Does Singapore have a clean government?

By | April 28, 2006

A resounding “Yes!” if you read the eulogies released through the government-controlled media properties. Yet words, no matter how well articulated, never speak louder than action. The following article is an excerpt from Economic Crisis and the Prospects for Democratisation in Southeast Asia. It paints a different picture, especially if you receive your regular diet of information from the “proper channels”.

Even the supposedly corruption free island republic of Singapore has not escaped the taint of corruption. In 1996, Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew and son Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong admitted to receiving discounts on purchases of luxury apartments from a publicly listed company Hotel Property Ltd (HPL) where Lee Kuan Yew’s younger brother is one of the Directors. Lee and son, with the support of Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, were not reprimanded for the 12% discounts when purchasing the HPL properties. The government had apparently accepted their argument that as they did not solicit the discounts and were somehow unaware that they did received the discounts, even though it collectively amounted to more than S$1,000,000, they had therefore not wilfully acted improperly. Suffice it to say, in more transparent, accountable and vigorous democracies, public officials have been known to resign for less serious corruption allegations.

As the assets of public officials do not have to be made public in Singapore, speculation and rumour-mongering remains rife about the previous discounts attained by PAP politicians and the extent of assets accumulated by them while in public office. To placate the strong undercurrent of public disquiet with PAP politicians acquiring property at discounted prices, Prime Minister Goh has required Ministers to provide detailed information on their ties with the developer and whether any discounts, special terms or treatment` was received before they and immediate family members purchase properties.

Long before the HPL affair, public disquiet with the financial remuneration of PAP politicians were fuelled by their generous salaries which easily surpass their counterparts in industrialised countries like Japan and the United States. Lee Kuan Yew justified their generous salaries as a means of minimising the otherwise strong temptation to engage in corrupt activities. Argued Lee, “Pay political leaders the top salaries that they deserve and get honest, clear government or underpay them and risk the Third World disease of corruption.”

In an attempt to squash public criticism of Ministerial salaries, the government released a 1994 White Paper entitled “Competitive Salaries for Competent and Honest Government” which recommended that the salary of ministers be pegged at two-thirds the average mean income of the highest paid professions.70 The logic behind the pegging of ministerial salaries to corporate high-flyers was that this was the most effective way of attracting the talented to public office. Instructively, arguments pertaining to the importance of politicians possessing a strong commitment and duty to public service, ironically a Confucian junzi trait the PAP leadership have in the past attributed to themselves,” was not highlighted in the White Paper. That PAP politicians have to be paid salaries that supersede their political counterparts in Japan or the United States in order to entice them into public office and prevent them from succumbing to the “disease of corruption” is in itself an indictment of the calibre and commitment of PAP politicians.

4 thoughts on “Does Singapore have a clean government?

  1. Anonymous

    Asian values behind Singapore son’s rise
    By Gary LaMoshi
    10 August 2004

    HONG KONG – Despite well-ublicized signs that Singapore is loosening up by allowing dancing on bars, funding performances that include the f-word, and even legalizing chewing gum (for medicinal purposes, available from pharmacists) under pressure from United States trade negotiators, writer Alfian Sa’at contends little has changed.

    “Remaking Singapore” – the government’s campaign to encourage creativity among the island’s 3.8 million citizens – “is nothing more than Re-branding Singapore,” he claims. According to Sa’at, the list of restrictions on freedom of expression recently grew. “Dynasty and nepotism – definitely taboo,” warns the enfant terrible of Singapore’s literary scene on the eve of the good son rising to the office of prime minister.

    Singapore celebrates National Day on August 9. In future years, perhaps in connection with its campaign to increase the birth rate, August 12 may come to be known as Family Day. On that date this week, Lee Hsien Loong, the oldest son of Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew, takes over from Goh Chok Tong to become the island nation’s third prime minister.

    The younger Lee was elected to Parliament following a military career that saw him reach Brigadier-General by the age of 32. After his father stepped aside in 1990, Lee warmed up for the prime minister’s job by serving as finance minister and central bank governor. He’s expected to cede at least one of those posts in the new Cabinet.

    Current Prime Minister Goh has been tapped to succeed Lee Kuan Yew as senior minister, which Lee calls the “number two” post. The elder Lee promises that, whatever title he’s given, he will continue to exercise significant influence and speak out on key issues, privileges still denied average citizens in this state created in Lee’s own image.

    The party line is that Lee Kuan Yew discouraged his son from joining the political fray. That’s another dubious tale from the Singapore myth machine. That mechanism’s greatest achievement is perpetrating the lie that Singapore ranks among the freest economies on earth (See Singapore’s capitalist myth November 7, 2002).

