MP Pritam Singh’s speech on Ministerial Salary Review

Mr Speaker Sir, For a country with a voting population of only 2.1m citizens, Ministerial salaries in Singapore are by far, the highest in the world. It should therefore come as no surprise to anyone in this chamber that the debate surrounding ministerial salaries are also the most emotive anywhere in the world as well. In the minds of many citizens, Ministers cannot make mistakes. The connection is logical. If you pay top-dollar, you expect top performance.

Over the Christmas period, I took the opportunity to ask friends and relatives what they would consider to be a fair wage to pay an MP and Minister in Singapore. Although this was not a scientific exercise by any stretch, on average, the figure for an MP hovered around the $10,000 mark, while the total wage for a Minister, excluding his or her MP’s salary ranged from $30,000 to $50,000, bonuses included. As reinforced by the committee, with figures such as these, no Minister would need to worry about his ability to meet the financial needs of his family or have to face a drastic reduction in his standard of living.

Many who I spoke to were shocked that Ministers received a pension. If anything, public servants who have for the longest time deserved a pension are our Division 3 and 4 civil servants, some of whom draw a salary around the $1500 a month mark. But paradoxically, even years after the private sector removed this anachronism; the PAP government persisted in retaining it for their high flyers until the committee’s recommendations. Once again, the emotive reaction of Singaporeans is completely logical and understandable.

A few months ago, I asked via a PQ, the monetary amount each outgoing minister in the last cabinet could expect to receive in pension. The Prime Minister however gave an answer to another question, one that was not asked, instead explaining how pensions are calculated. The reluctance to reveal hard numbers provides yet another glimpse into the reasons behind the emotive reaction of Singaporeans to ministerial salaries. I can confidently say that this government will never release how much each retiring Minister received in pension, although I hope I will be proved wrong, especially since one PAP MP announced on Monday that Ministerial salaries are published. Well, following that logic we should expect pensions to be published as well.

Mr Speaker Sir, the political landscape today is anchored by expectations of significantly higher levels of transparency and accountability. To that end the committee must be commended for its decision to remove the very concept of a pension for ministers. In my mind, this has been an epochal recommendation made by Mr Gerard Ee’s committee and I hope Singaporeans duly credit them for it. They did not just remove pensions for Ministers – they have set a benchmark for good governance, accountability and transparency in public service. The Workers’ Party welcomes this development as the high-water mark of the committee’s recommendations.

It is in this spirit of good governance, transparency and accountability that the WP proposes a simple, straightforward formula by which to determine political salaries. Unlike as reported by the Straits Times today, specifically one headline which read “WP proposals on pay not that different”, the principles behind the Workers’ Party’s proposals differ significantly. And the reason for these differences were perhaps best iterated by DPM Teo on the first day of this debate – because it’s the principles behind the numbers that matter.

Where the committee could have done much better was to remove this concept of pegging Ministerial salaries to the top 1000 in Singapore. It also persisted in pegging MP salaries to a percentage of the Administrative Service super scale salary (this should read MR4 level; apology tendered in parliament for this oversight. Nonetheless the MR4 salary numbers remain very close to Administrative Service salary numbers), yet another vestige of elitism that should not be extended to the political realm. My erstwhile colleague Mr Chen Show Mao made the point about pegging political salaries with the rank and file of the civil service in his speech on the first day – at the MX9 level. But no PAP MP wanted to go there. It is apparent that the PAP are fine with pegging salaries to an elite core of individuals, many of whom discerning Singaporeans note, are also cultivated for PAP political office. In the mind of these discerning Singaporeans, the PAP Ministerial selection process is clear – you have been selected to be a minister first, before becoming an MP.

Two PAP MPs tried to address this Administrative Service elephant in the Committee’s report. One of them managed to scratch the surface of the issue – expectedly, that MP was the veritable conscience of the PAP – Ms Denise Phua. The other was Mr Lim Biow Chuan. If I heard Ms Phua correctly she wanted the Admin service salaries to be reduced, in line with the spirit of the recommendations of Mr Ee’s committee. Singaporeans should know why she felt that way. What’s so special about this elite core of 300-odd Admin Service scholars out of the 127,000 strong civil service, a mere 0.236% of all civil servants – and why is the MP salary pegged to a percentage of their salaries, and why not to ordinary civil servants?

Mr Speaker Sir, I started off my speech by referring to how much emotion political salaries generate in Singapore. The essence of the WP’s proposals – specifically the delinkage of MP salary to some percentage of the Admin Service and the top 1000 peg for Ministers, was precisely formulated by the Workers’ Party to remove this emotion from any debate on ministerial salaries – and to remove the overbearing odour of elitism from political office. And it is the Workers’ Party’s contention that when you remove the connection to elitism, you take emotive element out of the debate.

In retaining the unmistakable connection to the top 1000 and to the Administrative Service, the committee has missed an opportunity to fundamentally address the emotive reaction of Singaporeans to political salaries. In the Straits Times today, Review Editor Ms Chua Mui Hoong wrote (I quote) “that the issue of ministerial salaries will continue to draw heated disagreement. The formula will be tweaked again, and a future PM will have to stand up in Parliament and seek the support of MPs and Singaporeans for yet another round of changes.” (unquote). If this comes to pass, it would indeed be a most unfortunate eventuality. Like my party colleagues, I trawled the Hansard for a record of the previous debates on political salaries. Nothing this government has said over the last three days signalled a real shift in the mindset of how to peg political salaries. Substantively, it certainly looks like it is business as usual.

