Their pay is up for review

By Koh Hui Theng

SINGAPORE ministers could be getting a pay cut soon.

Calling the "substantial discount" that is in the works "a different model from the current one", Mr Gerard Ee said the revised version would better "reflect the ethos and value of public service".

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the appointment of Mr Ee to head a task force to review ministerial pay during his speech at the swearing-in ceremony of Cabinet Ministers and office bearers at the Istana last night.

And if things go well, the proposal may be debated in Parliament before the presidential election (which must be held by August), Mr Ee told The New Paper on Sunday last night.

The pay of everyone in office - "from the president to Prime Minister Lee and the parliamentary secretaries" - is up for review.

Terming political service as service to help the public, Mr Ee stressed that political appointees have to be aware that their salaries need to reflect the ethos of that calling.

And people will be convinced about the idea only through a "substantial discount"on the present model.

In his interview with TNPS, Mr Ee, the chairman of the National Kidney Foundation and Changi General Hospital, laughed when told that he is earning his stripes as Mr Fix-it.

The man known for turning around troubled organisations and adjusting transport fare hikes calls his latest job "very important".

The present system pegs ministerial pay to a basket of what top earners like solicitors and accountants in the private sector draw.

Critics have said that this format is unrealistic as public office remuneration should be different from the private sector.

Others decry the millions of dollars that top office holders take home.

Opposition party members like the Singapore Democratic Party's Michelle Lee have suggested that ministerial salaries should be benchmarked at 30 times the median salary of the Singaporean worker. This would workout to almost $1 million a year.

What will change?

So what would the new yardsticks be? And how different would they be from the present system?

Said Mr Ee: "Look at what is fair in the commercial sector. Realistically speaking, in the commercial sector, people are willing to compete for that position."

Committee members
Click on thumbnail to view (Photos: ST, TNP, myp, NKF, Great Eastern, one-eye click)

But this may not be the case in public service.

"So we have to be clear about that. Now(ministerial pay) is tied to a basket of the top earners in some 30 professions in the private sector... but public service is different. So we'll have to look at a different model from the current one."

As for the sceptics who believe the review is simply a sign of the Government going through the motions and nothing more, Mr Ee said: "Let's wait and see. The report will be out quite soon. Then when it's out, people can judge for themselves."

For those who think ministers' pay should be drastically cut,Mr Ee would only say that "we must study and understand what the job entails first."

So he hopes people can use a different frame of mind to gauge.

"You must look at whether the pay is worth the effort and energy invested in it. People have to ask themselves, "If my son is the one doing the job, is that (amount) a fair salary?"

Only then can the question of how much to pay be answered.

What about those who point out that Singapore's PM is earning much more than the US president, arguably the most powerful man in the world?

His reply was swift: "That's not comparing apples with apples."

The US president's expenses are all borne by taxpayers, including his housing, staffers and travel on Air Force One, the presidential private jet.

Past commanders-in-chief like Bill Clinton can make lots of money even after they leave office, which is something that home-grown office holders do not do.

"Our politicians travel on commercial planes and have to pay for expenses for their security guards out of their own pockets. It's something that Singaporeans do not appreciate,"Mr Ee said.

That is why the review must be done on a sound basis.

"This is a very serious matter.You don't want to rush through it. But you also cannot go to the extreme and cut pay so drastically."

He added that the review is applicable "starting from yesterday."

So which minister invited him on board?

After repeated probing, Mr Ee let on that Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam had broached the new appointment to him "quite recently".

TNPS understands the phone call came this month.

Not PM Lee?

"No, no,PM is a very busy man. If he had called me on the phone, I would probably have crashed my car from the shock," Mr Ee said with a chuckle as he made his way home from the Istana.

When this reporter pointed out the potential difficulties of tackling such a hot-button issue, he remained unfazed.

"It's a challenge and when I thought about it, I sincerely believe that I can do a fair job. I can keep an impartial line.

"The most crucial thing is that you must not feel obligated one way or another."

At last night's Cabinet swearing-in ceremony, PM Lee said he appointed the committee to review political salaries because he knew "Singaporeans have genuine concerns over the present salaries".

He also spoke about the need for a more flexible approach in the government system, including policy- making.

Political observer Zulkifli Baharudin, a former Nominated MP, said the announcement was not surprising.

He said: "PM has mentioned that he wants to transform the Government and ministerial pay is something that people are concerned about."

Non-Constituency Member of Parliament Gerald Giam said he cannot comment on the proposed salary review until after the report is out.

Said the Workers' Party's assistant webmaster: "It's best to let the committee finish what it is doing before commenting."

A press release with details about the committee members is expected later today.

This article was first published in The New Paper.