It is in times like these that ministerial pay inevitably comes into play. Singaporeans’ expectations are raised because we have been told that high pay equals top notch talent and performance.
When outcomes are disappointing, the instinct (rightly or wrongly) is to seize hold of the salary factor and ask why the world’s highest paid politicians are stuttering to engineer desired results, why they talk about hindsight when they are prized for their foresight.
For this pandemic, Singapore was initially lumped together with Hong Kong and Taiwan as countries that were exemplary in the COVID-19 fight.
Taiwan has since moved well ahead to be acknowledged as the model to emulate in the COVID-19 fight, with just over 400 cases and 6 deaths. Hong Kong is not far behind, with just over 1,000 cases and 4 deaths. As for Singapore, let’s just say that we are still gasping for breath.
Political pay in a time of pandemic
So how do the countries’ leaders stack up in terms of salaries?
President Tsai Ing-wen earns US$220,000 a year, a whopping 7 times less than Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s base salary of US$1.6 million (about S$2.2 million).
PM Lee also earns more than twice that of Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam (US$570,000 a year), who is on paper the world’s second highest paid leader. (This is somewhat misleading because she is still behind the Singapore ministers).
Seen from this perspective, it’s clear which citizens get the best value for money from their leadership. Furthermore, Taiwan has four times the population of Singapore (24 million people) and twice the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
In fact, we could also try using GDP (which measures the size of a country’s economy) as a yardstick.
The GDP metric
Countries with a similar GDP per capita range as Singapore (between US$50,000 and US$80,000) include Australia, Austria, Belgium, Finland, Sweden and Germany. The median salary is US$300,000 to US$400,000 a year for their leaders.
The Chancellor of Germany and the Prime Minister of Australia, for example, are both paid below US$400,000 a year – considerably less than the US$1.6 million of our Prime Minister.
Let’s look at it from yet another perspective.
The clean governance metric
We have been told for a long time that high political salaries in Singapore are critical to ensure clean governance so for this purpose, we turn to the latest corruption perception index by Transparency International.
Singapore is ranked joint fourth in the world for least corrupt public sector, with Switzerland and Sweden.
The three countries ahead of us are New Zealand, Denmark and Finland. All these countries ranked above Singapore pay their leaders a lot less than ours.
New Zealand, ranked at the top, pays Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern below US$300,00 a year, a far cry from the US$$1.6 million of our Prime Minister.
PM Arden earns 8 times the average salary of a New Zealander, while PM Lee takes home 40 times the average wage of a Singaporean.
Her conscience wouldn’t allow a salary increase
Over a year ago, when New Zealand’s independent Remuneration Authority recommended increasing the country’s political salaries by 3%, PM Ardern turned it down because her conscience wouldn’t allow it.
She explained: “Because we, of course, already are on a high income . . . one of the things we’ve been trying to bridge as a government is the fact that we see these increases at the top end of the scale, without the same increase at the end of the scale where most New Zealanders sit.”
The upshot is that a country like New Zealand has proven that it can ensure clean governance in the public sector without the spectre of astronomical political salaries.
Perhaps at the end of the day, we should just take it that since the title of world’s highest paid politicians is a self-conferred title, it’s an albatross they themselves have chosen to wear around their neck.