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Wednesday September 24th 2014

Comparing civil service and private sector salary

This comment appeared in the article Compare civil service salary of forums.salary.sg
Posted by: Perspective

This is indeed a very interesting thread.

I only worked for 7 months in the civil service, which was my first job upon graduation. Thereafter, I joined a university, doing something I really like. My job requires me to remain in close contact with the civil service though.

My pay took a hit, and admittedly, in general, I am significantly behind my peers who stayed on in the civil service, their first and only job. But, taking a step back, I’m still happy, and my life is still comfortable. Yes, I do get envious hearing the raw salary figures, but you gotta see things from different perspectives.

Also, I’ve come to realise, you just need a good financial strategy to be OK financially!

Several comments/observations.

- The civil service is Singapore’s largest employer. Because it’s such a big organisation, similar to having many industries under one roof, you can’t take the career paths of individuals as the benchmark. In many cases, comparing 2 civil servants will be like comparing apples and oranges. In that sense, the original purpose of this thread, to get a “feel” of civil service pay scales for the sake of comparison is impossible to achieve. This is especially so as many of those who have kindly given precise salary figures did not state their appointment or ministry.

- To the question of whether you’re being underpaid, I believe that the civil service pays a fair wage for each job vacancy. What may make you think otherwise is the specific work environment. Perhaps you have a lousy boss who rides you too hard? Maybe your boss is making you do more than you’re really supposed to do? Or maybe the job is simply a poor job fit for you. In other words, it’s more because of people issues that you feel underpaid, not structural ones where the organisation is intentionally underpaying you.

- It is also important to note that you are civil servants, supposedly working for the good of the people of Singapore. There is a certain amount of altriuism to be expected. Just like how we expect politicians to make sacrifices for the larger good, I think it is only fair that we expect civil servants to at least be interested in service to the country, and be motivated not just by salary alone. There must be other forms of satisfaction. I know this is grey area, and I agree the general work ethic in Singapore doesn’t promote this “selflessness.” I also recognise that many will say politicians are paid very well so why should we talk about selflessness etc. But that said, I do believe that many of the politicians would be earning a lot more in the private sector if they went back. Even if they aren’t nice or likeable people, people you just want to smack and slap, they are indeed incredibly smart and capable. If they have stayed in the industries before  they were head-hunted by the PAP, they would certainly be rolling in the dough! Anyway, that’s an entirely different discussion.

- What you do (your job) is as important as how much you get paid. If you value the latter over the former, there is a good chance that by your 40s, you’ll be incredibly cynical and disillusioned because your salary will never be enough (in your opinion).

- Also, as someone pointed out, the civil service treats its employees in a civil manner. There is a large amount of stability in your job if you do what’s expected of you (you don’t even need to excel). The private sector, however, isn’t as stable in general. Although you might earn a lot more, there’s also a greater risk that you may lose your job, even if you were the hardest worker on the block. This is something you should factor in. Don’t just look at the short-term. Consider the longer term. Some people value this stability, and are willing to earn less for it.

- On this topic, think about work-life balance too. This is especially important when switching between industries, or private and public sectors. There’s a cost for everything gained! I believe there’s no such thing as a free lunch. If you get fantastic pay, there must be a cost. Also, having lots of money is good, but as the chinese saying goes, “how much rice can you eat?” A lot of us already earn more than the median monthly income of Singaporeans. Maybe it’s time to adjust your expectations. It’s the classic chasing the 5Cs phenomenon. Find something else that will satisfy you, and help you find the meaning of life (cheesy as it may sound, it is very important!).

- As with all industries, there’s an element of luck in determining your salary or promotion. Sometimes, this element of luck can be a lot larger than you might think. After all, you’re working in an environment staffed by people, not robots, where judgements and decisions will be unavoidably subjective. Because of this, it is impossible to calculate precisely how well you will do, or how fast you may move up. Many promotions happen because you happen to be at the right place and  at the right time. Or you happen to possess an urgently needed set of skills. Call it destiny or good karma. There’s a certain amount of plotting, scheming and engineering that can be done, but you can never chart your career progression as if it’s a science.

- Increasingly, the scholar-farmer divide is narrowing. Especially for those who have just joined the civil service. I know this is very much the case in MINDEF. If you’re in your late 30s or 40s, maybe you’ll see it less. But for younger civil servants, opportunities abound, even if you’re not a scholar! Don’t allow people to convince you otherwise. Yes, scholars will be taken care of, but only because the government has spent so much money on them. That said, many are leaving too! There’s also the grudging recognition that a brilliant 18-year-old doesn’t necessarily make a brilliant 28 year old, or a 38 year old

- Finally, and I suppose this is what I think is the most important, is get a financial plan. Either read up and make your own, or employ a reliable financial advisor. At the end of the day, your biggest asset is time, so the sooner you have a disciplined plan, the more your money can grow. And with a good plan, you can still race ahead of your peers even if your pay is below theirs. Also, if you have specific goals, you can try to work towards them. And even if your financial burdens are incredibly heavy, with early planning, you can still have a very comfortable life. Few realise how wonderful time can be as a monetary multiplier! I know of so many people who drew high salaries but blew it away because they didn’t have a good financial plan. This is also tied in with work-life balance. If you work in a stressful job, there’s a higher chance you’ll spend money on unnecessary things which don’t add any value to your financial portfolio because you think “you deserve treating yourself.” Ironically, it’s because you want to expand your financial portfolio that you seek a high paying job!

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2 Responses to “Comparing civil service and private sector salary”

  1. Denial Tan says:

    There is this perception that if the Ministers goes into private sector, they will be paid more.

    I disagree on this notion.

    First unless that person still have political influence that the private sector will want to ride on the influence, it is not possible for private sector to pay that kind of obscene salary. Look at Yeow Cheow Tong’s peanuts salary now, is he now paid the salary equivalent to his minister pay?

    Secondly, there is this very fine line about private and public sector. Many of the overly paid private sector salary are from the GLCs.

    Even my private banker friend had mentioned that only very few people in the private sector are paid in the range of our ministers, but the GLCs are overpaying their CEOs. Even when these GLCs lose money, they can still pay hefty amount to the CEOs.

    He mentioned that those top earners are true talents and most of them started their own business and grow to become very successful. These people took risk and actually suffer setbacks and losses before they succeed, not like our present ministers whom are on a safe passage to the top without having to prove anything.

    Working in the private sector is totally different from the public sector. It can be very stressful, you make mistake, out you go. But as a minister, when you make mistake, it will automatically become an ‘honest’ mistake and nothing happens. Do you think Vivian Balakishnan can survive in the private sector with the HUGE YOG budget mistake?

    So please spare me the frustration of hearing that when ministers goes private, they can make more money. Yes, it is possible if they screw up very badly and hide in the GLCs that enjoys monoplies in Singapore.

    However, I must say Dr. Tony Tan is an exception who is has the true quality of a minister, but not this current batch of rejects.

  2. Denial Tan says:

    I must now retract my last statement regarding Tony Tan after all the dirty linen about his abuse of power for his son and all his PAP henchmen’s talk!

    I now despise this back comb white hair and wearing his pants up till waist level man!

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