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Sunday, 7 December 2008

Obama's Audacity of Hope: the importance and difficulty of values

Barack Obama: The Audacity of Hope
Some time back, there was a resumption of the debate over ministerial pay. Singaporean ministers are some of the best paid government leaders in the world. Much has been said about how our prime minister earns much, much more than the president of the United States. A lot of people simply cannot understand how our leaders can justify that salary scale for themselves.

It's a question of "fair pay for fair work". Everyone understands that concept. If you perform well at a job, you should be compensated with an equitable salary. So it's coincidental (to me, anyway) that this discussion arose just as I was reading a chapter on "values" from the man who would soon be receiving a lower salary than my prime minister.

At the start of the chapter, Obama gave an elaborate introduction that served to point out that he shared many of the same values as President George W. Bush. He explained that no one should be surprised by this. In his work as a Senator, he had discovered that, by and large, the American people shared the same values across the country: freedom of speech, being a productive worker, importance of family, etc.

However, any discussion of values ultimately became a squabble between opposite sides. Conservatives and liberals can't see eye to eye. Politicians debate over details. And the media play along by amplifying the differences.

In Singapore, we have at least been spared the ugly side of the values debate. Instead, the ruling People's Action Party, through its unbroken control of the government since the country's independence, has dictated the values that all Singaporeans should care about. Some of these values have been crystallised as the so-called "shared values".

But really, what do Singaporeans value? If there were any "universal Singaporean values", I think they would contain the following:
  • educating our youths,
  • accessible health care,
  • being a productive member of the labour force,
  • support for the underprivileged,
  • freedom to worship,
  • freedom to play and enjoy life.
(A few might even add "delicious food" and "24-hour shopping"!)

Unfortunately, there will always be differences in how these values are put into practice. Like "fair pay for fair work". Maybe the PAP is right: astronomical salaries that are benchmarked to the private sector ensure that the right people enter government. Or maybe the U.S. system is right; being president of a First World country doesn't mean you have access to unparalleled wealth. The debate could go on and on even though we agree on the same value: "fair pay for fair work".

But Obama observed one thing keenly:
"Values are faithfully applied to the facts before us, while ideology overrides whatever facts call theory into question."
Thus, Obama observed that, in the U.S., though the people, politicians and pundits shared the same values, there was a lack of finding common ground to enable the debate -- and country -- to move forward healthily.

The hard reality is that it can take an excruciatingly long time to find that common ground. There is no easy solution to this predicament, where a solution may be unattainable in the short term. The debate over how much a Singapore minister should be paid has gone on for years and is unlikely to end within my lifetime.

But we must tread carefully to ensure that we don't mistake "ideology" for "value". Values are universal, but ideologies apply only to certain groups. If high pay does indeed lure the altruists and talented into government, who are then able to further improve Singapore, then naysayers cannot keep saying that the salary scale allows the leaders to become wealthier to the country's detriment.

This is the second of what I plan to be an ongoing review of Obama's book, "The Audacity of Hope". I will try to see if and how his opinions can be applied to Singapore.

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