PM Lee: Why right pay is vital to getting best team

SINGAPORE - The debate over ministers' pay is "ultimately about our ability to assemble the best team to serve Singapore", Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday in Parliament.

He added: "If you have the wrong system of pay, you will have the wrong team... As Prime Minister, this is my constant worry."

His comments came after the Committee to Review Ministerial Salaries - which he set up last year - recommended political appointment holders to have their pay cut by as much as 53 per cent.

In a 70-minute speech, Mr Lee accepted the committee's recommendations and said that Singapore cannot afford to risk its future on the assumption that salaries do not matter in political service.

He said that he respected the view that public service is its own reward, acknowledging that there would be "some able Singaporeans willing to serve, regardless of how we set political salaries". Such people are treasured, he added.

"But will there be enough of them to produce a whole team of ministers, equal to the task, of the standards we have come to expect?" he asked.

Mr Lee also revealed that he is "less concerned" about the impact of salary revisions on the current team of ministers, as they have already committed themselves.

"My bigger concern is for the long term, for future Cabinets and potential office-holders," he said. "Can a future prime minister continue to get the best and most committed people to serve as his ministers?"

In his speech, Mr Lee also explained the rationale for keeping ministers' salaries higher than those of other countries' leaders.

Singapore is "different and exceptional" in that our success is "based on our ability to be extraordinary", he said.

"Therefore, we will always need a highly competent government to make up for our disadvantages; to constantly adjust to changes and to meet the needs of our population," he added.

Mr Lee also responded to the Workers' Party (WP) suggestion to link ministers' performance bonuses to key performance indicators (KPIs). It is not possible to do so, he said, as ministers often have multi-dimensional, "often intangible" responsibilities.

"So, it's not possible to have (a) preset formula to determine the performance bonus."

He added that he makes an overall judgment on the performance of each minister after consulting senior colleagues.

Mr Lee noted that the Cabinet is still new, but he expects to promote more ministers - the bulk of whom are at an entry- level grade - once the Cabinet reaches a "steady state".

For ministers who perform poorly, Mr Lee assured Singaporeans that appropriate action will be taken. He has not had to sack a minister - a move which would be warranted by negligent or dishonest behaviour.

"But if a minister doesn't perform well despite all his best efforts, then I may move him to a less demanding portfolio where he is able to perform or, if necessary, I may have to phase him out discreetly," he said.

Mr Lee also defended a recent online post by Senior Minister of State Grace Fu, in which she expressed concern over the pay cuts and subsequently drew flak from netizens.

"If the pay is not competitive, then that's just another people who have got something valuable to add to Singapore," Mr Lee said.

"(Ms Fu) got flamed online but she was right, and she was honest to point this out."

The heated parliamentary debate saw several MPs air a variety of views.

The People's Action Party's Vikram Nair, an MP for Sembawang GRC, chastised the WP for its criticisms of the committee's recommendations, while its own proposals were similar.

The WP, meanwhile, called for transparency to be enhanced in three ways: An independent commission; making recommendations subject to debate in Parliament; and publishing full lists of political salaries on an annual basis.

With this, Singaporeans can be convinced that changes to political leaders' pay "are not undertaken solely to advance their material interests", said WP MP Yaw Shin Leong (Hougang).

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