Opposition Workers’ Party parliamentarian Shirley Lim addressed these questions head on when the current system of adjusting ministerial salaries was first tabled in 2007. She argued that the exorbitant salaries widened the gap between government and the average citizen it served, undercut the concept of public service as a noble calling and actually failed to attract the brightest and best into government service.
“Can we say that each and every minister in the cabinet would become a top earning banker, accountant or CEO [if he left office]?” she asked. “Other countries favor a more moderate use of taxpayers’ money for salaries, and they do not seem to have run their countries into the ground.”
She noted that Singapore is a beneficiary of globalization, but she added that globalization tends to favor the top wage earners while depressing average earnings. If this trend continues and the current salary review system remains in place, she argued, Singapore could be seeing ministers earning $4 or even $5 million a year.
Lim was then speaking as a nominated member of parliament. That is a curious position, unique to Singapore, in which the top three losing opposition candidates are appointed to parliament but have no vote. Ironically, it was Lee himself who first proposed the nominated members, worried that his own party members lacked street smarts and debating skills.
Since May, however, Lim will be speaking as a full-fledged voting member of parliament. She was part of the five-member Workers' Party slate that captured the Aljunied Group Representative Constituency, in the May 7 general election, the first time that any opposition party had won a GRC since they were created in 1988. One other Workers' Party candidate took one of the few remaining single-member seats.
The GRC is another Singaporean contribution to democracy. The GRCs ostensibly ensure minority representation in parliament as one candidate on the slate must be from a minority, usually Malay or Indian. Critics maintained that it was a device to perpetuate the PAP lock by making it harder to recruit candidates and pay deposits, while minimizing the chances that weaker PAP candidates losing in head-to-head races.
For the opposition, winning one of the GRCs was like scaling Mt Everest; It will get easier next time. Meanwhile, opposition members of parliament will no longer feel so lonely. Adding three new none-voting members, the opposition now has a sizeable bloc.
The PAP sought to boost its electoral chances by sprinkling famous party leaders and senior ministers in different slates. This backfired when Foreign Minister George Yeo went down to defeat in Aljunied, the first cabinet minister ever to lose an election in Singapore. (The pain may have been ameliorated by a $2 million annual pension.)
Singapore may be virtually a one-party state, but the government takes election results seriously. When the PAP vote total falls below about two-thirds (last month it was 60.1, a record low in 18 consecutive elections) it is usually an occasion for soul searching. This election was no different.
Prime Minister Lee reshuffled the cabinet, trying to bring in newer, younger faces more appealing to the younger voters. Two famous old-timers, Lee Kuan Yew and former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, resigned from the cabinet where they had served as “Mentor Ministers” without portfolios.
Lee acknowledged the public unease with ministerial salaries by immediately appointing a new committee to review the present method of setting salaries. “You can expect that in all probability, salaries will be cut,” said the committee’s new head Gerard Ee, who is chairman of Changi Hospital.
The opposition to high ministerial salaries is more than just a reflection of public envy. It is a manifestation of a deeper malaise over the widening gap in wealth between the people at the top and the average Singaporean workers, a situation that is by no means unique to Singapore.