the following is a brief report of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’a speech in Parliament today on Ministerial salaries:
Speaking in Parliament today, PM Lee said that the issue is not just whether salary is “correct” or “incorrect”, but if the basis is proper and legitimate. He said that the key is to find right balance between idealism and pragmatism; and to find a formula that is acceptable to citizens and one that will work well.
He also said that the Ministerial salary issue should not be just about the amount of money, but also about Singapore’s future; to ensure that Singapore always has a good government. In selecting a team of MPs and ministers, the overriding priority is to build the best team for Singapore.
PM Lee also stated that many good officers, now in the civil service, would have been lost to the private sector, if the civil service did not pay well. If one chooses to become an MP, the PM reminded, there is no certainty of success, you may lose your job-specific skills and there is also no turning back.
If money had been a consideration they would not even have been fielded as MPs, said the PM, let alone be brought into the government.
The MPs have come in to serve Singapore and for them salaries are not a make or break issue. Although some did decline to be MPs but not because of pay.
Heng Swee Keat, a former top civil servant for example declined (due to children) when first approached. But he agreed subsequently taking a substantial pay cut.
PM Lee said that he had grappled with the salary issue his entire career, from SAF in the 80s to adjusting civil service pay, when it lagged behind the private sector. He agreed that ministerial pay remains an issue with Singaporeans who feel that Ministers’ salary were too high and that it should not pegged to private sector or that ministers are deciding their own pay.
The concerns of Singaporeans are reasonable said the PM. No government can function without the interests of people at heart, he acknowledged. He said that this issue cannot be resolved in the heat of election.
PM Lee reiterated that salary is critical but what’s more worrisome is the ability to assemble the best team to serve Singapore, which remains a constant worry for him. The government needs people of different backgrounds and aspirations, but cannot afford to have our entire system based on this, he said. He also emphasised that bigger monetary sacrifice won’t deter more public-spirited Singaporeans from coming forward to serve and that there have been Singaporeans who have come forward.
He reminded that there is a need to be pragmatic. Overall this approach has worked for Singapore and today we have a strong committed team, he said. It may not be perfect, but it works.
PM Lee emphasised that we are a little red dot and that our survival and success will always be based on our ability to be extra-ordinary. And he also stated that there is no one to bail us out.
Touching on the suggestion to follow other countries in the Ministerial salaries issue, PM Lee said that we need to be realistic. Others have their own problems and are not in same situation as Singapore, he said.
Some foreign leaders have also privately expressed to him that they wished to follow Singapore’s model on salaries, but cannot because of politics, and that they are impressed with Singapore’s Ministers. PM Lee said that a good government will remain critical to Singapore which will face different challenges and that it cannot work on auto-pilot.
He said that a country cannot be run by technocrats and that Singapore politics is changing and so it will be more difficult to find potential Ministers. And if ministerial salaries are uncompetitive, it will just add another obstacle to people who have something to contribute to Singapore.
The ‘Pink’ identity card is a Singapore dividend said PM Lee, as many have high regard for Singapore and Singaporeans. If people stop having high regard for us, we will be in trouble, he reminded.
PM Lee said that ultimately his responsibility is to ensure that individually each minister is performing up to expectations and that Cabinet delivers the best Government. Ministers must be held accountable no matter what they are paid. A good minister does not do what the PM tells him to do but is entrepreneurial, he said.
A minister’s responsibility cannot be a formula, PM Lee emphasised, because not every Minister is equal. Some are different in judgement and ability, he admitted. But they are all in one team, the PM stressed.
In conclusion, PM Lee said that he does not expect his speech to be the last word on the issue of Ministerial salaries, but that he needs the right system to help the next team to succeed.