    It probably feels like a free enough economy for the Lee family. In addition to his key economic posts, the incoming prime minister’s wife, Ho Ching, chairs Temasek, the state investment corporation that scratches acquisitive itches at home and abroad using the Finance Ministry’s checkbook, while his younger brother, Lee Hsien Yang, heads SingTel, the state-owned telecom company that is spreading its wires around the globe. That’s not just a nanny state, it’s a socialist family business.

    Lee Kuan Yew deserves praise for raising Singapore from a down at the heels harbor town cut loose by Malaysia into a modern economic showplace. Based on that success, Lee and his People’s Action Party could have dominated the political scene fair and square.

    Instead, Singapore’s leadership developed the bad habit of using the apparatus of government to stifle opposition. But trusting in the judgment of others isn’t in Lee’s nature. Neither is humility for this man whose success in tiny Singapore has led him to offer prescriptions of the world at large, the equivalent of getting 100% on a spelling test and thinking that is sufficient to practice medicine.

    Before the economic crisis, Lee lectured the world about what he called Asian values. At the center of these Asia values was the appealing notion that Asians – except some very special ones named Lee, for example – sacrificed individual aspirations for the greater good of society. After drinking some of this Kool-Aid before I moved to Hong Kong a decade ago, my discovery of real Asian values was a great disappointment.

    Rather than a heightened sense of responsibility to society at large, I’ve noticed precisely the opposite. East Asians generally show little consideration for people around them, whether it’s rampant spitting in Hong Kong, complete disregard for other vehicles by motorists, bicyclists and even pedestrians in Bali, or simply the unwillingness to help a bewildered visitor without a product or service to sell him. Asians raise indifference – as opposed to outright rudeness, as practiced in my native New York – to an art form.

    This bewildered visitor couldn’t understand the contradiction between Lee’s Asian values and Asian behavior until an Indonesian friend came to the rescue. Of course we sacrifice for the greater good, she explained, but that greater good extends no farther than our own clan. The closer the connection, the more we’ll sacrifice, so we’ll do the most for our families, then perhaps our friends. But without some personal connection, we couldn’t care less.

    That understanding of Asian values makes Asian behavior much clearer. For example, it puts the Asian economic crisis of the late 1990s and the ineffectiveness of subsequent reforms into a sensible perspective. Crony capitalism wasn’t the result of some structural or legal deficiency that can be fixed through restructuring or stricter regulation, it was, and is, a natural consequence of the government and its business supporters becoming a clan unto themselves. Until governments stop playing a leading role in national economies, the problems underlying the crisis will persist.

    Asian values explain the widespread acceptance of Indonesia’s disgraced former president Suharto turning his children into business tycoons, and why families loll down a crowded sidewalk as if they own it. Most of all, Asian values explain why, even with a population that he declared was prepared to sacrifice for the greater good, Lee Kuan Yew fashioned Singapore into a restrictive society that proscribes choices narrowly.

    When he takes office on Thursday, Lee Hsien Loong will become the fourth ruler in East Asia currently occupying their father’s old post. He’ll join Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri, and North Korea’s Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, whose dead father remains head of state. The younger Lee is the first to reach the top while his predecessor-father remains on the scene.

    So instead of worrying about taboos and restrictions on freedom, let’s celebrate Lee Hsien Loong’s ascension as a grand triumph of Lee Kuan Yew’s celebrated Asian values. They’ve always been a family affair.

  2. Anonymous

    Commentary on Ministers pay cut
    Singapore Review, 2 May 2003
    By Mellanie Hewlitt

    The headlines blared loudly in the 2 May 2003 issues of the Straits Times and Business Times “Pay cut? Ministers ready to lead by example: DPM”, announcing to the entire world this selfless act of leadership by Singapore’s Ruling Elite.

    In what appeared to be an initial move to reduce severely inflated salaries, to more reasonable industry standards, Singapore’s Ruling Elite have bowed to public pressure and hinted at accepting a pay cut. Or have they?

    What exactly does “Leading By Example” mean? Lets try to put some substance behind those brave words. As of last count, average take home pay of a Singapore minister was well in excess of SGD100,000/- a month.

    The below table puts things back in proper perspective: (these are basic figures as of July 2000 and did not include last year’s pay hikes or other benefits. Otherwise the updated numbers may well be much larger)

    1. Singapore Prime Minister’s Basic Salary US$1,100,000 (SGD1,958,000) a year Minister’s Basic: US$655,530 to US$819,124 (SGD1,166,844 to SGD1,458,040) a year

    2. United States of America President: US$200,000 Vice President: US$181,400 Cabinet Secretaries: US$157,000

    3. United Kingdom Prime Minister: US$170,556 Ministers: US$146,299 Senior Civil Servants: US$262,438

    4. Australia Prime Minister: US$137,060 Deputy Prime Minister: US$111,439 Treasurer: US$102,682

    5. Hong Kong Chief Executive : US$416,615 Top Civil Servant: US$278,538 Financial Sec: US$315,077

    Source: Asian Wall Street Journal July 10 2000

    In relative terms, less then 20% of Singaporeans here have take home salaries exceeding SGD100,000/- A YEAR.


