Do the ends always justify the means?

By | April 19, 2007

A blogger, Fearfully Opinionated, tried to offer new insights into the ministerial salary issue, claiming that related blog posts so far were “unoriginal, recycled and boring”. He goes on to say that “perhaps in being so eager to voice discontent, we fail to think. And when there is mass-unthinking on the plogosphere [sic], this is not progress, but regress”.

Before I address some of Fearfully Opinionated’s (hereinafter abbreviated as “FO” for easier reading) more salient observations, let me just say that critics who spend the most time shouting about “critical thinking” are often the same ones who refuse to consider information that conflicts with their point of view. They tend to be biased and polarised in their way of evaluating information and simply discount as propaganda anything that doesn’t fit neatly into their paradigm.

FO also noted that another blogger, Mr Wang, made a good case why being a minister (in Singapore) might not be an attractive option:

b) Being under constant scrutiny and public attention, and that means constant criticism. True for all politicians (and celebrities), but perhaps especially true in Singapore’s case.

Here I beg to differ. I believe part of the problem stems from the fact that the PAP strives too hard to be beyond reproach, to the extent that it is unable to accept constructive criticisms without resorting to browbeating.

And if the selection process for ministers is self-serving, in the sense that the PAP eliminates those who do not conform to their mould, obviously attracting real talent would be a problem. Or as critic Robert Ho puts it: “Truth is, LKY only wants dog-like obedience [sic] cronies and most people have no stomach for crawling to him on bended knees. That’s why he cannot get really good people, only dogs.”

d) The burden of being responsible for the welfare and the lives of over 4 million people. This compared to the burden of being responsible to only the bottom line of a company.

Again, I will have to disagree with this. No single individual, not the prime minister, certainly not the run-of-the-mill minister, is directly responsible for the welfare and the lives of over four million people in Singapore. This would be the collective responsibility of the government, including members of parliament (MP). Each MP, in theory, is directly responsible for the welfare of constituents in his/her ward. In this sense, the burden is not much heavier than that of a typical CEO of a private company, except that in the case of Singapore, ministers do have the “benefit” of switching portfolios every now and then if they are not performing well.

Furthermore, this “burden” will only manifest itself if the burdened individual is subject to some kind of rigorous performance review, like quarterly earning calls and annual reports filed by companies. In the case of ministers in Singapore, they only face their moment of truth (i.e. election) once every four to five years. How’s that for a comparison against CEO of a company?

And, to quote from the compliant mainstream media, Lee Kuan Yew highlighted the difficulty of persuading private sector achievers to sacrifice their lucrative salaries to join politics, “with no guarantee of success“. I can’t understand the perverse logic of this, like I always do whenever Lee Kuan Yew opens his mouth. In which profession is there “guaranteed success”? Is Lee trying to say that we should (over-)compensate wannabe ministers for taking risks? If that’s the justification for further salary increases, it’s hard to imagine anyone already earning millions of dollars needs more incentive to be motivated to do a better job. But if they do, what does it tell you about their mindset and moral calibre?

Of course, if you share the same Machiavellian view as Lee Kuan Yew, the ends justify the means. Which brings us to the question raised by FO: Just because an action is necessary, does it make it fair?

FO conveniently separates those who said “Yes” and “No” into the consequentialist and deontological camps of applied ethics and notes that “criticisms on deontological grounds carry little weight if the government is going to make a decision on consequentialist grounds, especially where the potential consequences are very grave.”

Again, I take a dim view of this. Consequentialist and deontological theories are not necessarily mutually exclusive. While moral breaches are a matter for conscience only, there may be a political price to pay for perceived lapses of moral judgement. Furthermore, each level of regulation of human conduct connotes some sense of duty and it is necessary to consider the nature of duty, to whom it is owed, its relationship with responsibility, and moral decision-making.

To some, the idea of duty may have a quaint ring to it. After all, concentration camps abound more than 100 years after the Boer War, where internees were encamped in brutal conditions by those who later asserted that they were only doing their duty. The debasement of the term in this way has diminished its currency. This seems to be the reason why Kant described duty as either categorical, which he speaks of as an uncompromising obligation, or hypothetical, which addresses the results or consequences of the action.

Since holders of public office are accountable for their decisions and actions to the public, the power that operates in politics is in constant need of moral critique. If such critique is absent, self-serving interests will achieve their own kind of tyranny and the common good is victimised.

