In politics, a sweet salary and insults come with the job

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 May, 2012, 12:00am


The lead story in many Hong Kong newspapers on Tuesday was bound to arouse readers' interest: government ministers' pay will go up by 8.1per cent. Who can resist a story about highly paid politicians becoming even more highly paid?

In a city where the median household income is around HK$20,000 a month, it is understandable that people have an opinion - often negative - when ministers get a HK$40,000 raise, bringing their monthly pay to HK$322,260.

The HK$40,000 comprises the pay raise, as well as the restoration of a 5.38per cent pay cut taken in 2009 during the economic crisis.

The principal officials' pay mechanism uses the senior civil service pay scale as a benchmark, so the 8.1per cent figure reflects the increases for civil servants. Some will argue that the civil service salaries are inflated, but that is not the point. If, like Singapore, the government uses commercial pay as a benchmark, our ministers would be getting even more.

In many other wealthy countries, of course, the equivalent of our bureau secretaries would be getting much less. However, these democracies have vibrant political party and electoral systems that encourage people to see politics as a career. They are in it for ideals - or power - but not simply for money.

And this, I think, offers a clue to the question: how much should our top political offices pay?

The standard reply is that high pay levels can be justified because we do not have a generous supply of people who want to be politicians. Maybe our party and political structure will develop in future and change that, but it is not really happening yet. In order to attract high-achievers with skills and vision away from the private sector, the government has to pay big bucks.

There may be something in this. Some highly successful middle-aged businessmen with family commitments would probably not take a pay cut in mid-career to run a policy bureau. But some professionals with fewer commitments may welcome the chance - if their children have grown up, or if they simply value challenge, satisfaction and service.

But I wonder if it really is about money at all.

We have all seen hard-working, smart, committed ministers being viciously criticised by the media day after day. We have seen them blasted by legislators, who have far fewer responsibilities for the running of Hong Kong and can say anything they please. We have even seen ministers' families being put under the spotlight.

Obviously, in our system, we demand that our political leaders be accountable and transparent. We demand accessibility, and expect them to sacrifice privacy. But do they have to put up with the insults and the loss of dignity that often go with their jobs? Who would really want to run a policy area like food and health, and get blamed for everything from mainland mothers to nurses' career choices and pork prices? I doubt that an extra HK$40,000 makes it any easier.

A new administration will start work in just six weeks, and many of our top political posts will be in new hands. This team will, we hope, comprise talented and dedicated people who have much to offer. But, not having a political party structure behind them, they have never worked together, and they may not even have a vision in common.

Unlike previous incoming governments, they start under a boss with relatively weak public approval ratings after the messy election in March. Despite that, public opinion seems to have high hopes for decisive - and fast - action on pressing social problems. The new team will not get a honeymoon period. I wonder if they realise how they will be blamed from the start for anything that goes wrong, and how they and even their family will be fair game for the press.

I would like to see the community, including the media and legislators, give them a fair chance to do their best. But I wouldn't bank on it. When things get bad, the thought of HK$322,260 a month will not make it any better.

Bernard Chan is a former member of the executive and legislative councils