Millionaire ministers

What happens when politics becomes a stepping stone to riches?

by Augustine Low

Singapore stands alone on the global stage as a country which rewards its politicians and top civil servants so handsomely that it becomes a stepping stone to riches.

If money could buy passion and commitment and proficiency, wouldn’t every country on earth follow the Singapore model?

The hard truth is that money alone cannot be a substitute for that genuine call to service and to do greater good for the country, which comes naturally only to some.

One of Switzerland’s top civil servants, the Attorney-General leading investigations into 1MDB, is an example of someone who eschews greed for that higher calling.

Mr Michael Lauber, who met Malaysia’s new Attorney-General, Tommy Thomas recently, said he was impressed: “What we need is good governance, the right people who can resist greed. When I met my counterpart, I saw his will – he is also very down to earth, it’s a very, very good start.”

After seven years on the job, the Swiss Attorney-General said he was still full of energy, and has modest means and aspirations: “I have a small apartment in Zurich where I live, I have no car, no bicycle, not even a boat. All I have is what you see on me, that’s it.”

He is a man with a passion and a purpose, and motivated for selfless reasons.

The danger of turning politics from a calling into a multi-million dollar profession (like what has happened in Singapore) is that we could end up attracting people without the passion to serve.

Do you get the sense that the cries of Singaporeans are increasingly not being heard?

For instance, no matter what the people say about the proposed GST hike, it looks like it’s going ahead for sure. So much for the pledge to listen with humility and respect. They have already reiterated time and again the need for a hike, brushing aside all arguments against it.

Even the most facetious reasons are being given, like the fact that the GST hike needs to be supported so that “our elderly population can be well taken care of.”

That call, by the way, came from the wife of the Prime Minister, whose own salary at Temasek is kept tightly under wraps.

Do you get the sense that they are in an ivory tower, with no inkling of the real needs and struggles of the people?

When Minister Chan Chun Sing starts giving his usual motherhood spin this week in Parliament about cost of living being a “multi-dimensional issue,” and amounting to a gap between people’s aspirations and their ability to fulfil them, you know that either he just doesn’t get it or he tries to turn something simple into something incomprehensible.

The bottom line is, something is just not right when politics is no more seen as a calling but as just an extravagantly paid profession.

The most pitiful part is that in our country, we just do not know anymore whether the men and women are doing it for the right reasons.


Former head of the Civil Service, Mr Ngiam Tong Dow said in an interview,

In the early days, Lim Kim San and Goh Keng Swee worked night and day, and they were truly dedicated. I don’t know whether Lee Kuan Yew will agree but it started going downhill when we started to raise ministers’ salaries, not even pegging them to the national salary but aligning them with the top ten.

When you raise ministers’ salaries to the point that they’re earning millions of dollar, every minister – no matter how much he wants to turn up and tell Hsien Loong off or whatever – will hesitate when he thinks of his million-dollar salary. Even if he wants to do it, his wife will stop him.

Lim Kim San used to tell me, “Ngiam, if you want to leave your job, make sure you have enough walkaway money.”

When the salary is so high, which minister dares to leave, unless they decide to become the opposition party? As a result, the entire political arena has become a civil service, and I don’t see anyone speaking up anymore.