In this case, it is no longer a question of whether the action is fair, but whether it is necessary.

Related stories:
Are Top Global Companies Really Dying to Hire Our Ministers?
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Lee Hsien Loong: Modern day Robin Hood?

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3 thoughts on “Do the ends always justify the means?

  1. Chris

    Excellent points Stephen! But do you think the gahmen is willing to listen and consider whether this is necessary, despite all evidence presented on the contrary?

  2. Anonymous

    Lee Kuan Yew & Sons

    If this heading sounds more like the name of a company, that’s because it is. Singapore is still run by Lee Senior. Yes, he has given up the post of Prime Minister and Secretary-General of the People’s Action Party. But there is still one post that he has not relinquished – Chairman of the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC) which manages the country’s financial reserves of more than $60 billion. Lee knows that in the island republic, money is power and Goh Chok Tong can have all the titles he wants. Lee still calls the shots. He once told reporters that if he senses that things are not right, he would send a note “down” to the Prime Minister.

    With his power, Lee knows that he can manipulate the system and push his sons up to positions of power. Hsien Loong, Lee’s older son, miraculously (but meritocratically, insists the senior minister) became a Brigadier-General in the army by the age of 38. Fellow cadets who had attended officer training with him reported that Hsien Loong couldn’t even pass his marksmanship test. Then there is the second son, Hsien Yang, who is also this incredibly competent soldier to attain the rank of Brigadier-General while in his thirties. Both have no combat experience.

    Hsien Loong, according to the PAP, was so brilliant that he left the army to become Deputy Prime Minister and will soon be Prime Minister. Hsien Yang was also so bright that he also left military service to become the head of the biggest and most lucrative Government-run company, Singapore Telecoms.

    Lee genes

    Of course, all this intelligence had to come from somewhere. Mother Kwa Geok Choo was apparently responsible for all this. She was so clever that she built up Lee & Lee into one of the biggest law firms in Singapore – never mind the fact that all conveyancing work of the government-owned Housing and Development Board flats were channelled to her firm. Today, she reportedly holds major shares in companies such as Wing Tai, a property development conglomerate, and TIBS, a bus company. Information about how extensive the business arm of the Lee family reaches remains a highly guarded government secret.

    Even daughter-in-law Ho Ching is so smart that she now holds the top positions in Singapore Technologies (ST), a major industrial holding company, and the all-powerful Economic Development Board. A few years back she suddenly resigned from ST. One month later, she waltzed back in. No one, least of all the subservient local media dared ask why. It was rumoured that she had differences with a former government minister who was also involved in the company. Even when Micropolis, a computer company run by ST failed, costing Singaporeans S$600 million Ho Ching was never made to account.

    How about Lee’s siblings? Lee Suan Yew was recently caught with his pants down over the HPL saga (see other story). He was not investigated over the matter even though that was clearly a breach of regulations under the law. Unbelievably, he was subsequently appointed Justice of the Peace! Another brother, Freddy, quit the police force under clouds of suspicion that he was involved in an illegal chap-ji-kee (gambling) racket. He is now the chairman of Vickers Ballas, one of Singapore’s biggest brokerage firms. The firm suffered enormous losses in 1998 due to the stock market crash. It was quietly rescued by another brokerage firm belonging to the Government-owned Singapore Technologies. Another Lee brother was given a banking licence to start Tat Lee Bank when other more qualified institutions were denied the opportunity. Recently when Tat Lee went bust due to heavy loan exposure in the Indonesia market, the state-owned Keppel Bank came to the rescue to bail the Lee-owned bank. It was a very astute merger, the Government claimed. Corruption by any other name reeks just as foul.

    Meritocracy through nepotism

    Do Singaporeans know about all this? If they do, why aren’t they speaking up? As in all dictatorships, to speak up and challenge the powers that be would attract so much scorn from the dictator that people prefer to keep quiet – at least for now. If one were to so much whisper “Corruption!” by the Lee family, defamation suits come raining down. With a judiciary that has Lee’s intimidating face firmly etched in its mind whenever it delivers judgments, verdicts are predictable.

    But as with all dictatorships, the time will come when the dirt will surface and the truth is revealed. Perhaps then, Singaporeans will be able to see for themselves how much the Lee family’s achievement is due to competence and how much to corruption and nepotism.

