Thursday, 9 August 2018

Ministers not paid enough; harder to attract people to government in the future: Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong

ESM Goh responds to 'heated reactions' to remarks on ministerial pay, says salaries not starting point in talent hunt
He welcomes feedback, says key factors such as character, selflessness matter too
By Elgin Toh, Deputy Political Editor, The Straits Times, 9 Aug 2018

Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong has acknowledged the "heated reactions" from Singaporeans to his comments on ministerial salaries last week.

Mr Goh had said at a forum with residents from the South East District last Thursday that Cabinet ministers are not paid enough, and that it would become harder to attract good people to join the Government in the future.

His words have attracted mainly critical feedback online from Singaporeans.

Some said high salaries may attract people for the wrong reasons. Others noted that the salaries of ministers are already among the highest in the world.

Responding through a Facebook post yesterday, Mr Goh said he saw a silver lining in the comments: "It shows Singaporeans care deeply and hold leaders to account for their words and performance."

"I welcome diverse and dissenting views. I hope to engage them, perhaps through a forum in due course," he added.

On his point about ministerial salaries, Mr Goh stuck to his guns, explaining in his latest post why he sees pay as important.

"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 lifestyle take precedence," he said.

Singaporeans, he added, "know quality costs money - from durians to clothes to football players to military weapons".

He said: "Having run Singapore for 14 years as prime minister, my main concern remains how to bring Singapore forward. Leadership is key."

Mr Goh also addressed another remark that some people have taken issue with, in which he appeared to say that those who are not able to command a high salary are "very, very mediocre" people.

In his post yesterday, he said: "I do not mean nor believe that Singaporeans at whatever level of income are mediocre. Those who have worked with me know people matter the most to me. That is what I am in politics for."

He said some Singaporeans have written to him directly to express their views.

He published an excerpt of his reply to a final-year medical student in an overseas university, in which he argued that a person's abilities, competence and performance are reflected in his salary.

But other attributes not reflected in the salary matter too, Mr Goh also said in the reply.

He wrote: "Salaries are 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."

The student "seemed to be persuaded by my response", and has offered to volunteer at Mr Goh's Meet-the-People Session in Marine Parade GRC, he noted.

"I hope more Singaporeans will think deeply about how to ensure Singapore succeeds," he concluded, adding: "Singapore deserves the best. Happy National Day!"

Cut pay for ministers? Singapore will pay price: ESM Goh
Doing so would be popular, but will make it harder for Government to attract good people
By Elgin Toh, Deputy Political Editor, The Straits Times, 8 Aug 2018

Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong has sounded a warning that Cabinet ministers are not paid enough and that down the road, Singapore will be confronted with the problem of getting competent people to join the Government.

Speaking at a dialogue with South East District residents last week, he disclosed that MP Edwin Tong, a lawyer, took a 75 per cent pay cut when he became a senior minister of state on July 1. Mr Tong previously earned more than $2 million a year as senior counsel and now makes about $500,000, Mr Goh said.

He made the point last Thursday in response to Braddell Heights resident Abdul Aziz, 70, who asked if ministerial salaries could be cut to fund pensions for elderly people.

The idea of helping the elderly more is not wrong - "we must do something for them", Mr Goh said.

But he dismissed the idea of cutting ministers' pay, calling it populist. If ministers are not paid well, "very, very mediocre" people will be ministers in the long run, he said. "Think about that. Is it good for you, or is it worse for us in the end?"

Giving an example of the impact of inadequate ministerial salaries, he related the difficulty he faced in drawing talented people to politics.

Mr Goh, who was prime minister from 1990 to 2004, said he tried but failed to persuade two from the private sector to stand in the 2015 General Election. One earned $10 million, and the other, $5 million, a year, he said.

Mr Tong, 48, who was a partner at leading law firm Allen and Gledhill, is an exception, because he wants to serve, Mr Goh added.

Mr Goh said that after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong approached Mr Tong to be a senior minister of state, Mr Tong went to see Mr Goh. They are fellow MPs for Marine Parade GRC.

Mr Goh recalled their conversation: "He said, at this stage of his life, he has got a house, he has got a mother-in-law to support, a father-in-law to support, his own parents and so on, what should he do?

"So I asked him, 'Edwin, what are you in politics for?' He said, 'Here to serve.' So I said, 'Well, you know, between $2 million and perhaps half a million, later on you hopefully become a full minister, $1 million, you have to decide which is more important.'

"He said, 'Yes, I will take it on.' And he felt very strongly that he could do the job."

Mr Goh added: "We dare not pay ministers a good wage."

When asked, Mr Tong told The Straits Times that he prefers not to comment.

