Link between leadership potential, pay debatable

I am deeply pained by Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong's recent remark that we "are going to end up with very, very mediocre people who can't even earn a million dollars outside to be our minister" (Beware casual snobbery that shows contempt for ordinary folk; Aug 12).

In one stroke, the remark unceremoniously ruled out the ability of more than 90 per cent of us, and entrenches an unproven correlation between one's earning capacity and the potential to be a national leader.

Many Singaporeans agree with the principle that ministers and political office-holders should be paid well enough, even though we may disagree with what is "enough". The central argument is that it is fair payment for their responsibility and sacrifice, and that it prevents corruption.

This does not mean that those with the right ability will not step forward if they are not given salaries pegged to the best in the private sector. There are many who are highly capable and have chosen worthy careers that do not pay a million dollars.

First, I do not believe truly good candidates base their decision to serve primarily on remuneration. If one does, perhaps he is not the right candidate.

Second, constantly stressing the importance of salary makes it self-fulfilling and builds a transactional culture.

Third, if indeed high remuneration is the key consideration for agreeing to serve society, it is unsustainable. It may work if we define ourselves as Singapore Inc, but not as a nation in the making. Also, giving such importance to salaries will blind us to other possible reasons for good people not stepping forward.

Could it be that we are looking in the wrong places, or that they may have misgivings about a party, or that we have systematically depoliticised society?

Finally, the remarks by Mr Goh have lent credence to the argument that we are, at the core, an elitist society and that some Singaporeans count more than others. This is unfortunate as it diminishes the value of the Government's calls to make us a more equal society and create multiple pathways to success. It puts a glass ceiling on how one can serve society.

Remarks like these by senior leaders have a particularly stinging effect, especially when they are made off the cuff, as these often betray their true feelings, unlike prepared speeches.

Viswa Sadasivan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 15, 2018, with the headline 'Link between leadership potential, pay debatable'. Print Edition | Subscribe