Being civil about that $500 bonus

Jun 19, 2015 04.00PM |
 

by Bertha Henson

Something unhealthy is happening in Singapore – and it has to do with SG50. The G has done such a great job hyping it up that everybody now wants to know what’s in it for them, rather than how they can take part in it.

And so you hear again the usual “what about me?’’ cries when a segment of the population gets something for free or at a discount and they don’t. It was the case when benefits for the Pioneer Generation were announced, with huge cuts in medical fees for those 65 and older. Some people didn’t seem to understand that “pioneer’’ is not a label that can be attached to everyone or every generation. That debate appears to have died down.

I guess it looks tasteless to ask for same thing that your father or grandfather got from the G. Or maybe there is a dawning realisation that lower medical costs and discounts for the elderly means that there is less need for the younger lot to worry about their seniors’ financial healthcare needs. That is, there is less need to dip into your own Medisave or worry if your health insurance will cover them. In fact, there’s now Medishield Life as well which will go on …forever.

But what to make of this fuss over the $500 one-time cash bonus for Singapore 82,000 civil servants? (By the way, civil servants refer to those working in the 16 ministries and nine organs of state. So statutory board employees don’t count as civil servants, but “public servants’’.)

You can see some of the comments flying around.

They go along these lines:

“Wah! That’s $41 million leh. So much money ah. Where did this come from? Taxpayers?’’

“Hmmmph. What did the civil service ever do to deserve the bonus?’’

“If the G can give out so much money, why can’t it spread it out so every citizen gets a share?’’

“See lah! This PAP is buying votes from civil servants…’’

Then there are those who ask if ministers also get $500 bonus (I don’t think they are considered part of the civil service although their pay is linked to civil service grades), whether civil servants who are permanent residents are also entitled to the bonus (yes) and why the money isn’t spread out such that more goes to the lower ranks.

Actually, besides the $500, the lowest-ranked Division 4 workers are getting a $30 jump in monthly pay, and that’s permanent. If you’re wondering why it’s not $60 because you vaguely recall that that was what the National Wages Council, comprising unions, employers and the G, recommended, it’s because these 2,500 workers already earn beyond the benchmark $1,100 a month. So the Civil Service is leading the way to up wages at the lower end – and nobody should quarrel with that unless you want to go into technicalities like productivity measures and whether doing so will deplete the state coffers…

I happen to think that the civil servants are pretty under-appreciated by the public it serves, never mind the accolades it receives from admiring quarters elsewhere. It gets jumped on for mistakes, even though 95 per cent of the time (and I am being conservative here), it gets things right. Singapore’s much-vaunted efficiency puts pressure on civil servants to achieve excellence at all times. They are not seen as fellow workers or even employees. Civil servants are faceless people who are just supposed to be “there’’ to do the things that need to be done.

Then there are also those who see civil servants as the arms and legs of the ruling party, rather than as a neutral institution – a perception I strongly feel should be fixed. This means that those who are not enamoured of the PAP will naturally feel the same towards the service.

Do they deserve the $500 bonus? Who is to say? It is a gift, an ang pow given to someone on his/her birthday. How big or small an ang pow is also depends on whether it is a “big’’ birthday or tua seh jit, as the Hokkiens would put it.

More likely, it depends on whether the giver can afford it at that time. Can we? Put in perspective, $41 million is approximately 0.0105% of Singapore’s nominal GDP in 2014.

As for those who think the size should be differentiated by merit or seniority, well, I think we’re going to get into another tangle about who deserves what and why.

The thing to remember is that civil servants are themselves employees, who pay taxes too. So if their employer, the G, decides to give them a bonus, it is merely acting like any employer who has been exhorted to give an SG bonus and thinks that it has deep enough pockets to do so. Those who say that $41 million should be shared out among all citizens are, in fact, asking that civil servants should not be treated as workers. (What they should be asking for is a separate SG50 bonus for all citizens!)

I pity civil servants because the main measure of their bonus and increments is how the economy performs. Their salaries move in a narrow band compared to private sector people who can expect six months bonus or more when their companies turn in super profits. The flip side, of course, is that the civil service doesn’t retrench people, or relocate, so job security is a factor in their salary computations.

I also pity them because their bonus and increment details are made available to all and sundry. The logic is that because civil servants serve the public and are paid by the state, then the public must know how much they are being paid. In the private sector, it’s the shareholders who deserve that right to be told. I can just imagine people who know civil servants going up to them and saying “Wah, so good ah! Got $500 extra. Can blanjah or not?’’

Of course, in the era of SG50, it is to the private sector’s benefit to go public about paying SG50 bonuses. It looks good for them and in the national scheme of things, it puts pressure on rival companies and those in the same industries to do the same.

The civil service bonus should be looked at in the same way: it puts pressure on every boss in the private sector, especially companies which are doing well. In fact it seems that NTUC Secretary General Chan Chun Sing is urging just that outcome.

 

And NTUC Social Enterprises has already committed to giving their staff SG50 rewards, in the same way that DBS will give $1,000 to all staff under the rank of vice-president and how SMRT gave $500 of vouchers to its staff.

The upshot of it all is this: We live in a time of heightened expectations. We’re waiting for more money from employers. We’re waiting for more goodies from the G. In fact, we are waiting for much more than usual because the general election is in the offing. We’re thinking that SG50 and the GE must be linked because electoral carrots can be camouflaged as SG50 gifts.

And, as usual, we’ll be toting up numbers, who got what and wonder why we’re not entitled to the same or more. We will say “too small”, “too late”, “too little for me” or “why so much for him”.

Carping sort of takes the fizz out of SG50, don’t you think?

 

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