Mr Tong entered politics in 2011 when he was elected an MP in the general election. The issue of ministerial salaries was hotly debated during the election, and in the aftermath, an independent committee was formed to review the salaries of office-holders.

The Government later accepted the committee's recommendation of an across-the-board reduction in ministerial salaries. The starting pay of entry-level ministers was cut by more than a third, to $935,000.

Last year, an independent committee that reviewed the salaries recommended an increase for salaries to keep pace with market developments. But the Government decided against it, saying that the economy was still in transition.

Mr Goh's remarks were first reported by The Online Citizen on Sunday, based on a transcript of the exchange obtained from Mr Goh's press secretary.

At the dialogue, Mr Goh also disagreed with Mr Abdul Aziz's other suggestion: cut defence spending to fund pensions for the elderly.

He said Singapore's unique geographical situation requires it to pay for expensive advance warning systems, as hostile planes can reach Singapore within minutes.

He added that investors will not put their money here if defence were inadequate - a situation that will result in unemployment.


Transcript of Remarks by ESM Goh Chok Tong During the Southeast CDC District Conference on 2nd August 2018

Abdul Aziz (from Braddell Heights RC): 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.

Grassroots Adviser Lim Biow Chuan: Firstly, there is Silver Support. I think you know there is Silver Support, and Silver Support does help quite a number of our seniors. I am really unsure that we should be too hard on elderly who want to work. To me, if Singaporeans, if you are low-income, the Government does take quite good care of you. There are actually many many schemes to help look after those who are poor.

Now if you are not poor, and you want to work, I personally think it is a good thing, because if not, then what do you expect the elderly to do at home? I always tell seniors whom I meet, go and do something, whether it is volunteer work, whatever. Because if you stay at home, the chances of you getting dementia is quite high.

When my father was alive, he was running a fruit stall. Now he runs it in a very poor manner and he loses money every month. So then he decided one day that he would sublet it out and take some rental income. And so he went home and then he stayed at home. After a few months I looked at my father and I thought his situation was deteriorating.

So I told him why don’t you take back the fruit stall, I will pay for your every month losses, because to me it is cheaper to pay for your every month losses than eventually pay for the dementia medical expenses. So he runs the stall, he just sits there and the fruits rot after a while. I was happy because he meets people, he talks to people, and it keeps him going. He doesn’t have to go and collect cardboard boxes, but the reality is that if he does nothing, I am more worried.

My sense is always that we shouldn’t always look to the government to solve the issues of the elderly. It is every child’s responsibility to look after their parents, because your parents looked after you when you are young. To all those who are getting elderly, I hope that you don’t think that your children should not look after you. These are their responsibilities. And this is what filial piety is all about. Now, if for whatever reason your children can’t look after you, come and talk to us.

We have many schemes where we will be able to help to those who are lower income to look after themselves. But if you look at people and they are working, whether as a cleaner and all that, don’t feel embarrassed about that.

My mum, about 10 years ago, worked in a coffeeshop as a cleaner. Because she is bored at home. And she asked me, would it embarrass you? I said no, I mean it is a decent job, you want to go and work, I won’t stop you from working. Because if you think it is a decent job, so be it. She is not robbing someone, she is not relying on charity, she wants to work as a coffeeshop cleaner because she gets to do something, she mixes with people, she is happy and I am happy.

So now that she is older, she is retired. But I honestly feel let’s not be too harsh or too judgmental on elderly who need to work. So if you do meet people whom you think need help, come and talk to us. We will be able to assess them and we will be able to render assistance. Whether we should fund that through 10 per cent cut from MINDEF, I think we better let the Senior Minister of State (referring to SMS Maliki Osman) answer.

SMS Maliki Osman: We will get ESM to share his perspective first.

(ESM asks for the mic to be passed to Abdul Aziz)

ESM Goh: I want to ask you, first of all, if the old lady and old men do not clean the tables, who are going to clean the tables?

Abdul Aziz: We have maybe youngsters or students who want to earn.

(ESM Goh turns to young people in the audience: “Do any of you want to stop education to clean tables? Any of you? Please put up your hands.”)

ESM Goh: This is a very populist kind of question, which will get you votes and make you President of Singapore! So it is a serious populist question which I want to debunk. Who is going to clean the table for you? Students won’t do it. Shall we have foreign workers to clean the tables?

Abdul Aziz: May I suggest, maybe we have to ask ourselves, why is it that nobody wants to clean tables? That is because the pay is so measly. Minimum wage pay, perhaps we can get people to clean the tables.

ESM Goh: Ok, how much should we pay a cleaner to clean the tables? $1,000?

(ESM Goh turns to audience: “Will you clean tables for $1,000? Please put up your hands.”)

