In his own words: Higher pay will attract most talented team, so country can prosper

In debating the motion to change the formula to calculate ministerial pay, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, then Senior Minister, put up a robust argument for paying ministers good salaries. He said that the private sector had taken away many good men and women from the Government, and without good people, the country would suffer.

NOV 1, 1994


"Sir, my generation of political leaders have become dinosaurs, an extinct breed of men who went into politics because of the passion of their convictions.

The problem now is a simple one: How to select younger leaders when the conditions that had motivated the Old Guards to sacrifice promising prospects of a good life for a political cause are no longer obtainable in a completely different social climate? This change in climate is inevitable with economic progress and a change in social values.

Let me explain very simply, Mr Speaker, that MPs are real men and women, just like you and me, with real families who have real aspirations in life. So when we talk of all these high-falutin, noble, lofty causes, remember at the end of the day, very few people become priests.

The corporate world in Singapore knows that PAP MPs have been carefully selected. A PAP MPship is like a Good Housekeeping seal, a hallmark of character and integrity that adds value to a person. I instituted the practice.

If you look through the MP list, from 1955 onwards, you will find that in 1955 we had two barbers, two postmen, clerks, but they were unionists.

They are not ordinary people. But with rising standards, every election term, I had to move with the higher educational level of the voters, something Mr Chiam (See Tong) learnt rather late. So he discovered that he had to get graduates. I knew that. By 1968, I started moving in that direction.

I am pitting my judgment, after 40 years in politics, and I have been in this Chamber since 1955, against all the arguments on the other side. I said this is necessary for Singapore. I say face up to the facts, get a good generation in, get the best of this generation.

And if we can keep (an) honest, competent government, never mind about its being brilliant, that is a tremendous achievement.

So it is crucial when you have tranquil Singapore that you recognise that politics demands that extra of a person, a commitment to people and to ideals. You are not just doing a job. This is a vocation. Not unlike the priesthood, you must feel for people, you must want to change society and make lives better.

If I had not done that and got no satisfaction out of it, then I would have been a fool doing it because I could have gone back to Lee and Lee umpteen years ago and ridden the boom and sat back, probably at least as rich as my brother, or my two brothers - one is a doctor, another a lawyer.

But why not?

But somebody has to do this in order that they can prosper.

And I am saying those who do this deserve not to be penalised or you will get nobody doing this.

One journalist told me that there was some public concern that these higher salaries would change, and I quote him, 'the name of the game and attract a different type of person with different motivations'.

It is possible that politically and socially uncommitted people from the higher management and professional brackets will be attracted to the idea of public office for this higher pay. I doubt it.

But if it is so, and they can do better than the present Ministers, they should come out and offer themselves as the alternative. That would be good for Singapore.

If this salary formula can draw out higher quality men into politics, whatever their motivations, I say, let us have them. It is better than the Opposition we now have...

I make no apologies for collecting the most talented team I could find. Without them, none of you would be enjoying life today in Singapore, including the reporters up there. I say this without any compunction.

Who pays for all this? A Singapore economy which has been so finely tuned that it is able to take advantage of every opportunity that comes our way.

What on earth are we arguing about? Except people get envious and they say, 'They should really be sacrificing.'

If it were possible to carry on with the system, I will be in favour of carrying on with what I have been familiar with. But I know it is not possible."

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