Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong has responded to the backlash over his comment that ministers are not paid enough, in a Facebook post today – the eve of Singapore’s 53rd National Day.
The former Prime Minister drew immense flak online over the weekend, for some remarks he made about ministerial pay as he spoke to a group of grassroots and union leaders during a dialogue at the South-East District conference at the NTUC Centre, last Thursday.
According to a truncated transcript of the dialogue, a 70-year-old participant asked whether an elderly pension fund can be implemented for senior citizens by perhaps slashing 10 per cent of ministerial salaries or by cutting a little bit of spending on defence:
“I am 70 years old, so I am really concerned about issues that are about the elderly. Unfortunately, I would say that the bad picture which has been painted is that the elderly have been forced to work, cleaning toilets, serving tables, just to survive.
“And the example that Dr Maliki said (of a senior working just because she wants to, not because she needs to), perhaps it is the exception rather than the whole. I think not many people will believe you if you say that elderly work because they want to mix, because they want to do exercise. Perhaps they work because they need to work.
“So in this case, may I just suggest that perhaps can we have some sort of an elderly pension fund, for the elderly. We will have an appropriate means test and all that, to make sure it is not being abused. And Mayor will ask me how do we fund this fund?
“Perhaps, maybe can I say we cut a bit on the defence, one F-15 maybe can pay for the whole fund. Or perhaps even the Ministers with the million-dollar salaries, can we perhaps cut by 10 per cent in order to fund this fund? These are just my suggestions. Thank you very much.”
ESM Goh launched into a lengthy rebuttal of the elderly participant’s suggestions. He said, in part:
“Somebody must pay for the pension and you got it right. We’ll have to take it from somewhere else. If you had suggested we up GST by 2 per cent, I would have applauded you. Seriously. Because you’re taxing the whole society to support the older ones. But you did not.
“But you said cut the defence. 1 per cent is enough. On top of that, you said cut ministers’ salaries. That’s very populist. I’m telling you the ministers are not paid enough. And down the road, we’re going to have a problem getting people to join the Government. Because civil servants now earn more than ministers. Are you aware of that?
“And where do we get future office holders from? From the private sector? I tried for the last election. Two of them – one earning $5 million and one earning $10 million a month. To be minister for $1 million?
“So where do you want to get your ministers from? From people who warn only $500,000 a year? You’re going to end up with very mediocre people who can’t even earn a million dollars outside. Is it good for you or is it worse for us?”
The backlash over ESM Goh’s remarks was swift and strong.
Responding to the public uproar over his remarks, the senior politician clarified on Facebook that salaries are not the starting point in minister recruitment and that he does not “mean nor believe that Singaporeans at whatever level of income are mediocre”.
Revealing that he hopes to engage Singaporeans possibly in a forum in due course, ESM Goh said:
“Having run Singapore for 14 years as Prime Minister, my main concern remains how to bring Singapore forward. Leadership is key.
“In times of prolonged crisis and upheaval, I have no doubt that Singaporeans will step forward to serve. Money would not be a key vector.
“In peace and prosperity however, there are no dragons to slay. Personal aspirations, freedom, privacy and life-style take precedence.
“Some Singaporeans wrote to me directly to share their views. An excerpt of my reply in one such exchange with a final year medical student in an overseas university is reproduced here:
“”Salaries is not our starting point in looking for Ministers. Character, motivation, commitment, selflessness, practical abilities, competence and proven performance are the main attributes we look for. The first four attributes are veto factors.
“When we look at abilities, competence and performance are reflected in a person’s compensation (American term for salary).”
“The student who raised genuine concerns over my comments seemed to be persuaded by my response. He has offered to help at my MPS.
“Singaporeans know quality costs money – from durians to clothes to football players to military weapons.”
“I hope more Singaporeans will think deeply about how to ensure Singapore succeeds. I welcome diverse and dissenting views. I hope to engage them, perhaps through a forum in due course. Singapore deserves the best.”
He added that there is a “silver lining” to the “heated comments” he has received and that shared that the backlash against his comments “shows Singaporeans care deeply and hold leaders to account for their words and performance.”
Read ESM Goh’s full response to the 70-year-old participant at last week’s forum here: