Rewarding nation-building MPs a good move: Lee Khoon Choy

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 12, 1994

Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong announced last week that the Government would reward former ministers and MPs for their part in building Singapore - specifically those who were in politics between 1959 and 1968 and who retired before 1984, before ministerial salaries took a big jump upwards. Chiang Yin Pheng tracked down PAP political stalwart Lee Khoon Choy, 70, former Senior Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office and diplomat, and present-day business consultant, for his views.

Insight: How do you view the Prime Minister's plan to reward old-timers like yourself?

Mr Lee: I welcome it, of course. These political veterans deserve a fair share of the wealth Singapore has today, so that they can maintain the standard of living they had before and live out their retirement days with some dignity.

Former Senior Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office and diplomat Lee Khoon Choy. PHOTO: ST FILE

The Government ought to be fair to them. There has to be a fair distribution of wealth, now that Singapore is doing well.

Politicians of my time made sacrifices. We gave up our Parliament allowances - $500 was a lot of money in those days - because the party was poor.

But more than just dollars and cents, we risked our lives too, or the Singapore as we know it will not be here today.

Insight: Can you recount how risky life as a politician was in those days?

Mr Lee: I remember the 1963 elections. I was at the counting centre for the constituencies of Bukit Panjang, Bukit Timah, Chua Chu Kang and Jurong - all Barisan Sosialis strongholds.

When it became clear that the PAP had lost these four seats, Barisan's Chia Thye Poh gave the order for the centre to be locked up and forbade the PAP candidates to leave. They were going to beat us up.

Fortunately, the PAP won the elections overall that year, so the Barisan candidates slinked out the back door.

And while I was the Government Whip in 1961, the time the PAP had a slim majority in the House, I received bullets in the mail and threats against my life if I did not quit the post and cross over to join the Barisan Sosialis.

Now that times are better, the Government ought to remember us, not just the newcomer ministers.

Insight: I understand you keep in touch with your fellow ex-politicians. How are most of them doing now in private life?

Mr Lee: I know some former politicians are finding it hard to cope with rising living costs on their fixed pensions.

Some of them don't even drive a car anymore. I have seen some of them walking in the streets in shorts or taking the MRT.

Not that there is anything wrong with taking the MRT, but it is far from the kind of lifestyle they had before. What they have now is far from extravagant.

I have an investment consultancy in rubbish recycling, power plants and real estate, and travel frequently to Malaysia and China on business, so I still make enough to supplement my pension.

But not everybody is in my situation and is able to go into business.

Insight: The PM said that not all former ministers and MPs would get this "gift" from the Government, and he would consult Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew when drawing up a list of recipients. What do you think will count as sufficient contribution?

Mr Lee: I don't think it will be fair to discriminate. All those who were in politics those years ought to get it, because they all played their part.

I think only those who did something wrong, like commit a crime or left the party, should be left out.

Insight: How best do you think the Government could reward these pioneer nation-builders?

Mr Lee: I cannot say what is the appropriate way. I had better leave it to the Government to decide that.

But I believe it would have been an even more meaningful gesture if the Government acted on its own to reward us, rather than wait for a group of us to request a rise in pensions.

Insight: Yes, Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew mentioned in Parliament last week that a group of former MPs had deputised a former Old Guard minister to approach the PM on this. But he mentioned no names.

Mr Lee: I cannot tell you which former Minister represented a group of about 30 of us.

He does not want to be known.

We meet from time to time, this group of former ministers and MPs. It must have been one of those discussions they had, while I was in hospital recently with gall bladder trouble, that the subject of their pensions came up.

I was asked by Sia Kah Hui - the PAP MP for Paya Lebar who, like me, stepped down before the 1984 elections - to submit my pension figures, as he was compiling them.

Insight: Can you give an idea of what your pensions are like?

Mr Lee: The average pension among us lies between $2,000 and $3,000 a month. I know of a former Minister of State who is getting less than $3,000 a month.

Former parliamentary secretaries get even less than this.

Those who served at least two terms get the full pension. And the earlier the minister or MP retired, the less his pension.

Compared with what present-day ministers will get on their retirement and Singapore's wealth today, this is really peanuts.

Insight: SM Lee had also said that the young and some of the not-so-young are now anxious not to miss the boat as the country gets better off. The Old Guard, he said, don't just "die away". They have needs - for medical treatment, for example - that must still be met.

Mr Lee: Yes, I think these Old Guard ministers and MPs have a strong case to be compensated adequately.
They feel shortchanged now because their pensions have remained fixed through the years