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 pointlast 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 that 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."
When asked, Mr Tong told The Straits Times that he prefers not to comment.
Mr Tong entered politics in 2011 when he was elected an MP in the general election. The issue of ministerial salaries was hotly debated during the election, and in the aftermath, an independent committee was formed to review the salaries of office-holders.
The Government later accepted the committee's recommendation of an across-the-board reduction in ministerial salaries. The starting pay of entry-level ministers was cut by more than a third, to $935,000.
Last year, an independent committee that reviewed the salaries recommended an increase for salaries to keep pace with market developments. But the Government decided against it, saying that the economy was still in transition.
Mr Goh's remarks were first reported by The Online Citizen on Sunday, based on a transcript of the exchange obtained from Mr Goh's press secretary.
At the dialogue, Mr Goh also disagreed with Mr Abdul Aziz's other suggestion: cut defence spending to fund pensions for the elderly.
He said Singapore's unique geographical situation requires it to pay for expensive advance warning systems, as hostile planes can reach Singapore within minutes.
He added that investors will not put their money here if defence were inadequate - a situation that will result in unemployment.