Analysts: Singapore govt decision on whether to raise political salaries hinges on need to attract talent, economic sensitivities

SINGAPORE, Jan 11 — In considering whether or not to raise political salaries, the government has to strike a balance between ensuring it can keep attracting top talent and being sensitive to the challenges faced by Singaporeans, political experts told TODAY today.

This is especially given the high inflation and the recent Goods and Services Tax (GST) increase.

The government’s decision will therefore not be a straightforward one, even though it has been at least 12 years since salaries of political office holders were last altered, the experts said.

Yesterday, Minister-in-charge of the Public Service Chan Chun Sing said that the government aims to have an independent committee carry out the next salary review for political office holders this year.

The five-yearly review of political salaries was last held in 2018. Back then, the review committee suggested that salaries be raised by 9 per cent, but the government decided that the wages should remain the same as the economy was “still in transition”.

Political analysts said that the economy is in an even more precarious state now, but given that political salaries had remained unchanged since 2011, the government may be faced with the unenviable task of having to raise salaries anyway.

Said associate professor of law at the Singapore Management University (SMU) Eugene Tan: “It boils down to how they can persuade Singaporeans that any adjustment upwards is not self-serving… but it’s also about trying to ensure that we are still able to attract talented and competent men and women.”

How are political salaries determined?

The independent committee in 2018 was the second convened since 2011 to review the basis and level of political salaries.

In the 2018 review, the wages comprise fixed and variable components which were linked to individual performance and national outcomes.

The salaries were pegged to the median income of the top 1,000 earners who are Singapore citizens, with a 40 per cent discount to reflect the ethos of political service.

This was based on a salary framework and structure for political office holders’ annual salary that were established in 2012.

The salary revision that followed, which was made public in January 2012, had led to pay cuts of 37 per cent for ministers to S$1.1 million a year, and 36 per cent to S$2.2 million for the prime minister, among others. These cuts were backdated to May 2011.

In 2018, the committee recommended a 9 per cent pay hike, but this suggestion was not taken up and the salaries were maintained.

Dr Gillian Koh, deputy director of research at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), describes political salaries as a “complex” issue. “When the man-in-the-street discusses it, he cuts straight to the idea that these are ‘ministers with million-dollar salaries’,” she said.

She added that how the salaries are established by the committee, as well as the principles and rationale behind them, while important, “seem to be of little interest to the general public”.

Assoc Prof Tan said given that salaries had not been raised despite a review in 2018, there may be additional pressure to do so this year.

“If you have a practice of not implementing salary increments, it could raise questions of what the review is about,” he said.

Agreeing, Dr Koh asked: “If we have salaries that are benchmarked to the salaries of the highest paid in the land albeit with a 40 per cent discount since these are for public service roles, why are the salaries not adjusted annually as was intended?”

Both the 2011 and 2018 committees were chaired by social services champion Gerard Ee. TODAY understands that the committee for this year’s salary review has not been convened yet.

Why it is difficult to raise salaries?

In considering whether or not to raise political salaries, the government has to take into account factors such as the current economic conditions and the “political question” of whether it is expedient to do so, said the experts.

Thus, the government will be sensitive to public opinion when making the decision to raise or maintain salaries, said Dr Elvin Ong, an assistant professor of political science at the National University of Singapore.

“After all, government ministers are paid by public taxpayers so the public will judge whether any government decision is judicious or not,” he said.

Dr Ong said that an increase in political salaries in the current inflationary climate and rise in GST “may be perceived by the public as an unnecessary move”.

“However, this perception must be weighed against the view that it is necessary to pay ministers well to attract suitable talent to join politics and to provide effective governance for Singapore,” he added.

Agreeing, human resources expert Adrian Choo said that it is “unheard of” in any profession to have a salary revision once every five years.

He said that in an ideal world, politicians would choose to enter the profession not for the pay, but solely to serve Singaporeans.

However, the fact remains that many potential political talents could command higher salaries in the private sector, he said.

“We have to pay our leaders a premium, that’s how you attract career politicians rather than people who work for (one election cycle) but don’t think long term,” he said.

Said Dr Felix Tan, a political analyst from Nanyang Technological University: “It’s a very difficult and complex situation; on one hand, you have to take into consideration how Singaporeans are going to view it, but on the other hand, ministers have not had an increase in their salaries… even with the review in 2018.”

He also said that the next General Election, which must be held no later than Nov 23, 2025, will likely be part of the government’s considerations on how to time the salary increase.

“It might not be such a prudent move for the government to increase ministerial salaries in a significant way prior to an election,” he said. — TODAY

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