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2 Singapore's 'fat cat' ministers to
get fatter By Alex Au
SINGAPORE - Singaporean Prime Minister Lee
Hsien Loong recently recommended an 83% pay
increase for all his cabinet ministers, a proposal
that would up their current annual pay rate of
S$1.2 million (US$784,300) to S$2.2 million.
Singapore already pays its senior
ministers better than any other Asian country and
most Western ones. For instance, Prime Minister
Lee's S$1.94 million is currently three times the
US$400,000 US President George W Bush takes home
year. Lee's salary is currently about 1.6 times
that of his cabinet ministers.
Lee said on
March 22 that ministers' current S$1.2 million
salaries represented only 55% of the government's
benchmark for standardized politician pay rates.
Details of the new salary scales will be announced
to Parliament on Monday. It is not yet known
whether the government intends to adjust the pay
packets to the benchmark in one leap or in a
series of steps.
High pay for Singaporean
government officials has historically helped curb
corruption, which compared with other Asian
countries ranks favorably on international graft
rankings kept by such organizations as
Transparency International. But many here feel
that the upward adjustment, which will indirectly
benefit Lee's ruling People's Action Party (PAP),
which currently dominates Parliament by
controlling 82 of 84 seats, is in poor taste at a
time that many middle- and lower-class
Singaporeans face a declining standard of living.
The benchmark Lee referred to - code name
"MR4" - is a comparable measure based on
private-sector compensation in six fields: law,
banking, accounting, engineering, multinational
companies and local manufacturing companies.
Cabinet ministers' pay is equivalent to two-thirds
of the midpoint between the 24th and 25th top
earners in any of these fields.
public service to remain an attractive employer,"
said Lee in his March 22 speech, "our terms must
keep pace with the private sector. That is why our
policy is to pay public servants competitive
salaries, commensurate with private-sector
However, one would arguably be
hard-pressed to find many Singaporean voters who
would agree to the exponential salary increase,
judging at least by the steady stream of criticism
over the proposal published in Singapore's
"I think the
biggest problem with the entire issue is that we
have no check and balance. When ministers make the
decision to increase their own pay, who approves?"
asked Aaron Ng in his weblog known as Hear Ye Hear
Letters from readers published in the
mainstream press have expressed more measured
skepticism. "By saying that we need to pay top
dollar for top talent we are saying that certain
people are indispensable. This may breed
complacency," wrote Dr Anne Chong Su Yan on April
3 in the government-linked Straits Times.
Benchmark for controversy Beginning in 1994, the benchmarking formula
was established precisely to avoid such political
controversy, by providing a transparent way of
moving ministers and top civil servants' salaries
in line with market rates. At the time, it was
argued that the responsibilities of managing a
small country and a civil service that employed
hundreds of thousands was roughly equivalent to
the responsibility of leading a large business
With its super-large
majority in Parliament, the PAP has had no
difficulty enacting the controversial rule in the
past. But with the current global debate
surrounding disproportionate executive pay, paying
public officials private-sector rates isn't fully
accepted by the Singaporean people.
of the public anger stems from the fact that in
absolute terms, the new proposed government
salaries equivalent to more than US$1 million per
year dwarf the pay of average Singaporean wage
earners. This is especially true since the wage
gap between upper- and middle-class earners in
Singapore has widened dramatically in recent
years. And PAP politicians are acutely aware of
the growing disparity.
Minister of State
for Trade and Industry Lee Yi Shyan (no relation
to the prime minister) said in Parliament on
November 8: "At the household level, between 1990
and 2005, households in the top 20% experienced
the fastest per capita income growth of 6% per
annum. The lowest 20% actually [saw] their
household income decline between 2000 and 2005.
"We can see the effect of globalization
here," he noted. "It is pulling both ends further
apart. The end result? The top is soaring