    What these ministers earns in just ONE MONTH exceeds the ANNUAL TAKE HOME salary of 80% of Singapore’s income earning population. Lets not even begin to compare annual packages which will exceed SGD1 million easily.

    With the above numbers and figures now in perspective, it is easier to give substance to the words “leading by example”. Several facts are noteworthy here;

    a) That the ministerial salaries are grossly out of proportion, even when compared with their counterparts in much larger countries (US and UK) who have far heavier responsibilities.

    b) That these salary reductions were long overdue. In the past, such handsome remuneration were “justified” on the back of resounding performance. However, Singapore’s economy has been in the doldrums of a recession for several years now (with beginnings reaching as far back as the 1997 Asian economic crisis). This economic barometer is a rough measure of performance and implies that ministerial salaries were due for review at least 3-4 years ago.

    c) That adjustments should be made to bring them back within the industry benchmarks. Taking the salary of US vice president as a rule of thumb, the percentage for reductions should start at 50% of current pay. Even if a Singapore minister takes a 50% pay-cut, he would still be earning much more then the US vice president.

    d) The percentage reductions should greater then 50% if the intent is to bring the salaries within the perspective of Singapore’s domestic scene.

    With such inflated figures, it is understandable why the local government controlled media (Singapore Press Holdings) have taken pains to exclude mention of actual numbers for the world to see. The numbers would be too glaring and no amount of window dressing or creative writing could have reconciled these numbers with a sane figure and restored credibility.

    It is unlikely that Singapore’s Ruling Elite will accept such huge salary cuts. Exactly How much and when the ministerial pay-cuts takes effect is not revealed. Ask any man on the street and 9 out of 10 responses indicate many agree the current ministerial salaries are grossly inflated, especially in these lean and difficult times.

    Said a long time forumer from an internet political chat group: “First of all the Ministers are NOT leading on pay cut. Workers’ salaries have been drastically reduced since the beginning of the recession while thousands have been unemployed. so the Ministers are NOT LEADING. they are only CATCHING UP. And they have several decades to catch up on.”

    “Secondly, how much of a pay cut will Ministers take? 10%? 20%? unless its a cut that will affect their lifestyles, it is merely symbolic and they would still not know what it feels like to be a normal worker. as such, this is not Leading by Example. Its just another bogus political propaganda stunt”

    A 29 yr old executive who requested to remain anonymous admitted sheepishly ; “The numbers (ministerial salaries) are a national embarrassment really, because it reflects the underlying materialistic value systems of Singapore Ministers. No matter how you look at it, the fact remains that our ministers are money faced, and these are supposed to be Singapore’s leaders, with value systems that Singaporeans should follow.” “It (the ministerial salaries) puts Singapore in a bad light in the eyes of the world. The rest of Singaporeans really put in an honest days work for every penny they earn. And the process for review and approval of the ministerial salaries is also a joke. Imagine sitting on the board and approving (on White Paper)your own salary increments! Its all a wayang show”.

    This also raises the question as to the authenticity of the actual process for review and approval of cabinet minister’s salaries. Who decides on these numbers? Is there independence and transparency?

    Veteran opposition figure J.B. Jeyaretnam on Wednesday, Nov 20, 2002 challenged Singapore government ministers to take a pay cut to show they understand the economic hardships faced by the public. And the over-riding concern is that Singapore’s Ruling Elite are unable to appreciate the economic hardship that the masses face in these tough times.

    The growing public resentment comes afew months after PM Goh’s careless comments that “lay-offs were not all bad”, drew a backlash from the public with a flood of e-mails being sent to the foreign press to register public indignation.

  3. KiWeTO

    What is corruption but a human construct?When the state does the corrupting in the name of the greater good, can there be any wrong?To say that high salaries are required to prevent corruption, is to indict all our serving and served public officials as being wilfully corruptible, and the best solution was to have the state doring the corrupting than have private entities doing the corrupting.Such beautiful logic.E.o.M.

  4. sieteocho

    You may not know this, but I like to touch myself.

    I support minstral pay increase. No one can win me in ahgillment. No one can stand against the weight of my interlect. I read alot.

    I, the sieteocho.


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