Article and open letter to our government by an ex-journalist

By Yeo Toon Joo

If the People’s Action Party were to call a general election now, chances are it would lose a good number of seats to the opposition, that is, if you could find able candidates to join the opposition.

If certain changes do not take place in the ruling party’s style of government, in time to come the PAP could lose power.That would be a shame, a tragedy for Singapore. But so strong has been the political backlash, and so great the people’s outrage, over the government’s widely unpopular decision and persistence to reward its cabinet ministers such handsome pay increases.

Dissenting and disapproving views over the latest round of ministerial pay hike have been eloquently articulated, often sneeringly so, but confined mainly to mass emailing and internet postings. The latest salary revision will by next year nearly double each minister’s current remuneration, and bring it on average to nearly three times that of US President George Bush’s, five times in the case of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s.

Top dollar for best brains?

Minister mentor Lee Kuan Yew had introduced in 1994 his formula of pegging ministerial salaries to 80 per cent of that of the top earners in six professions and businesses in Singapore. It gives Singapore the unique status of having the world’s highest paid political leaders. Their individual salaries surpass by far those of leaders of the world’s largest and most successful economies.

MM Lee’s reasons were that unless he paid top dollar for the best brains he would not be able to attract good and talented people to serve as leaders of the country, retain their services, or keep them above corruption.

Problem is: he had been, for a long time now, looking for leaders in the wrong places, and following a policy that discourages emergence of potential ones.

Some who entered the political fray had come a cropper. Not a few have served long terms of incarceration for their political beliefs or activities, others have had to flee the country to live (or die) in exile abroad.

Someone had not so many years back said that the best way to corrupt a person is to feed him so well you enslave him (did MM Lee say that?).

Ironically then, in his effort to ensure that his leaders remain above corruption, he might have bought their souls.

Cracks in the ruling party

From the relatively brief and muted parliament debate over this burning issue, there seems to be some cracks within the ruling party’s own ranks. However mildly aired, there is, for sure, disquiet and differences of opinion among some PAP members of parliament. Still, what man of sound mind would argue against being given a personal pay rise that first jacks up his annual salary to around $1 million and soon to nearly $2 million?

Feed them so well, they will never rebel.

I love my Singapore, and am thankful for the remarkable progress and prosperity it has achieved through the efforts of a stable and good government. I am immensely grateful, too, to the group of people who gave their all for the country in the pre-independence 1950s and our early days of nationhood.

I remain a loyal Singaporean who once had aspirations to serve our country, and did it initially (1960s and early 1970s) as a newspaper journalist, and through the Singapore National Union of Journalists and the National Trades Union Congress, of which SNUJ was affiliate.

I will carry to my grave, with great personal satisfaction, the memory of having been part of the team that pulled off the first successful workers’ strike against a penny-pinching, ill-managed, callous Straits Times Group of Newspapers.

A baptism of fire

That industrial action, over the Christmas period of 1971, resulted in a fairer deal for several thousands of its employees in Malaysia and Singapore. It was a time of baptism under fire for my SNUJ colleagues and me. Some of us could have lost our jobs with no prospect of working for another English language newspaper in Singapore as there was none other.

The late Mr C V Devan Nair, leader of the National Trades Union Congress and later President of Singapore, was one of my role models and idols then. He had encouraged me as a union leader by helping to open up and broaden my mind.

In one of our several intimate conversations he challenged me to join the PAP. Later, someone suggested I joined an opposition party. But partisan politics was not my cup of tea, more so as I was mindful of the dangerous waters I would be plunging into. I also had little desire for such public prominence.

Also, and alas, any zeal for committing further to community or national leadership was quickly doused by a series of factors: one was my loss of faith in the Straits Times Group as an honest news organization. Mr Lee Kuan Yew helped put paid to it by his public parading and glorification of people who were steeped in scholarship, and humiliation of those who were not.

MM Lee, in searching for a second and then third generation of leaders, started looking for them first in academia (we know how it failed) and then to those who were government scholars.

At the same time we saw the hasty and, perhaps, premature retirement of our earlier PAP political leaders who had fire in their bellies but no multiple mortar boards on their head.


The harsh treatment of those with dissenting views, and slapping down of those brazen enough to join battle with the PAP and MM Lee at the hustings, quickly scared off those who thought they had something to offer to the country, but not necessarily as part of the PAP political apparatus.

Those with divergent, though not necessarily subversive, views were unmercifully smacked down. Others, seduced by the comforts and affluence their talents and training earned them in a prospering society (feed them so well they will never rebel), soon lost their idealism and passion for political sacrifice. It made political engagement not only a perilous pursuit but a wanton risk of losing all they had amassed materially, plus their personal freedom.

