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Populism — what it means and why cutting ministerial salaries should not be considered “populist”

I am heartened by Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong (ESM Goh) attempts to engage with the media, This is a departure from precedent where the authorities are not known to try and justify or clarify what they say. For that, I applaud  ESM Goh's efforts and long may it continue.

However, despite his clarifications, he has still not dealt with the heart of the issue in relation to ministerial salaries. The old refrain of "we need to pay more to attract talent has already been debunked and criticised a million times over and I will not go into it here. What I would like to focus on is the statement: "you said cut ministers’ salaries. That is very populist.”

The term "populist" has negative connotations where government decisions are concerned. It implies that an action is taken or not taken in order to appease the public even if such actions or non actions would not be for the greater good of the country. Why is cutting the sky-high salaries of our ministers a little to help the old people who are barely scraping by not for the benefit of the nation? It is an established fact that the Singapore ministers are paid far more than their counterparts in other countries. Yes, it may be populist in the sense that it would be a widely popular move but it certainly will not be bad for the nation. The ministers affected are a minuscule proportion of the population and if they each cut just a teeny bit, it would not affect their lifestyles significantly but would make a world of difference to those who are barely making ends meet. These kinds of populist actions are definitely in my opinion for the greater good of everyone including those whose salaries are cut. For a start, it would display the PAP's leadership and consolidate their support base.

The government has certainly done plenty of things that are populist in nature. Aren't the GST vouchers sweeteners etc. not populist? Instead of providing exemptions on necessities or keeping GST at bay, the government has chosen the tokenism action of throwing out some vouchers. This to me, is the prime example of an action to appease the public but one that doesn't really help anyone.

Does ESM Goh not realise that his attempt at deflecting from the ministerial pay issue comes across as an attempt by the establishment to protect itself? Is cutting ministerial salaries suddenly considered "populist" because it hits too close to home? I.e. that it affects them personally? In other words – an action is not considered populist if it does not affect them personally but if it does, the P word gets trucked out.

The point is – anything can be considered populist if you find an angle and a spin. But if you cut through the crap (pardon my language), it is patently clear that cutting ministerial salaries will not be a bad thing for the country as a whole.