Singapore seethes over pay rises

Ruth Youngblood
09 Apr 07

The million-dollar question hovering over Singapore’s parliament this week is a hefty pay hike for cabinet ministers that has angered many citizens among the usually docile populace.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong currently earns 1.94 million Singapore dollars (1.3 million US dollars) per year, three times more than the 400,000 US dollars President George Bush receives in salary.

With parliament set to take up Monday the controversial 83 per cent pay increase for all cabinet members recently recommended by Lee, even some lawmakers are questioning the need for such “mind-boggling” amounts.

Under Lee’s proposal, the annual pay for ministers would jump from 1.2 million Singapore dollars ($784,300 US), already higher than any other Asian country and most Western ones, to S$2.2 million ($1.4 million).

No one begrudges the fact that ministers should be paid well, said MP Lim Biow Chuan. “But how well is the million-dollar question.”

“If there is something we should promote, it is (a) sense of sacrifice,” he added.

In recommending the hefty hikes in a speech on March 22, Lee said it is critical to keep the salaries competitive to attract the brightest people and to prevent corruption.

The salaries of ministers have been set at two-thirds the median pay of bankers, lawyers, accountants, engineers and executives since 1994.

But the salaries have fallen far below the benchmark private sector ones, Lee noted.

With the ruling People’s Action Party holding 82 out of 84 seats in parliament, there was no difficulty in enacting the benchmark formula.

Singaporeans have been far more outspoken this time with many members of the middle and lower class facing a declining standard of living. The wage gap between upper and middle-class earners in the city-state has sharply widened.

The “reasoning that less money will necessarily lead to less competent people in the system is arguable as examples abound to prove otherwise,” said Mohamad Rosle Ahmad in a letter to The Straits Times, with its “forum” one of the few outlets for dissenting views.

“Just as it is a fallacy to say that money is the root of all evil, so it is to suggest the money is the root of a first-class government.

“The grim reality is this: Many Singaporeans do not feel that their lives are better than a decade ago. Life is getting harder.”

An online petition against the hikes has attracted hundreds of signatures ( and a stream of criticism have appeared on the internet.

“The biggest problem with the entire issue is that we have no check and balance,” said Aaron Ng in his weblog.

MP Inderjit Singh questions the bench-marking formula. “There are too many different job types involved, all with different areas of reasponsibility.”

Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father and currently minister mentor, has warned of the risk of talented Singaporeans shying away from the public sector, resulting in a disastrous “revolving door” style of government where top leaders step down every five years.

A country’s strong foundation has to be built on people that stay in the job long enough to gain sufficient experience and become capable ministers, he noted.

“By saying that we need to pay top dollar for top talent, we are saying that certain people are indispensable,” said Dr Anne Chong Su Yan. “This may breed complacency.”

“In truth nobody is indispensable and if more people knew that their services were dispensable, more of them would be on their toes,” she said.

For those who are not satisfied with their pay or their jobs and wish to leave, “let them go,” Chong said.

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