Dear Mr Lee Kuan Yew,
I refer to the 19 Jan 2012 Straits Times report of your comments on ministerial salaries.
You said unless we have high quality men and women to serve as PM and ministers, Singapore the little red dot will become a black spot. Belgium reportedly had no government for more than a year, yet Belgium didn’t turn into a black patch. Belgium is living proof against your claim and it is not difficult to see why. It is the civil service that essentially runs the show in the background. Ministers can come and go but as long as we have good civil service, Singapore won’t turn into a black spot. The civil service is not a one man show but a gathering of many high quality men and women guided by nearly two hundred years of experiences accumulated since the colonial days.
You said we cannot underpay our ministers. But in many cases, ministers receive a pay jump when they joined politics. How can it be that they are underpaid when they are paid more than before? You said ministers go through risky, uncertain, unpredictable elections. Only two minister casualties since 1965. Not so risky after all.
You said every family wants to send their children to a good university. Harvard University total cost of attendance for 2011 – 2012 is US$60,200 including tuition fees. If ministers’ child spends four years at Harvard, he would need about US$240,800 or SGD $328,331 in total. As such, minister has no need for million dollar salaries to pay for his child’s Harvard education, he just needs $328,331. If minister serves one term of five years drawing $328,331 each year, he would be able to send five children to Harvard.
You said the PM and his ministers’ macroeconomic policies decide the country’s GDP. That’s hardly the case. Macroeconomic policies can influence but not decide the country’s GDP. If the government can unilaterally decide GDP through macroeconomic policies, why does it allow our GDP to slide every time there is a global or regional crisis? Quite obviously, GDP depends on the global economic climate. More importantly, GDP depends on the success or failure of each and every individual, firm or business because GDP really is the sum of the output of all individuals, firms and organisations and is therefore collectively decided by them. Nokia hasn’t been selling as many phones as it used to so Nokia’s contribution to Finland GDP has come down. What macroeconomic policy can nurse Nokia back to health? Quite obviously, macroeconomic policies aren’t going to help Nokia much. Apple Computers on the other hand, has been selling many phones and computers so its GDP contribution to the US has been going up. Do you think the American government turned on some macroeconomic magic to bring this about?
You said you and your colleagues took Singapore from Third World to First World not by getting people of calibre to give up too much so we mustn’t reduce Singapore to another ordinary Third World country by dodging competitive minister pay. Firstly, Singapore wasn’t Third World when you took charge in 1959. Back in 1960, we were already ranked second in Asia after Japan and 34th out of 111 economies worldwide based on our real per capita GDP of $4,299 (The University of Pennsylvania’s Centre for International Comparisons). Countries that were listed as low income by the World Bank in 2010 were having real per capita GDPs ranging from $2,546 (Nicaragua) to $259 (Burundi) and averaging $862 in 1960. We were clearly above Third World already when you took over so you can’t possibly have taken us from Third World to First World.
While we may not be as prosperous in 1959 as we are today, neither were we as poor as you’d make us out to be as the following books will attest to:
In Chapter 1 of the book “The Practice of Economic Growth”, Dr Goh Keng Swee concluded that the Singapore economy works in much the same way as it did under the British and that the basic thinking and philosophy behind our success remained essentially unchanged since colonial days. He offered the following reasons why Singapore succeeded:
- Lean, mean administration, freedom for merchants and bankers to exercise their talents and minimal taxes
- Free competition forcing businesses to continually adapt to changing circumstances
So for Dr Goh, Singapore became extraordinary for reasons of geography, neighbouring conditions and most important of all, colonial institutions and practices which he regarded as priceless. He didn’t list extraordinary ministers as the reason for Singapore becoming extraordinary. Singaporeans should not be held hostage to the idea that our continued success depends on ministers who have time and again proven to be so ordinary.