Cut ministerial pay and the government will end up recruiting “very, very mediocre people” as office-holders, said Emeritus Senior Minister (ESM) Goh Chok Tong in a dialogue with South East District residents last Thursday (2 August).
“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, because civil servants now earn more than ministers,” said Goh. “Now we dare not pay ministers a good wage.”
“To any one of us here, $1 million is a lot of money. So where do you want to get your ministers from? From people who earn only $500,000 a year, whose capacity is $500,000 a year? So (when) I look for ministers, anybody who wants to be paid more than half a million, I won’t take him. You are going to end up with very very mediocre people, who can’t even earn a million dollars outside to be our minister. Think about that. Is it good for you, or is it worse for us in the end?”
The 77-year-old added that he had asked two potential candidates who were earning $5-10 million to stand in the 2015 General Election but they declined.
According to The Online Citizen (TOC) and The Straits Times, Goh was responding to a suggestion by Braddell Heights resident Abdul Aziz, 70, that ministerial salaries be cut to fund pensions for elderly people. A recording of the conversation was posted by social news site MustShareNews.com, and Goh’s staffers later provided TOC with a transcript of the exchange.
The former Prime Minister went on to cite the example of Senior Minister of State for Law and Health Edwin Tong, 48, who was a senior partner at law firm Allen and Gledhill when approached to take up his current position. Tong was earning more than $2 million annually as a senior counsel and now earns $500,000 per year, said Goh.
According to the ESM, “(Tong) said, at this stage of his life, he has got a house, he has got a mother-in-law to support, a father-in-law to support, his own parents and so on, what should he do?
“So I asked him, ‘Edwin, what are you in politics for?’ He said, ‘Here to serve.’ So I said, ‘Well, you know between $2 million and perhaps half a million, later on you hopefully become a full minister, $1 million, you have to decide which is more important.’
“He said, ‘Yes, I will take it on.’ And he felt very strongly that he could do the job.”
A controversial issue
The annual pay of political appointment-holders consists of five components: Monthly salary, 13th month bonus, Annual Variable Component (AVC) based on Singapore’s economic performance, performance bonus and a national bonus based on four socio-economic indicators.
The latter bonus can range from zero to six months, with good performers typically given three months.
Currently, the annual salary of an MR4 grade (entry level) minister stands at $1.1 million, while the Prime Minister earns $2.2 million. This is based on the assumption of an AVC of one month, good individual performance and the national bonus indicators being met.
In March, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean told Parliament that the government would maintain ministerial salaries at their current level.
“The economy is going through a period of transition and the government has decided to watch the changing economic conditions and outlook further, rather than making any refinements now,” said the 63-year-old, who is also Minister-in-charge of the Civil Service.
In 2017, a committee formed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong found that the existing salary framework remains “relevant and sound”. It did, however, recommended a pay rise of 9 per cent along with “fine-tuning of the national bonus conditions” to take into consideration changing economic conditions and national outlook, said Teo.
The recommended increase was to match the respective rise in the salary benchmark for an MR4-grade minister, which is currently set as the median income of the top 1,000 earners who are Singapore citizens.
The current total annual salary of an entry level Minister (i.e. MR4) is benchmarked to 60% of the median income of the top 1,000 earners who are Singapore Citizens.
In 2007, ministerial salaries were increased by some 60 per cent.