America’s Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who oversees a budget of about $700 billion, makes approximately $157,000 a year. His counterpart in Singapore, Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen, who supervises a budget of about $15 billion and roughly 70,000 troops, earns the equivalent of $1.2 million a year.
Is something askew here?
It is no secret in Asia that Singapore’s government ministers make outrageously generous salaries. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong pulls in the equivalent of $2.4 million annually, or six times the $400,000 salary of U.S. President Barack Obama. Cabinet ministers earn in excess of $1 million, with equally generous retirement benefits.
These imposing salaries have long been a source of disquiet among the island republic’s five million citizens, but it was a disquiet that the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), which held all but two seats in the 87-seat parliament, could safely ignore. As a result of last May’s watershed general election, which saw the opposition triple its strength in parliament, however, that may no longer be the case.
Singapore’s government salaries have been rising fast since 2007, when parliament adopted new guidelines, which peg the salaries of Singapore’s ministers and top civil servants at two-thirds of a composite of the top professionals in the republic, including lawyers, bankers and multinational corporate CEOs.
Since it is not uncommon in the United States for salaries of major CEOs or the heads of major financial houses to earn $30 million or more a year, President Obama would be paid about $20 million a year if the United States operated under the payment parameters that Singapore has set for itself.
Singapore’s founding father and long-time prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, has justified Singapore’s generous salaries as necessary to attract honest and competent leaders. Indeed, in his view Singapore needs more than just competent leaders to guide a small republic, with no obvious resources other than its own people, to independence and prosperity.
He brushes aside comparisons to other countries, saying there is no such thing as an international standard for setting ministers’ salaries, although almost every other democracy in the world from Britain to Australia pays its leaders far less than does Singapore. Some of them, such as Denmark or Switzerland, actually score better on international rankings of governmental corruption. That is irrelevant, Lee argues. Singapore exists in that sea of corruption called Southeast Asia; Denmark and Switzerland do not.
“Ministers who deal with billions [of dollars] cannot be paid low salaries without risking system malfunction” argued Lee in the past. “Low salaries draw in hypocrites, who ‘sweet talk’ their way into power in the name of public service.”
But are the ancient Confucian values of honesty and efficiency enough in themselves in a modern democracy? Is the PAP’s ideology of authoritarian meritocracy fully justified? What about empathy, a sense of public duty or even a sense of sacrifice? Are these simply foreign values that are not suitable or necessary for a properly working Asian democracy?