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Nigeria and Singapore: A Tale of Two Governments and Massive Salaries By Ogaga Ifowodo

January 5, 2012

The news that the Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Hsieng Loong, had not only set up a committee to cut his salary, those of his fellow ministers and that of the President, but—wonders will never end—had also accepted the recommendations and was set to implement them has been the “talk of the web” for many Nigerians.

The news that the Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Hsieng Loong, had not only set up a committee to cut his salary, those of his fellow ministers and that of the President, but—wonders will never end—had also accepted the recommendations and was set to implement them has been the “talk of the web” for many Nigerians.

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The story was posted and reposted, tweeted and re-tweeted, group-emailed in a dizzy spiral such that I have received it several times over. The underlying intent, it seems, is that every Nigerian with access to the internet must see it. But it is also the product of a wistful envy. It is the sort of news that has us hapless souls of a country turned from Eden to Hell in just fifty years of catastrophe called self-governance forever lamenting our bad luck. The story brought home to us again the brutal truth we live with everyday: government properly so called, that is, public service together with the civic ethic that defines it, belong elsewhere. Perhaps because in those places, public office, electoral or appointive, is not seen as the equivalent of winning the lottery; of transforming a public servant from pauper to prince. Or, in plainer terms, making him or her an instant millionaire. But it might also be that in those lucky places like Singapore, citizens—even those who had made a name or career advocating probity and the public good—do not lose their minds, go stark raving mad, and become abject slaves of money the moment they enter government.

Singapore, a city-state, is one of the richest countries of the world. Yet its history is almost similar to Nigeria’s. It emerged from domination by several local potentates and being a trading post of the British Empire starting in 1819 to become a self-governing nation in 1959, two years after Nigeria attained that status. Singapore gained its independence in 1965, five years after the Giant of Africa. But that is where the comparison ends. While Singapore is about the fifth richest nation in the world, with an estimated per capita income of $52,840 (about N8 million) Nigeria is—well, why torture you or myself? Suffice it to say we are in the gutter.

Given Singapore’s wealth, it could well afford to pamper its public servants, which, by all measures, it does. And that even after it will have cut Prime Minister Loong’s annual income by 36 percent, so that instead of $3.07 million he would be receiving $1.7 million annually. Even when a new minister would be earning $1.1 million, almost thrice what the President of the United States, the world’s richest and most powerful country in absolute terms, earns. Yet, there is a lesson here. A head of state, as any public servant, is a representative of the people he or she serves. To that extent, he or she cannot enjoy a standard of living far higher than is possible for the average citizen, the true joint-owner of the collective wealth from which public servants are paid. But far more important is that public service is both a trust and a call to service, which implies sacrifice. To abuse or misuse a trust is not only a crime but also one of the most despicable moral failings. And this is what led Prime Minister Lee to set up the salary review panel in the first place. Singaporeans, he said, had “genuine concerns” over the salaries of its politicians. Politics, he added, is not a job or a career promotion. It is a calling to serve the larger good of Singapore.” What? Politics is not a job or career promotion? Apparently, he has not heard of a country called Nigeria; either that or he does not care about our special talent for turning everything on its head, for subverting every known human value!

The United States probably takes the lead in this matter of personal sacrifice as a condition of public service. The US president and other top officials cannot even keep gifts, including those given to them by foreign heads of state or dignitaries. As is well known, the low pay and the strict ethical regulation of the US president’s conduct and financial dealings while in office often led to presidents retiring into penury. This prompted a series of proposals that culminated in the current salary of $400,000 and a $50,000 expense allowance a mere decade ago. Before 2001, the US president was paid $200,000. But Loong did say also that Singapore’s ministers should be paid properly in order that the country can have honest, competent leadership over the long term.” Yet, that this does not mean that only the most ostentatiously large salary can serve that goal is the very lesson of the voluntary reduction he initiated.

What then should be the considerations for establishing the proper salary of Nigeria’s president, ministers, senators and representatives, governors and commissioners, special assistants—in short, the nebulous and ever burgeoning throng of “public servants” with their mouths permanently fastened to the teats of the motherland, sucking her drier and drier by the hour? I have written about this before—see “Minimum and Maximum Wages and the Poverty Line” -- so I will just repeat the general principles here. The lowest salary must be above the poverty line, scientifically determined, and the maximum salary cannot be so much higher than the average salary as to be totally oblivious to the general standard of living. What this calls for is a comprehensive review of salaries and wages in the public service to reflect the realities of the country. In my view, and in the light of our current realities, the total emolument (including all allowances) of the head of state, the highest paid public servant, ought not to exceed N1 million a month or N12 million a year, subject to periodic downward or upward review (no less than five-year intervals) by the national assembly at the recommendation of a reconstituted Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission. The president should also be paid 75% of that salary as a lifetime pension and 10% of it for office and miscellaneous services support. This figure, is not much different from the N1.4 million set by the RMAFC for the president, which is why I emphasise “total emolument,” for it is in the security votes and sundry allowances (for instance, N1 billion for feeding the president and his deputy and their apparently voracious families in the proposed 2012 budget; the customary replacement of vehicles and furniture, etc) that the legalised theft begins.

It is obvious that a large amount of the N1 trillion that President Jonathan hopes to save from the umpteenth phantom oil subsidy removal can be clawed back from the bloated salaries and allowances of our public servants. And if in addition we eliminate the windfalls called security votes from the president’s and governors’ accounts, there would be no need for Jonathan to sell the blood of the masses in exchange for maternities, roads, bridges and all of the other bogus promises of the paradise to ensue. Therefore, as the protests continue in the streets for the reinstatement of the phantom subsidy, we must also demand a drastic reduction of the salaries and allowances of top government officials. If Jonathan wishes to preach sacrifice, let him start with himself. The people have sacrificed enough. And enough is enough!   

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