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Shanmugam singled out Goh Keng Swee and Hon Sui Sen for living in black-and-white bungalows too

by Augustine Low

During the Parliament session on ministers’ controversial occupation of Ridout estates, Minister K Shanmugam tried to make the point that “a person’s ability to serve should not depend on where he lives, or how poor or rich he is.”

The minister brought up the late Dr Goh Keng Swee, who stayed at a “very large” black-and-white bungalow at Goodwood Hill.

Dr Goh was the Deputy Prime Minister who laid the foundation stones of Singapore’s economy and defence forces.

Minister Shanmugam also referenced the late Hon Sui Sen, who rented a black-and-white bungalow at Malcolm Road. He served as Finance Minister.

After invoking these highly respected members of the Old Guard, the minister said:

“I should add that at that time, it was among the benefits that senior officials could rent houses reserved for them. When we moved to a clean-wage policy, these black-and-whites and other state-owned properties were made available to anyone, and the rentals were determined by the market.”

The minister had to qualify his comparison. Doesn’t it show that he was not comparing apples to apples?

During the time of Dr Goh Keng Swee and Hon Sui Sen, ministers were paid more modest salaries and were therefore given perks like houses reserved for them.

Today, ministers are paid the world’s highest salaries, minus the perks previously accorded to the ministers of old.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong himself said in Parliament on Monday: “Ministers in Singapore are paid a clean wage, realistic, competitive but clean wage. They do not get perks, there is no official house to live in.”

The key significance also is that Minister Shanmugam is the Law Minister overseeing the agency that oversees the management of colonial bungalows. This gives rise to all sorts of searing questions.

The point that Minister Shanmugam was making has also been made by many People’s Action Party (PAP) supporters – but in a different way.

This is one such social media posting: “The real question, hidden behind pretences of asking for transparency, is this: Why are our ministers living in huge colonial style bungalows, whilst the majority of Singaporeans are living in HDB flats? …This question is born out of the politics of envy, practised by broken democracies all over the world.”

A very clear attempt to confuse and conflate the issue.

It has long been accepted that with their status and wealth, ministers could easily afford premium private properties. Nobody expects ministers to live in HDB flats and take the bus to work.

However, when a long-kept secret about ministers living in two of the country’s choicest government bungalows suddenly becomes public, people seek accountability.

From whether ministers were given a sweetheart deal to conflict of interest to breach of the ministerial code of conduct.

So it has nothing to do with the politics of envy. Comparing oranges and apples to make a point also does not hold water.

In any case, do the current ministers measure up to a man of towering achievement like Dr Goh Keng Swee?

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