It was a jaw-dropping moment, akin to a bolt of lightning from the blue. A first glance at Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong’s comments in a dialogue with South East District residents on 2 August elicited the instinctive response: is this fake news? Did he really say that?
Yes, he really did. “I am telling you the ministers are not paid enough, and down the road, we are going to get a problem with getting people to join the government…now we dare not pay ministers a good wage,” said Goh in a conversation with Braddell Heights resident Abdul Aziz, 70.
And the former Prime Minister (1990-2004) went further, “You are going to end up with very, very mediocre people, who can’t even earn a million dollars outside to be our ministers. Think about that. Is it good for you, or is it worse for us in the end?”
And just like that, the 77-year-old revived the perennial, and always contentious, issue of ministerial pay: just how much is enough? For “very, very mediocre” Singaporeans like myself who do not earn anywhere close to a million dollars, his comments also presented a false equivalence: that high pay somehow equates to a high level of competence.
Goh has since come out to say that he did not mean to call Singaporeans mediocre and that salaries are not the “starting point” in recruiting for the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). But the damage had already been done.
While Goh was presumably unaware that he was being recorded, it feels baffling that a politician as seasoned and popular as him would treat a controversial issue in such a seemingly blase manner.
Eleven years after ministerial salaries were last increased – by a whopping 60 per cent – it was a reminder of the late Lee Kuan Yew’s infamous claim at the time that “our women will become maids in other countries” if their pay did not go up. Teo Chee Hean, who was then Defence Minister, added, “If we don’t do that, in the long term, the government system will slowly crumble and collapse.”
It was Lee who, in 1994, advocated pegging the salaries of government ministers and top civil servants to that of the private sector. Today, Singapore has the highest paid ministers in the world, with an entry-level minister paid $1.1 million annually and the Prime Minister earning $2.2 million (including conditional bonuses).
But besides averting the destruction of Singapore, the issue has also become a political liability for the PAP, arguably even more so than hot-button topics such as train breakdowns and the influx of immigrants.
Ownself reward ownself?
It is safe to say that most Singaporeans do not begrudge our political appointment-holders being well compensated – what is in dispute is the exact amount they should be paid.
But what rankles is the seemingly arbitrary manner in which the government can raise its own salaries – an apparent case of ownself reward ownself, to paraphrase the popular saying. And while Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said in March that ministerial pay would remain unchanged for now, Goh’s remarks suggest that the PAP’s mindset on the matter has not changed.
The government has often benchmarked Singapore’s performance in a wide range of areas, ranging from the economy to education, against global indicators to underscore how far the country has progressed under their rule. Yet when it comes to ministerial pay, it has noticeably shunned using the same benchmarking practice to push its case.
So what are the arguments for the exceptionalism of Singapore – and the ministers – that they can muster to justify the massive disparity between their salaries and that of their peers elsewhere? Are the responsibilities of Singapore’s ministers more demanding relative to leaders from other countries? Is the Republic a far more complex nation to govern relative to others? Do some leaders from other countries not get a significant pay cut before entering public service?
An emotive issue
This issue has assumed greater resonance in light of the rapid ascension of the 4G leadership to positions of responsibility. For instance, just three years after being elected, Ong Ye Kung is already a full minister and a contender to succeed PM Lee. One cannot help but ask: what exactly has he – and his 4G peers – done to deserve to be paid millions? Who among the 4G leaders would be bold enough to address the issue, especially when their millions are at stake?
Then there is the manner in which office-holders are often talked up as exceptional individuals who could be earning much more outside of government – ESM Goh noted that Senior Minister of State for Law and Health Edwin Tong took a hefty pay cut to take up his current appointment.
But while ministers like Tong, K Shanmugam and Ng Eng Hen indeed sacrificed much financially to work in government, this is nevertheless a fallacious argument. Consider this: a significant number of the current ministers came from the civil service and the military and have never been tested in the private sector. For some, their current salaries are likely to be the most they have ever been paid.
The arguments can carry on all day, but ministerial pay will always be an emotive issue. With a General Election due in just two years, the PAP should be wary of reviving it. Otherwise, they may well find themselves paying a political price for paying their ministers so dearly.