Just when you thought the debate has died down, a letter appears in the national broadsheet to throw fuel onto the dying fire once again.
We are talking about ministerial salaries, that horse that won’t die no matter how hard you beat it.
“How much does Singapore Cabinet cost each resident? $10 a year,” said the title of a letter to the Straits Times Forum page on Wednesday.
Written by a Dr Yik Keng Yeong, the letter argues that current ministerial salaries are not excessive.
“If it all comes down to just numbers,” Dr Yik wrote, “Singaporeans fork out about $50 million to $60 million per annum in taxes, or about $10 per resident a year to pay our Cabinet.”
“To put this into perspective, one premier-grade durian, eaten within minutes, costs more than $50. So, is this a pittance or an extravagance?”
Naturally, Dr Yik’s views are a lightning rod, given how the issue was in the spotlight in recent weeks, with many furious about Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong’s remarks that ministers “are not paid enough”.
Dr Yik’s calculation, however, may not be that far off from that of ESM Goh’s 18 years ago, when the latter was Prime Minister and had to defend ministers’ pay at the time. The government was proposing a revision to salaries then.
In a speech on 30 June 2000, titled “Cost of Good Government and Price of Bad Government”, PM Goh (as he was then) argued that “the wage cost of all the political office-holders will be $34 million after this pay revision.”
PM Goh then famously provided Singaporeans with a little education on what he called “simple arithmetic”.
“There are 3 million Singaporeans,” he said. “What is the cost of government per capita? $11 per year or about 5 plates of “char kway teow” per Singaporean.”
To further convince Singaporeans, PM Goh spoke of how in 1995 the government had “made a contribution of $200 into the CPF account of all Singaporeans aged 21 and above and an additional pro-rated contribution of up to $300 to those who had contributed $750 themselves to their CPF account.”
“The total amount paid out was about $800 million,” he said.
“What was the payout per Singaporean? $270, if we divide it by a population of 3 million.”
He did his sums and concluded:
“$11 per capita per year for a government that can produce good economic growth and give you $270, even if it is once in 5 years, is surely good value for money,” he said.
And then he ended:
“What is the cost of my Government to each Singaporean? Five plates of “char kway teow”! What was the price each of us would have paid if our economy had shrunk by 5% during the financial crisis? $3166!”
So, from $11 (per Singaporean) in 2000 to the present day $10 (per resident). Have ministers’ salaries become lower, not higher, according to the sums presented by Dr Yik and Mr Goh?
Of course we have to factor in inflation and the cost of living and so on, if we want to get a fairer picture.
At the end of the day, however, we all know doing kindergarten-level sums like this is misleading, and yes, ridiculous.
So ludicrous that it would be a waste of time to present rebuttals to it.
Suffice it to say – factually – that our ministers are paid the highest salaries for public servants anywhere on the planet.
And to recap:
The president is paid $9m a term (6 years).
The Prime Minister is paid $11m a term (5 years).
A full Minister is paid about $9m a term.
An entry-level Minister is paid $5.5m a term.
A Senior Parliamentary Secretary is paid $2.5m a term.
An ordinary, rank-and-file MP is paid $1m a term.
Please do note: we are talking about millions.
Now, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has been in politics since 1984. That’s 34 years. His first post which he was given almost immediately after his electoral victory, was that of Minister-of-State.
How much is his total salary to date?
I am not sure, but it is in the tens of millions.
And that is a lot of plates of char kway teow indeed.