Speaking in favour of good pay for our ministers

I believe our political office holders should be paid good salaries.

There, I said it. Before you scalp me, hear me out.

Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong’s comments on ministerial salary caused a stir this week. At the Southeast CDC District Conference, he remarked first that our Ministers are not being paid enough (and it would get increasingly difficult to get people to join the government), and second, said that we would eventually end up with “very, very mediocre” people who “can’t even earn a million dollars outside to be our Minister”. His comments were reported by The Online Citizen.

“I am telling you the Ministers are not paid enough, and down the road, we are going to get a problem with getting people to join the government, because civil servants now earn more than Ministers. Are you aware of that? And where do we get our future office holders from? From the private sector? I have tried for the last election. Two of them, earning $5 million per month, $10 million per month (sic – ESM meant per year). To be a Minister for $1 million? No, no, my family is not happy with (unclear). Those approached say money is not the issue. But if you earn $5 million, $10 million, and you pay at least $1 million, many people would come, but not from the private sector.”

“But now we dare not pay Ministers a good wage. To anyone of us here, $1 million is a lot of money. So where do you want to get your Ministers from? From people who earn only $500,000 a year, whose capacity is $500,000 a year? So (when) I look for Ministers, anybody who wants to be paid more than half a million, I wont take him. You are going to end up with very very mediocre people, who cant even earn a million dollars outside to be our Minister.”

ESM Goh had a point in saying that our ministers should be paid well.

  • Ministers’ salaries should reflect the significance and responsibility needed in their jobs. We wouldn’t blink an eye if someone said that lawyers and doctors should be paid well, right?. So why do people implode when another says that ministers should likewise draw a good wage?  Do you get doctors to apologise for the ridiculous consultation fees they charge? No right.  Regardless of the shade we often throw at our ministers, the fact is – they govern the country. It’s a top job – metaphorically and literally, and definitely a difficult one. We can say many things about how they sit in their fancy, air-conditioned offices, supported by a huge machinery of a civil service, wine and dine, and get driven around etc – but they also make very important decisions that affect our lives. Policies, going head to head with other politicians around the world (think Mahathir and Water Agreements), and spending their weekends at grassroots events.

But I also deeply disagree with him on several areas:

  • The PAP talent pool. The government has always underscored the sacrifices made by their political office holders by making clear many had to take pay cuts when they joined politics. From lawyers, doctors, top civil servants – many of them are likely to have taken a 50-75% pay cut. Is the real issue the pay cut, or simply where the PAP often looks to pick out their top talent? ESM Goh argued that we will end up with “very, very mediocre people who can’t even earn a million dollars outside to be our Minister”. He made some misguided assumptions here: first, competent people will earn at least a million, and second, you have to earn a million in order to be considered “competent” by the PAP talent spotters.


  • Money isn’t everything. It’s true that money is important, everyone is attracted to money. A Minister’s job is gruelling, and I don’t blame those who think twice, maybe even thrice about dedicating their lives to service. But those who do take up the jobs in the end are those that we should keep. And I believe that there ARE willing and competent people out there who want to make a difference for Singaporeans, with salary as a secondary consideration. Those that choose to walk away – well, they never wanted to be a part of servant-leadership in the first place. We shouldn’t have such folks in government. So while ministers’ salaries should be decent, we should not think that only money should be used for talent attraction.

To quote our favourite anti-government website – what do you think?