SINGAPORE: The revelations that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made in Parliament yesterday (2 Aug) about Transport Minister S Iswaran’s current pay package has led a number of Singaporeans to note that he is still earning more than most Singaporeans, despite the fact that he has been barred from his ministerial duties amid an ongoing corruption probe.

PM Lee said that Mr Iswaran’s pay had been reduced to $8,500, and his ministerial duties have been interdicted amid his arrest and subsequent release on bail. He later said that Mr Iswaran still draws an MP’s allowance because this differs from a minister’s pay and does not come under the Prime Minister’s discretion.

The annual MP allowance is S$192,500. This amounts to just over $16,000 per month.

Instead of satisfying Singaporeans, the details on Mr Iswaran’s pay package during the ongoing corruption probe have sparked a fresh wave of criticism from Singaporeans online.

A number of netizens expressed a wish to have such a high monthly “reduced pay”, drawing attention to the stark difference between the minister’s salary and that of ordinary citizens, while others pointed out that the longer the investigation drags on, the more Mr Iswaran appears to benefit from his reduced pay package.

Some noted that even the lowest-paid minister still earns more than most Singaporeans, while others asked whether the reduced $8,500 is the “new proverbial peanut” for the minister.

Many were taken aback by the fact that $8,500 was considered a reduced salary, questioning whether common Singaporeans would ever have the chance to earn such an amount.

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A common complaint was that the ruling party appeared out of touch with the struggles of the average citizen, given that the reduced salary is still substantial for most people.

More cynical voices mocked the notion that politicians understand the daily struggles of the common man, given the notion that the pay cut should be enough to satisfy voters when it is an enviable pay package for most folks and constitutes what someone would take months, perhaps even a whole year or more to earn.

Some voiced outrage at the lack of greater consequences for a minister under investigation for corruption, arguing that Iswaran should have been suspended without pay as a minimum measure.

In Parliament, PM Lee said he based the decision on Mr Iswaran’s ministerial pay on how the civil service handles investigations involving senior officers as there is a lack of established rules or precedents for interdicting a political office holder, due to the rarity of such incidents involving ministers.

In response to questions on why Mr Iswaran’s MP allowance was not impacted, Mr Lee said that for the MP allowance to be removed, a motion to interdict the MP as an MP must be moved in Parliament, which had not been done in this case. Instead, the minister had been placed on a leave of absence, and consequences would follow once the probe concluded.

He said, “If you want to (remove the allowance), parliament has to move a motion to interdict the MP as an MP, and parliament has not done that. Neither, in previous cases, has parliament done that. What has happened is that the MP has been on leave of absence, and eventually when the case is settled one way or another, then consequences follow.”

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Minister-in-charge of the Public Service, Chan Chun Sing, clarified that an MP’s allowance is withheld only after the MP is suspended from parliamentary service, as per the Parliament (Privileges, Immunities, and Powers) Act. This would require a motion tabled in parliament to suspend the MP.

On why Mr Iswaran continued to draw a ministerial pay of $8,500 despite being interdicted from duty, PM Lee emphasized the principle of presumption of innocence in Mr Iswaran’s case.

He explained that in such situations within the civil service, individuals are interdicted and placed on half-pay, subject to a specific range. If proven innocent, their back pay is reinstated, but if found guilty, their pay is stopped entirely, and other consequences follow. PM Lee said:

‘But you are there until the matter is disposed of. If you are, at the end of it, innocent… your back pay is reinstated to you and made good,” he added.

“If later on, you are in fact found guilty … your pay will stop completely and other consequences will follow. I think that is a reasonable model to follow and that is the basis on which Mr Iswaran would be interdicted and he would be paid S$8,500 a month instead of his normal salary.

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“He was told, he acknowledged, and that was done. I think that’s the proper way to do things.”

PM Lee asserted that this approach was reasonable, justifying the S$8,500 monthly pay Mr Iswaran received instead of his normal salary.

Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) Hazel Poa questioned why Mr Iswaran was not on no-pay leave. In response, PM Lee stated that it was a judgment call and emphasized the need to be fair to the minister and consider the interests of the government and taxpayers.

He cited the civil service’s practice of putting convicted individuals on “zero pay” and noted that Mr Iswaran had not been charged yet. PM Lee questioned the fairness of reducing Mr Iswaran’s pay to zero while the case was still pending.

The PM defended his position: “It is not a minor matter. He has not been charged. Is it fair for me to say, ‘Your pay goes to zero’? I think it is not.”

Stressing that he referred to the way the civil service handles such matters by imposing half-pay “subject to minimum and ceiling,” the head of government added:

“The ceiling is about here too, so I decided on this number — 8,500 — because it’s much less than half pay. So I think we have to go on principles rather than ‘Whatever we do, anything you can do, I can do stronger’. I think that would not be a wise approach to take.”

PM Lee reveals S Iswaran’s pay reduced to $8,500 amid corruption probe