations was due to. Uncompetitive salaries or other factors?)and the need for Singapore to pay competitive salaries for its civil servants. He also made brief mention about how keeping civil service salaries competitive is not the panacea to solving the problems of recruiting and retaining talent in the Civil Service before he once again re-emphasised the importance of competitive salaries.

Mr. Teo next then talked about how the upward revisions in civil service salaries would not be something uniformly across the board. Instead, increases would be larger for those departments (if I recall correctly, he mentioned the examples of Foreign Service Officers and Uniformed Officers from the Ministry of Home Affairs) which have salaries that are severly lagging behind those set by the benchmark and vice versa. He also revealed that salaries would become more linked to performance and the introduction of 2 "bonuses": one, the GDP bonus (a bonus which will take effect if the GDP growth for Singapore is higher than 2%) and two, the performance bonus. If I'm not wrong, he also mentioned something about car/transport allowance for civil servants but I can't really remember what he said about this issue.

He then moved on to talk about the proposed increases in salaries for the lower ranks of the Civil Service. However, due to the introduction of quite a fair amount of statistics during this part (I never had a good memory for numbers) and in part also to my main interest being in the proposed salaries revisions for senior civil servants and ministers, I can't really recall what Mr. Teo said during this part of his speech.

In the next part of his speech, Mr. Teo reiterated about how the benchmarks for senior civil servants & ministers are calculated, how they have gone up & down throughout the past few years (with cuts during economic downturns and these cuts restored after the passing of these economic downturns) and how they are currently lagging behind the benchmarks.

After this , Mr. Teo moved on to give details about the proposed revisions to the salaries of senior civil servants and ministers. He revealed that it is planned that by the end of this year, the salaries in question would be raised from its current level of S$1.2 million (about 55% of the benchmark) to about S$1.6 million (which is about 77% of the benchmark, if I recall correctly). Then, by the end of next year, it is planned to raise this level to about 88% (hopefully, I got this figure correct) of the benchmark. It was also revealed by Mr. Teo that these increases would not be factored into the pensions these senior civil servants and ministers would receive later on.

He next talked about proposed increases for MP allowances and ex-gratia increases to the pensions of ex-MPs and civil servants who have served during the turbulent times of Singapore but retired before the benchmark for competitive public sector salaries were introduced in 1992.

Concluding his speech, Mr. Teo again reiterated the importance of the need to pay local civil servants salaries which are in step with private sector salaries.

After Mr. Teo finished his speech, the floor was open to MPs to give their views about the proposed salaries revisions. First up was Mr. Alvin Yeo, a MP from Hong Kah GRC. The main gist of his speech was supportive of the proposed salaries revisions. His reasons for supporting the revisions would, in short, include: i) that even after the salaries revision, the salaries would remain just a small fraction of private sector salaries for top level positions, ii) that the senior civil servants and ministers are worth the amount we are paying them (or, as he put it, "with the right people, no amount is too much but with the wrong people, any amount will be too much") and iii) that these revisions are transparent, open to public discussion & debate and is not an end in itself (to fatten the wallets of senior civil servants and ministers) but a means to the end of maintaining Singapore's competitive edge.

Of course, besides agreeing to the revisions, Mr. Yeo also proposed 3 measures (of which I can sadly only remember 2 of): one, increase the proportion of the salaries which is dependent on performance and two, form an external committee to determine whether the salaries benchmarks are implemented fairly and in a transparent manner.

After Mr. Yeo finished his speech, it was announced by Mr. Abdullah Tarmugi, the Speaker of Parliament, that there would be a recess from 1617hrs (I looked at my watch) till 1635hrs. Having heard enough for one day and knowing how long the parliament sitting can drag on (having previous experience of this), I decided not to stay on but to leave for home during this recess.

P.S. After I finished typing what I have typed above (I started typing at 1728hrs and finished by about 1835hrs), I realised that the CNA website has come up with its report on today's parliament sitting (darn, I thought that I would beat them to it... haa...). So, for those interested, you all can go take a look at it (and perhaps compare how accurate are my mental notes of the event).

P.P.S. The CNA website has released a report about what the proposed amendment to the SAF Bill is about

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