  3. Anonymous

    Is this the end for Singapore?
    A personal open letter to our government 25 April 2007

    If the People’s Action Party were to call a general election now, chances are it would lose a good number of seats to the opposition, of course that is if you could find able candidates to join the opposition. If certain changes do not take place in the ruling party’s style of government, in time to come the PAP could lose power. That would be a shame, a tragedy for Singapore.

    So strong has been the political backlash and so great the people’s outrage over the government’s widely unpopular decision and persistence to reward its cabinet ministers such handsome pay increases. Such dissident views have been eloquently articulated, though often sneeringly so, and confined mainly to mass emailing and internet postings. The latest salary revision for each minister will by next year nearly double his current remuneration, and bring it on average, to four or five times what US President George Bush receives.

    Minister mentor Lee Kuan Yew, while still prime minister in 199_, formulated his formula of pegging ministerial salaries to 80 per cent of that of the top earners in six professions and businesses; it gives Singapore the unique status of having the world’s highest paid political leaders. Their salaries surpass by far, several times, what leaders of the world’s largest and most successful economies command.

    LKY’s reasons were that unless he paid such big bucks he would not be able to attract able leaders for the country, retain their services, or keep them free of corruption.

    LKY says unless he pays so well he cannot lure good and talented people to serve as leaders. Problem is: he had been, for a long time now, looking for them in the wrong places – and following a policy that discourages emergence
    of potential leaders. Some who entered the political fray came a cropper; not a few have served long terms of incarceration for their political beliefs or activities, some have fled the country to live (or die) in exile

    Someone in Singapore had said not so many years back that the best way to corrupt a person is to feed him so well you enslave him (did Mr Lee also say that?).

    Ironically then, in his effort to ensure – according to his propagated belief – that his leaders remain above corruption, he might have bought their souls.

    From the relatively brief and muted parliament debate over this burning issue, there seems to be serious cracks of opinion within the party’s own ranks. However mildly aired, there is, for sure, disquiet among the PAP’s members of parliament. Still, what man of sound mind would argue against being given a personal pay rise that first jacks up your annual salary to around $1 million and soon to nearly $2 million? Feed them so well, they will never rebel.

    I love my Singapore, and am thankful for the remarkable progress and prosperity it has achieved through the efforts of a stable and good government. I am immensely grateful, too, to the group of people who gave their all for the country since the pre-independence 1950s.

    I remain a loyal Singaporean who once had aspirations to serve our country, and did it initially (1960s and early 1970s) as a newspaper journalist, and through the Singapore National Union of Journalists and the National Trades Union Congress, of which SNUJ was affiliate.

    I will carry to my grave, with great personal satisfaction, the memory of having been part of the team that carried out the first successful strike against a penny-pinching, ill-managed, callous Straits Times Group of Newspapers.

    That industrial action, over the Christmas period of 1971, resulted in a fairer deal for several thousands of its employees in Malaysia and Singapore. It was a time of baptism under fire for my SNUJ colleagues and me. Some of us could have lost our jobs with no prospect of working for another newspaper in Singapore as there was none other.

    The late Mr C V Devan Nair, leader of the National Trades Union Congress and later President of Singapore, was one of my role models and idols then. He had encouraged me as a union leader by helping to open up and broaden my mind. In one of our several intimate conversations he once challenged me to join the PAP. Later, someone also suggested I joined an opposition party. But partisan politics was not my cup of tea, more so as I was mindful of the hostile and dangerous waters I would be plunging into. I also had little desire for such public prominence.

    Also, and alas, any thought or enthusiasm for committing myself further to community leadership was quickly doused by a series of factors: my loss of faith in the Straits Times Group as an honest news organization. Mr Lee Kuan Yew helped put paid to it by his public parading and glorification of people who were steeped in scholarship, and humiliation of those who were not. Mr Lee, in searching for a second and then third generation of leaders, started looking for them first in academia (we know how it failed) and then to those who were government scholars.

    At the same time we saw the hasty and maybe premature retirement of earlier leaders who had fire in their bellies but no multiple mortar boards on their heads.The harsh treatment of those with dissent views, and slapping down of those brazen enough to join battle with the PAP and Mr Lee at the hustings, quickly scared off those who thought they had something to offer to the country, not necessarily as part of the PAP political apparatus.

    Those with divergent, though not necessarily dissident, views were unmercifully smacked down. Others, subverted by the comfortable life and relative affluence their talents and training earned them in a well governed, prospering and stable society, were soon swallowed up in the lap of the good life. It made political engagement not only a perilous pursuit but a wanton risk of losing all they had amassed materially, and loss of possible personal freedom.

