Some leaders win virus bonus; whammy for million$ skippers

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By Ivan Lim
Former AJA President, Contributor to AsiaN

SINGAPORE: Feared as the Evil Genie everywhere, the Coronavirus is displaying almost mystical abilities to impact the fortunes of politicians across the globe, for better or for worse.

Take South Korea’s Moon Jae-in. The president’s political fate took an unexpected upswing in the midst of battling the then-second-largest Corvid-19 outbreak after China and taming the monster pandemic. The hero went on to lead his Democrat Party to a landslide victory in the National assembly elections on April 15.

Or look at India’s Narenda Modi as the Covid-19 took its toll. The latest reports showed his popularity rising to an all-time high of 80 per cent, eclipsing that of Japanese leader Shinzo Abe and United States president Donald Trump despite the Indian leader’s decision to clamp a nation-wide lockdown with just four hours’ notice causing horrific suffering among hundreds of thousands of migrant workers.

Shorn of its mystery, the Coronavirus’ influence may be understood in terms of the Chinese word for crisis (weiji) which, in written form, has an obverse side of opportunity.

Thus, interpreting the Covid-19 repercussions on a government or the rising or falling fortunes of a political leader is linked to the opportunity to show their crisis-handling responsibilities and abilities.

Seize the day (Carpe diem) appears to be the operative motive that drives the Singapore ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) government’s all-out campaign to curb a second wave of the virus outbreak,  with an eye trained on an upcoming General Election (GE) that must, constitutionally, be called by April  in 2021.

Borne by a track record of competency and a knack for capitalising on crises like  the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003 and  Global financial meltdown in 2008-2009 to win strong electoral mandates from voters,  Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had confidently declared at the beginning of the pandemic: “We went through SARS 17 years ago, we are much better prepared to deal with the Covid this time.”

True to form, a ministerial Task Force made all the right, World Health Organisation (WHO)-endorsed moves to deal with the initial outbreak of imported cases – isolate, contact tracing and quarantine.

Backed up by government stockpiles of surgical masks, personnel protection equipment for medical staff in general hospitals and a new National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID), the measures helped contain the spread of the virus. However, the worrying appearance of cases of unknown source led the authorities to raise the disease alert level from yellow to orange.

Appearing to be ahead of the curve in taming the plague, on March 27, PM Lee addressed the difficult decision of holding a Covid GE, “… We are going into a very big storm and you want to have the strongest team and mandate and the longest runway so that Singapore can have the best leadership to see in through the storm.”

Few doubted that, based on the early success of the Task Force in keeping the virus at bay, the PAP would have coasted to an easy victory in the elections. Unfortunately, this rosy outlook began to fade in April when there was a sudden surge of Covid-19 cases among foreign workers cramped in dormitories located largely on the outskirts of the city.
With daily outbreaks numbering in the hundreds, the authorities scrambled to disperse the 300,000 migrant workers from their overcrowded dorms to bigger quarters. Those who had tested positive for Covid-19 were quickly sent for treatment and isolated from the rest who were quarantined.  Testing of foreign workers was also stepped up.

Simultaneously, to stem virus spread in the local community ‘circuit breaker’ or partial lockdown rules were put in place on April 7, such as wearing masks when outdoors and observing safe distancing.

By then, however, the government’s pristine image had been dented. As columnist Tan Bah Bah of the Independent Singapore website commented: “Covid-19 has shown that the government can make serious mistakes as it has with the migrant workers in dormitories. It is neither perfect nor exceptional any more and has to be held accountable.”

The rapid spread of the Coronavirus among foreign workers has put paid to Singapore’s early reputation as a gold standard in combating pandemic. The city-state’s image has been tarnished by the jump in daily infections.

To date, Singapore has chalked up 31,616 cases, topping those of its neighbours  in South-east Asia. The saving grace in this bleak picture is the relatively low deaths at 23 and high recoveries at 14,867 or 47per cent of total Covid-19 patients.

Domestically, success in managing the Covid crisis is rated high in the leadership’s Key Performance Index (KPI). In respect of the mass virus outbreak among foreign workers staying in dorms, critics have faulted the government for being blindsided. The taskforce had apparently not responded promptly to the “cabin trap”, as seen in the cruise ship Diamond Princess. In February, hundreds of the passengers cooped up on board came down with the Covid-19 disease after the ship docked in Yokohama, Japan.

Next, the taskforce was also ambiguous in its policy on surgical masks, initially telling citizens that masks were meant for who are sick and not mandatory for all. Only much later, when more virus infections occurred did masks become compulsory.

Critics have been quick to seize on the slip-ups to call the government to account, saying they expected a more savvy performance from a government which pays its political office-holders world record salaries.

The Prime Minister draws an annual salary of S$2.2 million (US$1.6millon), while ministers start out at $1.1 million. The salary structure – set out in a 2012 White Paper titled Salaries for Capable and Committed Government – benchmarked the political office-holders pay against the top 1000 highest Singaporean income-earners but subject to a 40 percent lowering to reflect spirit of public service.

This was preceded by a 1994 ministerial pay scheme that paid ministers two thirds of the median salaries of top eight performers in professions of accountancy, banking, law, engineering multi-national and local manufacturing.

That formula worked out to an annual salary of US$2.53 million for the Prime Minister and US$1.26 million for entry-level ministers. The then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong had justified the high salaries as key to recruiting talents from the top professions into the Cabinet and to preventing corruption.

The 2012 review and refinement of the ministerial pay scheme came after the PAP ruling party suffered a dip in voter support in the 2011 General Elections, in particular over the controversial sky-high remuneration.

In the coming GE, the issue of “million-dollar” ministers and their handling of the pandemic is expected to figure prominently. In anticipation of this, the Prime Minister and his Cabinet, as well as the President, have announced forgoing one month’s pay as a gesture of their solidarity with the rest of the Singaporeans feeling the pinch from the loss of income and jobs from Covid-19-induced economic slump.

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