A PAP apologist recently condemned me for criticizing the incredible pay hikes for our cabinet leaders that has no precedent or matching model anywhere in the world. “You can only criticize, but what’s your solution?”

Alternatives to attracting leaders

I believe I have something by way of solution, or at least an alternative view to what Mr Lee Kuan Yew insists is the only way to attract and nurture the right political leaders:

  • Look for our future leaders not just among our scholastically successful Singaporeans; academic excellence does not equate with effective leadership. This quality might even disqualify a person from leadership.
  • Look for people with a good and stout heart, undying love for Singapore and his/her fellowmen, and a burning desire to serve even at huge personal sacrifice – people with compassion, fire in their belly, grit in their gut, and steel in their back.
  • Look for those who possess and exhibit the many other qualities of leadership. A yen for scholarship (at government’s expense) alone is a poor prerequisite of leadership. Encouraging scholarship of our bright students through the lure of career and financial success could produce either more scholarship bond breakers or those who will work only for lucre (for those are the values you promote).
  • If you encourage our government scholars to cherish high income, in a society exhorted to worship financial success, you will have to pay big bucks to get them to join your PAP ministerial ranks – definitely not the people you need or want to lead our country and inspire our countrymen.
  • Rethink government policy, enunciated by MM Lee Kuan Yew, of encouraging potential leaders to chart their paths through the Armed Forces (with an SAF scholarship), then a stint in the civil service, a short spell in the private sector, and then to the PAP cabinet. You produce less open minded people who might possess a one-dimensional perspective of the world, a common mind set. Such a policy deprives you the services and creativity swimming so abundantly in the vast reservoir of talents out there in the real world. The military promotes obedience, viz. “Charge of the Light Brigade”. You could end up with people paid well enough and sufficiently smart either to not charge with you – or charge blindly even when good sense tells them they should not.
  • By all means encourage elitism but do not ridicule those who have interests and talents that are not skewed towards pursuit of a PhD. I cite one example of how MM Lee a few elections ago disparagingly compared the not as impressive academic achievements of our loyal opposition member, Mr Chiam See Tong, to those of his bright young submissive scholars.
  • Do not intimidate or beat down all dissenters or those with alternative views, but judge them on their integrity, and do not swamp and swallow up those with potential for leadership into the PAP and high ministerial salaries. You end up with many “yes” men.
  • Open up the minds of Singaporeans by not controlling so rigidly the flow of information about their own country, whatever its flaws and foibles
  • Put in place committed, honest, mature and trained journalists over your mass media organizations, people with a feel for the ground and popular feeling, people trained in journalism (not just in academia) and bold enough to launch investigative journalistic enquiry that aid thinking and intelligent decision making by Singapore’s people. If you find them do not stifle them. NOTE: such control of the press deprives you of an essential source of accurate feedback, and surrounds you with sycophantic counsel akin to that of the king with no clothes. The current mass media situation has encouraged a flourishing of emailing and postings on cyber space; they contain useful information as well as misinformation and disinformation, including ranting by irresponsible people.
  • Let MM Lee’s quest for self-renewal verily proceed. He should let the people he personally chose or vetted, take over fully. Let them err, let them rule (when is the appropriate time for this to happen?). MM Lee did not have a mentor to minister to him and his colleagues in the tumultuous days of pre- and early post-independence – and did not flounder.

I am no political scientist, nor your scholastic type. But I have not been disabled from seeing another view to tackling our problem: there is no lack of leaders, only a lack of desire. Perhaps, there is a hesitation prompted by what is called fear. We, in our immensely successful Singapore, owe much to MM Lee and his colleagues. There are many Singaporeans who want to cherish his legacy.

We need not let that happen

If the current controversy fuels more of the dangerous and divergent views and anti-government sentiments (even hatred) that have surfaced among our Singapore population, our remarkable success as a country could prove ephemeral. Singapore, especially with our official relaxation of control over moral issues and matters, could be another sad story of the decline and fall of a fledgling civilization.

If that happens, we would, as the late Mr G G Thompson, director of the Singapore Political Study Centre once said, cause merely a small yawn in the world.

We need not let that happen.


About the author:

Yeo Toon Joo is:

Ex-news editor, Straits Times
Ex-assistant editor, New Nation
Ex-secretary general, Singapore National Union of Journalists
Ex-owner of a public relations company and broadcast PR firm
Hon. Fellow,
Institute of Public Relations of Singapore

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