Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had a conversation with American philanthropist and businessman David Rubenstein and the Atlantic Council on 28 July. The Atlantic Council is an American think tank that focuses on international affairs.
One of the topics addressed by Mr Rubenstein was regarding the salary of the Singaporean government officials. He wanted to know what system Singapore adopts and how Mr Lee was convinced that it is “the best” one for the nation.
“One thing that has always been unique about Singapore is that it pays its government officials a kind of private-sector compensation. In the United States, we pay very low salaries for government officials. What is the system that you have and are you convinced it’s the best system to use in Singapore?”
In response, Mr Lee said that the existing system works for Singapore, despite acknowledging that it is “not uncontroversial”. He went on to say that the Government pays the officials “according to what he (or she) is worth), as well as “according to what they are contributing”.
The Prime Minister noted that if the Government does not do that, it would compromise on the quality of the civil service.
“I think it works for us. It’s not uncontroversial, but we believe that it’s best that we pay the person according to what he is worth and according to what he is contributing.
“Because if you don’t do that, either you will compromise on the quality of your civil service or people will find ways to make up and compensate, camouflage forms of compensation, or you’ll have a revolving door and you have something when you go out, after you retire, and I think those lead to other kinds of big problems.”
He went on to say that it is “better” for the Government to be open and honest about this very difficult problem, adding that it will make sure that the Singaporean public officers are “paid competitively”.
“We believe it’s better for us to be open about this and to be honest about this very difficult problem, but to make sure that our public officers are paid competitively. And if you enter the political leadership, then you are paid a clear and significant discount compared to the private sector, but not such a huge discount that it becomes unwearable.”
In relation to Malaysia’s corruption issues, Mr Rubenstein asked Mr Lee if the high salaries paid for the Government officials are the reason why Singapore has “no corruption”.
The Prime Minister responded that paying officials high salaries is one of the factors that “make it easier” for the Government to deal with corruption. He revealed that the nation did come across officials “at many levels”, and some even with “quite high ones”, who have “succumbed to temptations”.
He asserted that the Government has to act against these officials “zealously”.
“It’s not the only factor, but it’s one of the factors which makes it easier for us to deal with this problem, but we still have this problem. From time to time, we come across officials at many levels, some quite high ones occasionally, who have succumbed to temptations and we have to act against them zealously.
“Even if it’s embarrassing or awkward for us, we have to do it. Because if we didn’t do it, then that’s the end of the system. And you will not be able to maintain the integrity and reputation which we have built up for so many years.”