ESM Goh: Singapore will pay in the long run if we cut ministers' pay

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 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."

Singapore Politics