Hanna has a point, but Singapore is still an outlier
Lisa Hanna (Photo: Adrian Creary)

In her latest Sunday column published in the Jamaica Observer titled 'A tale of two Jamaica's', Member of Parliament (MP) Lisa Hanna provided a balanced position on the vexing issue of the recent salary increases. Respect to her for speaking up.

My main takeaway from her article is that the pay increases for Jamaican politicians are justifiable, but perhaps to empathise with the public, the increases should have been phased in over time. I think any reasonable person would agree with this; however, I take issue with some aspects of the analysis proffered in support of this position.

In high school English we were taught to avoid clichés in our writing. Singapore is a cliché in domestic discussions on issues of economics. Surely there must be other countries with best practices that Jamaica can realistically emulate and be compared with instead of a world-class outlier. I note the lukewarm comparison to Barbados.

Singapore is small and lacks natural resources. As far as I know, Lee Kwan Yew did not attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, so for Singapore to attain the extraordinary heights it did, there had to be much more at play than simply good governance — governance by only one man and his son to be exact.

A country of that size could not grow the way it did if not for the way powerful foreign nations and their peoples chose to interact with it, including the immigration of the capitalists during China's Cultural Revolution. There is also the fact that Singapore won the geographic lottery. Place Singapore smack in the middle of Mongolia and only a handful of Jamaicans would have heard about it and its "excellent" governance. There is a real chance, too, that the utopia we now dream of would have been a dystopian nightmare.

Singapore has benefited handsomely from its location in the Malacca Strait, providing passage for goods in a region which produces most of the world's merchandise. It's exports of goods and services accounted for 184 per cent of its total output (gross domestic product) in 2021. Yes, you heard right. Singapore exports more than it produces or can produce, given its small size and lack of resources. How? Singapore engages in what is called entrepot trade. Merchandise are imported and re-exported. Contrast this with China, Germany, and the United States, where exports of goods and services as a percentage of total output was 20, 47, and 11, respectively, in 2021.

The salary of Singapore's prime minister is about US$1.6 million ($2.2 million Singaporean dollars) per year, which means it is about four times the salary of the president of the United States (US $400,000) and not greater than five times, as suggested.

If the aim is to put the Jamaican leader up there with his Singaporean counterpart, then using the metric of salary as a multiple of per capita income will place Jamaica ahead of Singapore. The numbers need not detain us.

The table on salary changes does not provide the complete picture as it shows the increase in the base salaries for the various positions. It ignores the fact that the process is not simply a salary increase, it is a comprehensive compensation review. Therefore, ignoring the removal of allowances compromises the analysis. The point that salary increases for politicians will not affect the budget in a material way was never a major issue. Even a student at the back of the class will understand that it is easier to grant large increases to 100 people as opposed to tens of thousands.

It is my understanding that the hourly fee charged by lawyers is not equivalent to a salary per se and the fee varies by client. A portion of the hourly fee of a lawyer must go towards keeping the lights on and paying the salaries and benefits of staff. Do I need to mention rental or purchase of a nice building? Lawyers who command large hourly rates and are in high demand cannot do it alone, they must be able to pay for quality staff, including young lawyers and paralegals. Hint, hint.

The argument for greater salaries and benefits should be divorced from the fanciful notion that a big salary will attract the best, the brightest, and well intentioned to serve their country. Individuals should enter politics because they genuinely want to serve. More people who have done well for themselves outside of politics should be encouraged to serve, including retired military officers. Yes, this could lead to more older politicians, but that is not a bad thing and does not prevent younger people from political careers.

What truly matters, as Professor Christopher Charles intimated in his Gleaner column of Sunday, June 4, is that the civil service is staffed with well educated, professional, diligent, and motivated people.

Dr Samuel Braithwaite is a lecturer in the Department of Economics at The University of the West Indies, Mona. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or braithwaitesamuel@gmail.com.

Samuel Braithwaite

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