Emeritus Senior Minister (ESM) Goh Chok Tong's statement at a public forum regarding ministerial pay has sparked an uproar amongst members of the public, with netizens taking to social media platform to express their shock and dissatisfaction against the former Prime Minister's remarks.
In response to a suggestion by 70-year-old Braddell Heights resident Mr Abdul Aziz to reduce the "million-dollar" salaries of ministers "by 10 per cent" in order to make room for a retirement fund for the elderly, Mr Goh reportedly said:
I am telling you the ministers are not paid enough, and down the road, we are going to get a problem with getting people to join the government, because civil servants now earn more than ministers.
To any one of us here, S$1 million is a lot of money. So where do you want to get your ministers from? From people who earn only S$500,000 a year, whose capacity is S$500,000 a year? So (when) I look for ministers, anybody who wants to be paid more than half a million, I won’t take him. 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?
Speaking at a dialogue with South East District residents last Thursday (2 Aug), Mr Goh cited the case of MP Edwin Tong, who purportedly took a 75 per cent pay cut upon his appointment as senior minister of state last month.
Previously as a senior lawyer, Mr Tong earned more than $2 million annually, but only makes about $500,000 now, according to Mr Goh.
In the midst of the public uproar, the daughter of one of Singapore’s founding fathers Edmund William Barker, has spoken up against Mr Goh's statement.
Hans Olijve, Madam Barker's husband, left a poignant anecdote regarding his father-in-law's journey as a dedicated and sincere civil servant in a Facebook comment:
My wife, Mrs Gillian Barker, would like to say that when her father went into government in 1963, he took a paycut of something between 70%-80%, but he never regretted it because he believed in public service.
He headed the committee that wrote the Singapore Constitution, personally wrote the document which separated Singapore from Malaysia, headed 5 ministries at different times, was the longest serving Minister of Law in the world, and did numerous other things.
My wife is deeply offended by the idea that low pay attracts mediocre people. By saying that, you are insulting all of the founding fathers who took low pay, but had put our country on the path to the phenomenal success it has achieved. Their sacrifice, our gain.
If they need an excuse for high pay, perhaps one that doesn't insult the people who came before them might be a better alternative. What happened to the concept of public service? If money is what you want, then go out into the world and make some. Government should be about the people you serve.
Mr E.W. Barker, a Eurasian Singaporean who was fondly was known as "the People's Minister", was elected as a member of the Singapore Legislative Assembly in 1963 as a representative of Tanglin, having served the constituency for 25 years.
He also served as the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, starting 1963.
The following year, he began his tenure as the pioneer Minister for Law. One of his notable feats during his service as Minister for Law was drafting the Proclamation of Singapore, which signified Singapore's official separation from Malaysia.
Mr Barker also held several portfolios in Cabinet, which included serving as Minister for National Development, Minister for Home Affairs, Minister for the Environment, Minister for Science and Technology, and Minister for Labour.
The Cambridge University-educated Mr Barker was also the head of several associations outside Parliament, among which is the Singapore Stock Exchange from 1989 to 1993.
Mr Barker retired in 1988, and passed away in 2001.
In response to the flak he has received from the public regarding his statements on ministerial salaries, Mr Goh has decided to include the full transcript of his response to Mr Abdul Aziz in a Facebook post on Wednesday, while stating that "there is a silver lining behind the heated reactions" he had received, as he believes that it is a demonstration of Singaporeans' capacity to "care deeply and hold leaders to account for their words and performance":
Mr Goh claimed in his Facebook post that the audio clip of his response to Mr Abdul Aziz at the panel discussion that is being circulated "distorted my message by omitting the full discussion."
He also wrote the following in his post:
Some Singaporeans wrote to me directly to share their views. An excerpt of my reply in one such exchange with a final year medical student in an overseas university is reproduced here:
"Salaries is not our starting point in looking for Ministers. Character, motivation, commitment, selflessness, practical abilities, competence and proven performance are the main attributes we look for. The first four attributes are veto factors.
