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Bertha HarianBertha Harian

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We love teachers more than…

Clearly, we love our teachers much more than we do our politicians – or there wouldn’t be such a fuss about how much (or how little) politicians pay for parking. I suppose we’ve all met teachers or know one, so it becomes “personal’’. Not as many people see the work that politicians do, whether at the constituency level or even in Parliament.

There’s so much cynicism about that $365 yearly parking fee that MPs pay that I would feel embarrassed if I were a politician. Perhaps that’s why no single MP has come out to say anything about the fee. Justifying it would be too much like self-interest coming into play. In fact, it might open a  Pandora’s Box about how they spend the money, which amounts to $210,000 per year.

How many times do they go to Parliament, for example. Or how often are they at their constituency? Or do they hire legislative assistants to help them out with parliamentary work?

I am sure almost every MP takes money out of his or her own pocket occasionally or even frequently, to help a constituent tide over rough times for instance. And they wouldn’t begrudge holding get-togethers and celebrations on their own dime for their community leaders and party supporters. In that sense, they would be like teachers who use their own money to buy stationery items for poorer students or splash out for food and drinks for their pupils.

The MP parking issue has taken on many facets, compounding and complicating matters farther. On the face of it, it’s  about whether the “clean wage’’ policy extended to teachers who park in schools should also apply to G office-holders and MPs. On another level, it’s about the value we place on political service.

So what does the G mean by the “clean wage’’ ? It means that whatever remuneration office holders get is clear and there should be no hidden monetary perks. Here, G office-holders do not receive benefits such as housing and cars for personal use or tax exemptions. Only the President, Prime Minister and Speaker of Parliament are accorded the use of an official car. And their medical benefits are the same as for civil servants. That’s always been the official position.

Presumably for MPs, the allowance is all there is to it. The $210,000 a year includes the 13thmonth bonus and assumes a one-month Average Variable Component for the year. So the basic allowance is $15,000 a month. Add on how most of them also hold full time jobs and you double that sum (at the very least), and you can see why the green-eyed monster surfaces.

I don’t think the G expected that its clean wage policy will rebound on it when it made the case to have teachers pay for their school parking lots. That was, after all, a recommendation from the Auditor-General.

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But it goes to show that if you want policies based on dollars and cents, it will affect the special relationship that people have formed with others. Or turn the relationship into something that is purely transactional.

Hard nosed calculations mean that it is right that teachers should be treated like every other civil servant who pay to park at their ministries and agencies. In fact, some schools already charge teachers for parking. So the policy is equitable. The flip side : It also means we mustn’t be surprised when  teachers  start asking for re-imbursements for whatever they have spent out-of-pocket on their classes and the students.

The sympathy for teachers is actually a nice reflection of the esteem we hold for them. The antipathy that surrounds the announcement of the MPs’ parking fee is something else.

The calculators come out.

How does $365 a year compare to a resident’s HDB season parking rates or hourly parking? Even if MPs don’t park overnight, how many hours do they actually spend on the ground in a week besides tending to Meet-the-People sessions? What is Parliament’s parking charges for outsiders? Do enough MPs attend parliamentary sessions to deserve this “perk’’?

You see how grubby it can get.

It’s not unlike the way some people feel about ministerial salaries. People don’t remember that the G didn’t raise salaries in the last round and have even taken pay cuts before. They just know that it is high and based on some kind of formula they can’t recall. The parking fee controversy is akin to that over ministerial salaries – it’s about whether you deserve the money given or saved.

About teachers’ parking fee,  MP Seah Kian Peng said this in Parliament: “For too long, we have made decisions based more on an economic compass, as if the use of one dollar has the moral equivalence of the loss of another… It is time we recognise money is merely a proxy for value, and at times, a very bad one.”

I wouldn’t use Mr Seah’s term, “moral reasoning’’, but I’m afraid I can’t come up with a better term to describe the value of service that goes beyond money’s worth.

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To Mr Seah’s speech, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung replied: “We have to respect our internal system of checks and balances. We cannot pick and choose which finding to address or comply with – we take them all seriously. This is about upholding the value of self-discipline.’’

This brings a new wrinkle into the debate, as people start wondering if the politicians should practise the same discipline that they ask of others. Another wrinkle is why the politicians should fare so much better than residents who pay for parking. They can, after all, afford the charges or take it out of their allowance.

Although the G has been upfront over ministerial salaries with the late Lee Kuan Yew been its staunchest defender, the same cannot be said about how the present G seemed to be so coy about the parking issue. It doesn’t look good that Parliament staff told ST commentator Chua Mui Hoong that MPs park for free in Parliament only to be contradicted by Leader of the House Grace Fu. (I’m quite sure new SOPs have been drawn up on answering questions from the media.)

As I’ve said before, Ms Fu’s supposed clarification was extremely unsatisfactory because she neglected to give the most important point: how much MPs pay for the label. Then it was total silence for some two weeks until the National Development ministry gave that $365 answer on June 25.

Did we get more information from MND? Yes, the fee was revised from $260 in 2016. There’s also one point which should be noted: The parking privilege is not for every HDB carpark, as some people thought, but for those in areas that the MP serves in.

It would have been so much better for the G to have been transparent much earlier, rather than beat around the bush. It only raises questions about why it was trying to hide something as innocuous as a parking label. It has never been afraid to justify its position to the public before, yet there is a total silence from both the ranks of the G and the MPs, including the Opposition.

Frankly, I am not too fussed about how much MPs pay for parking. I’m even okay about giving them free parking because I think it’s a privilege that citizens can easily afford to give to their elected representatives to do their duty. (That’s just me.)

What I object to was why such a simple fact took so long in coming.

So the MPs, I say: Stand your ground, for crying out loud. Or shift it, if you think you should. Don’t just hope for the whole thing to  go away.

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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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