    A PAP apologist recently condemned me for criticizing the incredible pay hikes for our cabinet leaders that has no precedent or matching model anywhere in the world.
    “You can only criticize, but what’s your solution?”

    I believe I have something by way of solution, or at least an alternative view to what Mr Lee Kuan Yew insists is the only way:

    a.. Look for our future leaders not just among our scholastically successful Singaporeans; academic excellence does not necessarily equate with leadership. This inclination might even disqualify one from leadership.

    b.. Look for people with a good and stout heart, and undying love for Singapore and his/her fellowmen, compassion and a burning desire to serve even at huge personal sacrifice – people with compassion, fire in their bellies, grit in their gut, and steel in their backs.

    c.. Look for those who possess and exhibit the many other qualities of
    leadership. A yen for scholarship (at government’s expense) is a poor
    prerequisite of leadership.

    d.. If you encourage our government scholars to cherish high income, in a society encouraged to worship financial success, you will have to pay big bucks to get them to join your PAP ministerial ranks – definitely the wrong kind of people to lead our country and inspire our countrymen.

    e.. Support the scholarship of the more successful students with the lure of career and financial success and you see either more scholarship bond breakers or those who will work only for lucre (for those are the values you extol).

    f.. Rethink your policy, enunciated by Mr Lee Kuan Yew, of encouraging potential leaders to chart their paths through the Armed Forces (through an SAF scholarship), then a stint in the civil service, a short spell in the
    private sector, and then to the PAP cabinet. You produce less open minded people who possess a one-dimensional perspective of the world, a common mind set. Such a policy deprives you the services and creativity swimming so vigorously in the vast reservoir of talents out there in the real world. The military promotes obedience, viz. “Charge of the Light Brigade”. You could end up with people paid well enough and smart enough either to not charge with you – or charge blindly when they should detect the perilous waters.

    g.. Encourage elitism but do not ridicule those who have interests and talents that are not skewed towards pursuit of a Ph.D (I cite one example of how Mr Lee a few elections ago disparagingly compared our loyal opposition
    member Mr Chiam See Tong to his bright young submissive scholars).

    h.. Do not beat down all dissidents or those with alternative views, but judge them on their integrity, and do not swamp and swallow up those with potential into the PAP and high ministerial salaries.

    i.. Open up the minds of Singaporeans by not controlling so rigidly the flow of information about their own country, flaws and foibles included.

    j.. Put in place committed, honest, mature and trained journalists over your mass media organizations, people with a feel for the ground and popular feeling, people trained in journalism (not just through academia) and bold enough to launch investigative journalistic enquiry that aid thinking and
    intelligent decision making by Singapore’s people. NOTE: such control of the press deprives you of sincere and essential feedback, and assures you sycophantic feedback of the king with no clothes. The current mass media situation had encouraged a flourishing of emailing and postings on cyber space; they contain both useful information and misinformation or disinformation as well, including scurrilous rantings by irresponsible people.

    k.. Let Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s quest for self-renewal verily proceed. He should let go, and let the people he personally chose or vetted, take over completely. Let them err, let them rule. When is the appropriate time for this to happen? Mr Lee did not have a mentor to minister to him and his colleagues in the tumultuous days of pre- and post-independence – and did not flounder.

    I am no political scientist, or your scholastic type. But I have not been disabled from seeing another view to tackling our problem: there is no lack of leaders, only a lack of desire. Perhaps there is a hesitation prompted by what some call fear.We in our immensely successful Singapore owe much to Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his colleagues. There are many Singaporeans who would want to cherish his legacy.

    If the current fuels other more dangerous and divergent views and anti-government thoughts (even hatred) among our Singapore population, our remarkable success as a country could prove ephemeral. Singapore could be another sad story of the decline and fall of a fledgling civilization. If that happens, we would, as the late Mr G G Thompson, director the Singapore Political Study Centre once said, cause merely a small yawn in the world. We must not let that happen.

    Yeo Toon Joo, Peter
    Ex-news editor Straits Times
    Ex-assistant editor New Nation
    Ex-secretary general Singapore National Union of Journalists
    Ex-owner of a Public Relations company and Broadcast PR firm
    Hon. Fellow of Institute of Public Relations of Singapore
    Recipient of IPRS’s Life Achievement Award in 2006


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