ESM Goh: No, I am serious, $1,000, who is going to clean the tables? Somebody must clean the tables. I am not suggesting old folks should clean the tables. I say give it to contractors, who will then employ people to clean the tables.

Contractors, who do they look for? First and foremost, they want foreign workers. If you give them foreign workers, we end up with foreign workers cleaning tables, they don’t want old people. But are you going to allow more foreign workers in Singapore, just to clean tables? Those who are in support, please put up your hands, then you end up with another 100,000 foreign workers to clean tables. If you are from India, Bangladesh, $1,000 to clean tables, thank you very much, please let me clean more tables.

So contractors have no choice but to employ older ones. We feel sorry for that. How do we help them? Well, we have this income supplement. If the cleaners who clean the table are paid a standard market wage, a bit low from our point of view, there is this wage supplement to up their salary.

If you feel sorry for them, we can have a minimum wage for old people, we can do that. Does it work? How much is the minimum wage?

Well, we do that, your hawker price will go up, please don’t complain. Are you going to complain that the hawker prices are going up because they are paying more to the workers? That is my point.

The second point which Mr Lim has addressed, to some of these people, a job is very important, not just the pay. If you say please give them a pension, that is again a very popular idea, and there are some societies which actually do that, when you reach a certain age, you get pension for life.

Somebody must pay for the pension. And you got it right. Take it from somewhere else. Had you suggested to up GST by 2 per cent and give them the pension, I would have applauded you.

Seriously. Because you are then taxing the whole society to support older ones. But you did not. You said cut from defence, 1 per cent is enough. And on top of that, you said cut Ministers’ salaries. That is very populist.

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 maybe some you can get. Edwin Tong, he is a Senior Counsel, he earns more than $2 million. PM asked him to be a Minister of State – one quarter (salary). He came to see me. He said, at this stage of his life, he has got a house, he has got a mother-in-law to support, a father-in-law to support, his own parents and so on, what should he do?

So I asked him, Edwin, what were you in politics for? (He said) Here to serve. So I said you’ve got to serve, well, you know between $2 million and perhaps half a million, later on you hopefully become a full Minister, $1 million, you have to decide which is more important. So Edwin told me his job in politics is to serve. He said yes, I will take on, and he felt very strongly that he could do the job.

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 won’t take him. You are going to end up with very very mediocre people, who can’t even earn a million dollars outside to be our Minister.

Think about that. Is it good for you, or is it worse for us in the end?

Then you said take from MINDEF. Well, MINDEF we cap it at 6 per cent, we don’t spend 6 per cent of GDP. Take it from MINDEF. Do we take it from national servicemen, pay them less? Or we buy less weapons, your weapons?

So you think through. If you say you know National Service, don’t pay National Servicemen that well, take from there to pay your older people. Yeah, maybe that is doable, because we are taking from the young to pay them.

But if I say cut, don’t buy a submarine, ok maybe we do that. Don’t buy your F-16, F-35, don’t buy your radar.

You have done National Service, you know that defending Singapore is defending a point. You are not defending a territory of 300 square miles, 3,000 square miles, 10,000 square miles, you are defending a point.

If you defend a point, you need to have advanced radar. Our neighbours don’t need it. But a plane from a neighbouring country can come to Singapore within two to three minutes to drop a bomb here, if we are fighting one another.

Have you got time to run to the nearest stronghouse, bomb shelter? Have you got time to run? By the time the siren comes up, before you can run, the plane is already here. We need an advanced warning system. That costs money.

Well in the end you say why, we are so small anyway, we can’t defend ourselves, why defend, just spend the money on all these.

If you can’t defend yourselves, are you going to get the investors over here? I put money over here, there is no guarantee about my investments, I won’t put money here. Are you going to get the economic growth? You are going to have unemployment. You won’t get growth.

Where do you get your money from to pay old folks like you and me? Think about that.

So there is a whole system. So the point I am making is, don’t just ask populist questions.

Before you ask such populist questions – just take from here and there to help old people – where would the money come from? If it is from the younger generation for the older ones, yes, we are prepared to do it.

Your idea is not wrong, we must do something for the older ones. Silver Support, some kind of a scheme that we can work on later on. But how to fund it?

That is what I am hitting at. It is not the idea of supporting older ones. I think that is correct. There are many retirees, they haven’t got funds, they need to be supported.

But how do you fund it, you see. That is key. How to fund it for the future? Make it sustainable? Once you have a scheme to pay anybody over 65 a certain minimum wage, you can’t take it away, you’ve got to think of how to raise taxes to pay that.

Ok so one part of your question is very good, but your suggestion is very bad on how to solve the problem.

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