Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong drew heat this past week after comments he made reopened the age-old debate over Singapore’s notoriously high ministerial pay. In response to a suggestion from a resident to cut ministerial pay and provide more financial support to the elderly, Goh remarked that ministers are already not paid enough, and doing so would lead to “very very mediocre people” in government.
Goh later clarified in a Facebook post that his comments needed to be taken in its full context, as he had countered that elderly retirement schemes should be funded in “sustainable” ways such as taxes, and described cutting ministerial pay as a “populist” move. He added that salaries are not the starting point in looking for ministers, but instead that their performance and competence are reflected in their compensation.
Why is this significant?
The uproar over Goh’s comments has brought attention back to one of the government’s most controversial policies. This pay formula was first enacted in 1990s, and sought to enhance the government’s recruitment of talent by pegging their pay to the highest earners in the private sector. Under this policy, Singapore’s leaders enjoy salaries that are by far the highest in the world, dwarfing world leaders even in far more powerful states. Ministerial pay continued to rise in the 2000s, and became a sticking point at the 2011 General Election amidst widespread discontent over numerous policy failings.
Notwithstanding Goh’s clarifications, his comments seem especially tone-deaf given the recent findings over Singapore’s significant inequality problem, and the slowly eroding claim of the government to performance legitimacy. Moreover, such comments are perhaps a reflection of a deeper class divide between Singapore’s society and its so-called “natural aristocracy”.