When we look at abilities, competence and performance are reflected in a person's compensation (American term for salary).
In his response to Mr Abdul Aziz, Mr Goh retorted that the question posed by the former is a "populist" one, and implied that the Braddell Heights resident did not adequately consider the sustainability of his suggestion if it is to be implemented:
There are many retirees, they haven’t got funds, they need to be supported. But how do you fund it, you see. That is key. How to fund it for the future? Make it sustainable? Once you have a scheme to pay anybody over 65 a certain minimum wage, you can’t take it away, you’ve got to think of how to raise taxes to pay that. Okay, so one part of your question is very good, but your suggestion is very bad on how to solve the problem.
Kenneth Koong responded to Mr Goh's latest statements with a thorough assessment of the ministerial salary structure in Singapore, providing comparisons to the salaries of leaders of nations deemed to be on par with Singapore:
I read both the transcript and your post here, which left me with some interesting questions I hope you can help share some answers to.
I volunteer at MPS as well, because I truly believe it is something that helps the community. That being said, it has become tougher and tougher for me in the past year to agree with what the G is doing.
Well, the longstanding reason that the G has farmed out is that they need to pay an extremely high salary to ministers in order to attract top-drawer talent. Fair point - everyone is drawn to money, and that’s perfectly fine because that’s in your self-interest.
So I’m actually curious. How exactly does the G’s one and only reason of looking after one’s monetary self-interest fit in your list of required attributes, including selflessness? Please help me understand.
Next, let’s look at the bigger picture - outside Singapore. We love to compare ourselves with other countries, don’t we? From our awesome train systems to our corruption index and how well our kids do in math, we love putting ourselves shoulder-to-shoulder with the big boys.
I did some quick snooping, and it seems that the next best paid head of government in the world is PM Malcolm Turnbull of Australia, at slightly over half a million USD per annum. He used to be a multi-millionaire. US President Trump earns USD 400,000, and Chancellor Merkel earns about USD 370,000 per year. PM Trudeau of Canada gets about USD 267,000. Figures are from https://www.ig.com/uk/forex/research/pay-check#/salary.
Australia, the US, Canada, Germany and literally every country in the world besides Singapore don’t pay their heads of government the equivalent of S$2.2 million per year to run their countries.
So by your argument of “paying more money = getting more quality in politics” (which I assume applies not just to Singaporeans but to people with a rudimentary understanding of how money works), does that not mean that every other government in the world pales in comparison to the organisational quality, management acumen and sheer awesomeness of Singaporean politicians? Or perhaps the G is just saying that Singaporeans are much more money-minded than the likes of Australians, Germans, Americans, Canadians, etc.? Because that could be a fair and candid point that you could make.
You also argued that we will end up with “very, very mediocre people who can’t even earn a million dollars outside to be our Minister.”
First off, I must say I’m disappointed at how tone-deaf the statement is. You say you might not have meant it, but well, you said it. And you should know in politics, every word is scrutinised.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but the direct implication of your statement is that you only want people who can earn a million bucks outside to run for office, because then only they are considered competent, and you will award them a handsome pay package once in office.
But has the government ever taken that leap of faith to offer less of a monetary incentive, and trust that there are willing and capable Singaporeans who want to step up to make a difference in society? Because without trying, we will never know the leadership quality Singapore gets if we simply pay our leaders a fair amount relative to other world leaders in developed economies.
Why do we always assume that the one, the only and the largest driver of talent attraction in peacetime politics is money, without which we will get abysmal candidates? Is LHL hiding a crystal ball somewhere that allows the G to tell with certainty what happens in hypothetical scenarios?
Let’s not forget, Singaporeans have shown themselves to be rather discerning of quality and passion when it comes to voting in elections. Perhaps the G could consider trusting more in the electorate’s capability to sift the good from the incompetent when it matters. For one, it’s an election, not a selection.