Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Council of Elders For Singapore


In the recent debate on pay hikes for ministers and civil servants, some Singaporeans were surprised that some of our public servants continue to earn pensions upon retirement.

Many are asking what is it that they do that justifies such a perquisite, which those in the private sector do not get. After all, they have already been well rewarded in office with their private sector-benchmarked salaries.

Not surprisingly, point-by-point responses have come from the Public Service Division (PSD). This is not the first time the PSD has had to deal with such issues. Nor is it going to be the last.

No doubt the issue will be raised at every General Election, and even more so whenever Parliament sits to debate proposed tweaks to the pay of such public servants.

There is one more effective way to deal with these questions: Form a Council of Elders, which can function like a second house of Parliament, debating all Bills after their first reading in the House.

Immediately, the Council of Elders will become an effective and independent second-level check for sensitive or important issues before Parliament. In this way, these senior leaders are also empowered to continue to add value to our law-making process, even after their retirement.

A few other Commonwealth jurisdictions have such a second house, including India and the United Kingdom, whose laws we utilise in our legislative system.

Such public involvement will more than justify the pensions our elderly public servants continue to earn. At the same time, it enables Singapore to better put to use a pool of retiring talent, while preserving and appreciating the legacies they have left for future generations.

In recent years, we have seen several high-profile retirements. These individuals have at times voiced their concerns about policies pursued by the ruling party.

Retired Permanent Secretary Ngiam Tong Dow, the architect of various aspects of the Singapore economy, has written a highly-acclaimed book, A Mandarin and the Making of Public Policy, and made many sit up with his public comments on topical issues like the civil service, the deployment of our elites, and public transport.

Mr Tan Kin Lian, the innovator who turned a fledgling local insurance cooperative into a $16-billion powerhouse, has also been vocal in sharing his thoughts on the issues of the day through letters to the media. Most recently, he weighed in with his own suggestion on the formula for calculating ministerial pay.

We have also seen the retirement of various batches of Members of Parliament, several of whom were prominent and outspoken during their tenure, but who faded from the public eye as soon as they left Parliament. Former Speaker Tan Soo Khoon and veteran politician Tan Cheng Bock are just two names that come to mind.

We need to recognise that this older group of persons carry a sense of history, which can be useful in our legislative process.

Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong recently shared: "The laws that we have today are a product of the interaction of forces and ideas over the course of our nation's history. To understand the law and its relevance well, a lawyer needs to understand the context in which laws are made, why they were made and what their objectives were."

His comments could apply to our legislators whose key duty is to formulate and pass laws. Such a sense of history can be best achieved through a Council of Elders, where our talented senior citizens will be an essential part of the legislative process and be able to criticise Bills in a well-informed and constructive manner.

A key issue here is whether such a Council of Elders should have voting rights over all Bills tabled in Parliament.

It is unlikely that any elected leader who has toiled hard to win the support of the people will agree to this. Nevertheless, we also need to recognise that, as long as there are committed, courageous and credible People's Action Party leaders like Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Chok Tong and Lee Hsien Loong, there is no way the party is going to lose its parliamentary majority.

And in such a democracy where one party commands an overwhelming majority, it may be useful for a second house to have some voting rights, but with elected leaders always retaining the right to veto decisions of the second house.

The Council of Elders will bring the diversity of our legislative process to a new level, where schemes such as Non-Constituency or Nominated Members of Parliament have arguably had limited success.

With the achievement of its First World status and a greying population, it may be a good time for Singapore to look into a Council of Elders.

Dharmendra Yadav

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