Photo: Sebastiaan ter Burg/CC BY-SA 2.0

Last week, former Prime Minister and Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong touched on the sensitive issue of high Ministerial salaries. He was responding to concerns from a 70-year-old resident at Braddell Heights, Abdul Aziz on whether the country would come up with an elderly pension fund, perhaps by cutting the defence budget or by reducing Ministerial salaries.

ESM Goh had said that Ministers were already underpaid, and further cutting salaries would be bad for the country as it would not allow the government the ability to attract the sort of talent that they would like to have.

“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? 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?”

ESM Goh is not alone in this school of thought. Back in 2012, the then-Senior Minister of State for Environment and Water Resources Grace Fu said that when she made the decision to join politics in 2006, the loss of privacy and public scrutiny were more important than a pay cut.

“I had some ground to believe that my family would not suffer a drastic change in the standard of living even though I experienced a drop in my income. So, it is with this recent pay cut. If the balance is tilted further in the future, it will make it harder for anyone considering political office.”

But perhaps these Ministers from People’s Action Party are missing the point.

High ministerial salaries were paid to the 4G leadership, but have they performed as well as the 1G leaders who were earning a fraction of their pay? Were military generals who stood for elections earning a salary remotely close to their Ministerial pay? Isn’t politics all about sacrifice?

In this regard, one just needs to look at Indonesian Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati to understand this concept.

Indonesia’s Finance Minister from 2005 to 2010, she earned an official salary of $24,000 and was known for being a tough reformist. While this was reasonably high by Indonesian standards (where GDP per capita was $1,260 in 2005), this was not extravagant by any standards. Even so, she had produced tremendous results for Indonesia’s growth.

During her tenure, Indonesia’s foreign exchange reserves reached an all-time high of $50 billion while public debt was cut by half. Not only did this enable overseas Investor confidence, she also saw a quadrupling the income tax payers and seeing an increase in the tax receipts by around 20% each year.

In 2010, she was appointed as one of three World Bank Managing Directors where her pay increased to $400,000. Named the World’s 38th most powerful woman in by Forbes in 2014, she had no qualms to return as Indonesian Finance Minister in 2016, taking a pay cut in excess of 90%.

Under her current term, she has set her focus towards “reform, corruption eradication, and transparency”. This has yielded tangible results in poverty reduction, an increased in the standard of living, further reducing public debt and boosting transparency on public monies spent.

Her list of accolades are substantially long. In 2007 and 2008, Emerging Markets newspaper selected her as Asia’s Finance Minister of The Year. This year alone, she won the Best Minister Award at the World Government Summit while Hong Kong-based publication FinanceAsia named her as Asia’s Best Finance Minister.

As she would have shown, politics is about sacrifice and you do not need high salaries to attract top talents. Was she subject to negative scrutiny? Or for that matter, were the 1G leadership subject to as much scrutiny as the 4G leadership today?

Perhaps if the 4G leadership think that they need first class salaries while delivering results which are far from first class, then the problem may be that the PAP brand has become toxic and top talents would not want their names to be associated with it.

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