Ho Ching’s dual role as PM’s wife and CEO of Temasek should trump her desire for privacy if that is the reason for not divulging her earnings

The nagging question of Ho Ching’s salary as CEO of Temasek Holdings does not appear to be one that is about to disappear into the sunset. Indeed, it appears to be one that is raised periodically by opposition politicians, media outlets and the like. According to reports, it would seem that this is an issue that raises the heckles of her husband who is also our Prime Minister, Mr Lee Hsien Loong (PM Lee).

Attempting to address the issue in Parliament, Second Finance Minister Lawrence Wong has said that “the government has an ‘arms-length’ relationship with Temasek and GIC and that the government refrains from interfering with their Boards’ decisions, such as the appointment of Ho Ching as CEO of Temasek.”

He further added that “salaries at Temasek and GIC are decided respectively by independent boards.” In isolation, that may well be an acceptable answer but then, this isn’t a straightforward issue of a private company deciding the salaries of its employees. Rather, Temasek is a unique company that straddles between private and public.

While ostensibly a private company, it also manages state assets which are clearly of public interest. Not to mention the fact that its CEO is the wife of our current Prime Minister! This would mean that apart from Temasek’s affairs being arguably of public interest, there is also a potential argument for a case of conflict of interest!

Where are the checks and balances when state assets are managed by the wife of the man who holds the highest political office in the land? Lest we forget, Madam Ho is not a public servant which means that we may never know why or how decisions are made. What is there in place to prevent state assets being potentially used to keep her husband in power?  In the first place, Madam Ho should never have been made CEO of Temasek.  Not only was she made CEO but she has been a long standing one whose salary appears to be opaque. While I am not suggesting that any actual wrongdoing has taken place, the fact that this factual matrix exists means that it will always be a subject of contention, controversy and suspicion.

Added to the apparent murkiness is the seeming detraction whenever that question is indeed raised. No one ever answers directly. Why is it such a secret? Perhaps Madam Ho does not feel that she is compelled to disclose her personal income because she is not a public servant. However, even if she is not technically on the payroll of the state, she is still the wife of the most powerful man in Singapore who is at the helm of Singapore’s most powerful private/public company. With that in mind, isn’t she obligated to be more transparent and open?

The more her salary isn’t disclosed, the more there will be speculation that something untoward is happening even if that isn’t the case. In this case, I would think that her dual role as the de facto first lady and as the CEO of the powerful private / public hybrid company that is Temasek should trump her desire for privacy if that is the reason why she is not divulging her earnings.