High ministerial salaries necessary to attract private sector talents into public service – but the 4G lineup are all seasoned civil servants

With the elections looming – speculation is that it’ll happen this year or next – it’s worth taking a look at the ruling party’s leadership, particularly the 4th Generation of leaders that the People’s Action Party (PAP) has lined up to take over after the next election.
A statement by these 4G ministers released in January 2018 said:

“The younger ministers are keenly aware that leadership succession is a pressing issue and that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong intends to step down after the next general election. We are conscious of our responsibility, are working closely together as a team, and will settle on a leader from among us in good time.”

On November 2018 when the PAP renewed its top leadership, that was taken as the formal kick-off marking the next phase of Singapore’s political renewal with a new generation of leaders at the helm. In the shuffle, heavyweights like Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam step aside from the central executive committee, paving the way for ministers like Heng Swee Keat who became the Assistant Secretary-General.

Who are the 4G Leaders?

We note that many of these 4G leaders are long-time civil service officers and not exports from the private sector. For example:
Chan Chun Sing, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office: Served 24 years in the Singapore Armed Forces before entering politics. He was appointed Chief of Army in March 2010 and left a year later to stand for Parliament. Since then, he’s served as acting Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports, and the Minister of State at the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts. In 2015, he was appointed as NTUC’s Deputy Secretary-General and later as the Deputy Chairman of the People’s Association.
Grace Fu, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth: Ms Fu’s career began with Overseas Union Bank where she was there from 1988 to 1985 before joining Haw Par Group from 1991 to 1995. She has also worked with the PSA Corporation from 1995 until joining politics in 2006. For those who are not aware, Ms Fu is the daughter of James Fu who was the press secretary to late Lee Kuan Yew from 1972 to 1993.
Heng Swee Keat, Minister for Finance: Started in the Singapore Police Force in 1983 before joining the Singapore Civil Service’s Administrative Service. He was the principal private secretary to then Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew from 1997 to 2000. He also served as the managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore between 2005-2011 before kickstarting his political career in the 2011 general election.
S Iswaran, Minister for Trade and Industry: Mr Iswaran has been in politics the longest of all the 4G ministers, having been elected as an MP five times since 1997. Between September 2004 and June 2006, he served as Deputy Speaker of Parliament. He later also served as Senior Minister of State at the Ministry of Trade and Industry and Senior Minister of State at the Ministry of Education. He became a member of cabinet in 2011.
Desmond Lee, Minister for Social and Family Development: He worked with the Attorney-General’s Chambers as a Deputy Public Prosecutor before moving to the Ministry of Health and later, the Ministry of Law. In 2011, he stood for elections in the Jurong Group Representation Constituency (GRC). He is also the son of Mr Lee Yock Suan, who served in the Cabinet from 1987 to 2004 and was a Member of Parliament from 1980 to 2006.
Masagos Zulkifli, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources: Before entering politics in 2006, Mr Masagos worked in the private sector for Singtel for 18 years since 1988. During his political career, he’s served as Senior Parliamentary Secretary for the MOE and MHA and later as Minister of State for those ministries.
Ng Chee Meng, Minister for Education (schools): Though new to politics, he served in the Singapore Armed Forces for 29 years and was on the board of the Defence Science and Technology Agency.
Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education (higher ed and skills): Before politics, Mr Ong was attached to Keppel Corporation and NTUC after his failed attempt to enter Parliament in GE2011. But having served as the press secretary to PM Lee before becoming the PM’s principal private secretary from 2003 to 2005, and being made Second Defence Minister after the 2015 election, you could say Mr Ong is an experienced civil servant.
Josephine Teo, Minister in the PM’s office: Ms Teo worked at the Singapore’s Economic Development Board from 1992 to 2002. She later served as the Head of Human Resources at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research from 2002 to 2006. In 2005, she also was the Director of Human Resources at the Administration and Research Unit (ARU) of NTUC. In 2006, she became MP for the Bishan-Toa Payoh Group Representation Constituency (GRC). After the 2011 elections, she was appointed in several ministerial positions including Minister of State at the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Transport, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), and Second Minister in the Ministry of Manpower and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs before becoming Manpower Minister in 2018.
Lawrence Wong, Minister for National Development: Mr Wong started his career in the civil service, working for the Ministry of Trade and Industry. Later he moved to the Ministry of Finance and then Ministry fo Health before serving as the principal private secretary of PM Lee Hsien Loong from 2005 to 2008.

High pay to attract private-sector talent

As you can see, many if not all these ministers have a long career in the civil service, with only a couple of exceptions who transitioned from the private to public sector when they entered politics more than a decade ago.
Even those ministers like Ms Grace Fu or Mr Masagos Zulkifli who came from the private sector did so such a long time ago that they are practically civil service veterans at this point. The minister that is newest in politics, Mr Ng Chee Meng, also wasn’t a private sector import.
So, why are we looking at how many civil service years each of these ministers has under their belt?
Because the government has repeatedly justified its policy of awarding high wages to civil servants as a way to both prevent government corruption and attract talent from the private sector.
This high-wage structure was introduced in the early to mid-1990s where civil service salaries are pegged to the private sector.
In 1994, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, then senior minister, said during a debate on the motion to change the formula used to calculate ministerial pay:

“If this salary formula can draw out higher quality men into politics, whatever their motivations, I say, let us have them.”

This sentiment was later repeated by his son in 2000, who was then Deputy Prime Minister. Mr Lee said in a ministerial statement:

“We are mindful that civil service salaries should follow private sector salary trends, and not lead them.”
“Our policy is to pay people according to their market value and contribution, in the case of political appointment holders, with a discount. Paying officers properly is essential to recruiting the quality of talent that we need to build a first-class public service.”

An in 2007, the then Minister-in-Charge of the Civil Service Mr Teo Chee Hean said in a ministerial statement:

“Singapore is well known for its first-class and clean Public Service. To sustain this, salaries offered by the government must be sufficiently competitive to attract and retain top individuals with the necessary ability and integrity.”

So time and time again the government has asserted that the high-wage policy for ministerial salary is necessary in order to not only retain top ministers but also to attract other talented individuals to take up the mantle of civil service.
And yet, PM Lee Hsien Loong’s 4G leaders are all long-time civil servants. On the one hand, that means they’re seasoned politicians and government officers. On the other hand, where are these ‘talented’ people from the private sector that the administration has harped on about?
If the government has continually asserted that part of the reason behind the high-wages policy is to entice top private sector talents into public service, why are there no private sector talents in the PAP’s 4G line-up?

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