Damage control by the prime minister?

By Andrew Loh

It is interesting to hear the prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, declare that he will donate his salary increment to charity at a time when the government’s moral authority is being questioned. The prime minister said:

“To make it quite clear why I’m doing this, and also to give me the moral standing to defend this policy with Singaporeans, I will hold my own salary at the present level for five years. Whatever increases (I get), I will donate to suitable good causes.” (TODAY, front page, April 12, 2007)

The interesting part is his use of the term “moral standing”.

It was only a few days ago, also in parliament, that the minister in charge of the civil service, Teo Chee Hean, said :

“It is wrong to think that a bigger pay would undermine the moral authority of the government.” (channelnewsasia)

So, why did the prime minister suddenly announce that he will be donating his pay increment to charity in order to “give me the moral standing”? Did not minister Teo say that bigger pay would not undermine the “moral authority of the government”?

The government did not anticipate the outcry?

One reason could be that the government did not expect or anticipate the huge outcry that the issue has created among Singaporeans. Perhaps the thinking was that the economy is doing well with record jobs being created, that Singaporeans will understand and accept the rationale behind the move.

But as this article says, Singaporeans see it as a moral issue – and not simply as one of getting the best to be in government.

In short, Singaporeans expect those in public service to be judged on an additional set of criterias besides being good technocrats or bureaucrats.

Government underestimated the importance of moral authority?

The other reason for the prime minister’s action could also be that the government itself underestimated the importance of moral authority that Singaporeans place on those in leadership positions.

Although some, like the Straits Times, may term singaporeans’ reactions as “knee jerk”, there is a deeper reason for the outcry. And this is the perception that the ‘elites’ are reaping the fruits of rewards which are created by the effort of everyone – the poor and less fortunate included.

This is where I suspect the issue of moral authority comes in.

Giving the least in our society – those on public assistance – just a measly $290 per month (which is an increase of only $30 per month), compared to a minister’s increment of $33,333 per month, raises the questions of priorities, and the moral standing of the government.

The sharp contrast in the difference of the increment for public assistance ($30) and for ministers ($33,333) brings the question of moral authority into very acute focus.

Damage control

Thus, looking at the issue, it is not really surprising that the prime minister would declare that he is effectively freezing his own salary increase and donate his increment to “suitable good causes”.

It is a political move.

A political move to try and assuage singaporeans’ anger over the matter – and, as the PM himself said, to give him the “moral standing to defend the policy with Singaporeans”.

Whether this will work is left to be seen.

The PM’s move in fact has thrown up more questions such as: Why did he not do it earlier? What about the rest of the ministers? Will they donate their increment to charity as well? Even the president’s salary is now being brought into question (TODAY, April 12, 2007, Voices).

Where do we go from here?

There is no question of the government turning back or put this increment of civil servants’ salaries on hold. It’s a done deal right from the word go.

Parliament does not have to vote on the proposal.

How Singaporeans will accept – or not accept – this salary hike will depend on whether the government can deliver in the next 4 years or so. The same issues are still there – widening income gap, ageing population, foreign talents, rising cost of living, etc.

With this increase in ministers’ salary, the pressure is now on the PAP government to deliver. Singaporeans will – indeed, should – keep an eye on the performance of the government from now on.

And with this latest pay hike, the standards and results expected of the government have just jumped a few notches.

Damage control or not – with or without moral standing or moral authority.


PM Lee, at his swearing-in ceremony after last May’s General Elections:

“We must not allow ourselves to be divided between haves and have-nots, or winners and losers … if we let a politics of envy drive a wedge between us, our society will be destroyed, and all will suffer. That must never happen.”


Read also:

Public assistance for the elderly – where the ethics lie

The poorest in our society