The Workers’ Party proposed the MP peg to the MX9 level – the starting salary of entry-grade senior civil servants to the rank and file civil service, not the elite Administrative Service, where an officer at the age of 32 should expect to receive around $400,000 a year depending on bonuses. If the government pegs political salaries at the rank and file level, a level the average Singaporean can aspire to, you remind all political aspirants what it means to be a servant-leader, and you unmistakably inject substantive empathy into a nation’s political culture.

Ministerial salaries come next, and like many developed countries around the world you choose a suitable multiple that is politically acceptable to Singaporeans. We opine that Singaporeans can be persuaded by the reasoning behind our numbers. While they may be close to the committee’s proposal, the Workers’ Party certainly expects a reality check on the 13.5 months bonus a Minister can receive a figure that flies in the face of the committee’s commitment to clean salaries. For the record – standing to secure a bonus of half your salary can hardly be expressed as a clean salary. In monetary terms, it is akin to the perks some MPs in other countries get – like a car or housing allowance. With respect to the Committee, the WP’s proposal of a five month bonus is much cleaner and publically conscionable.

As many Singaporeans would understand by now, the Worker’s Party proposals take their cue from the rank and file of the civil service – ordinary, respectable civil servants who represent the spine and spirit of public service. One PAP MP was dissatisfied with the dental benefit of $70 the committee proposed for Ministers. But if the rank and file civil service is extended a $70 dental benefit, why should it be different for Ministers? Do they have golden teeth? If this government wants its Ministers to have more dental benefits, then extend the same privilege to our civil servants – for they serve the public too. This is much preferred instead of treating Ministers differently. They are MPs and public servants first.

The new normal does not call for superheroes as one PAP MP suggested; it calls for servant-leadership. Servant-leaders are those who back proposals that are akin to what mainstream Singaporeans can aspire to. As the WP numbers show, this is achievable and you can still attract high quality individuals to politics. But only if you do not limit your MPs to come from the top 10-20% richest Singaporeans, as PAP MP Ms Josephine Teo desires.

Some PAP MPs have gone about the shortcomings of the WP approach – to apply a multiple to MP salaries and thereby deduce a salary for Ministers. Others suggest it is arbitrary – and that you could decide to pay your Ministers by working backwards from a predetermined figure. I was a little surprised to hear this from MPs like Vikram Nair and Zaqy Mohammad because the reasoning behind the Committee’s proposals are no less arbitrary. As recommended by the committee, MPs allowance is pegged to 17.5% of an entry level admin service super scale admin service scholar (note earlier correction). Ministers get a 40% discount of the salaries of the top 1000. Isn’t that arbitrary? Why not 10% or 12.5% of entry level Admin Service superscalers or 50% discount for Ministers as opposed to 40%. Can’t you get to the figures you want by manipulating these percentages? But it leaves me to acknowledge the intellectual honesty of Mdm Halimah Yacob who noted that while the specific multiple for Ministerial salaries proposed by the Workers’ Party can be interpreted as arbitrary, so can the numbers and percentages contained in the committee’s recommendations.

The neutral may say, both the WP and PAP proposals are arbitrary and I think the intellectually honest in this chamber will be the first to raise their hands and say this is true. But the difference lies in the principles behind the WP’s proposal. We seek to persuade Singaporeans that political salaries ought to be underwritten by a key Workers’ Party philosophy – that public service is open to all Singaporeans. The privilege of being of service to your fellow countrymen is the attraction of being an MP. You are an MP first, before becoming a Minister. Public service in Singapore is for all Singaporeans, and opportunities to be a Minister should not be restricted or institutionalised to the few with silver spoons.

To conclude Mr Speaker, if human resource is indeed our most precious commodity as Mr Gan Thiam Poh has reasoned, then it is indeed pragmatic that we send the right signal to all Singaporeans and open the prospects of political service to all Singaporeans, not just the top 10-20%. The Prime Minister also alluded to the difficulty the PAP may face recruiting individuals to become Ministers if salaries are not competitive. With respect, I would urge the Prime Minister to leave some room to consider the possibility that perhaps it is not the salary, career or family circumstances that is the issue. On the contrary, another reason could be that in light of the new normal, talented people feel the PAP is no longer capable of hosting their aspirations for Singapore, and no salary can move them.

We in the Workers’ Party believe that choosing the appropriate benchmark is critical as an unmistakable signal is sent when the principles behind your salary peg is at a level the average Singaporean can empathise with and aspire to. In doing so, we believe that the emotions that have justifiably bedevilled the debate on political salaries over the decades, will finally be assuaged. I may not have convinced this House, but I certainly hope to have convinced Singaporeans that while the final numbers behind the PAP and WP recommendations may not be world’s apart, the principles behind them most certainly are.

Mr Speaker, I oppose the principles behind the salary benchmarks chosen by the committee, and therefore I oppose the motion.