As a former Prime Minister not involved with the day-to-day running of the government, Emeritus Senior Minister (ESM) Goh Chok Tong is one of the few local politicians in the position to tell it like it is.
And Goh did it again, by tackling head on the politically-contentious topic of ministerial salaries and high defence spending during the dialogue at the South East District Conference on Aug. 2.
In his explanation on the need for competitive ministerial salaries, ESM Goh said the following, which triggered some Singaporeans online:
"So I look for Ministers, anybody who wants to be paid more than half a million, I won’t take him. You are going to end up with very very mediocre people, who can’t even earn a million dollars outside to be our minister. Think about that. Is it good for you, or is it worse for us in the end?"
The "very very mediocre people who can't earn a million dollars" is so soundbite-worthy that it was bound to create all sorts of misconceptions about Goh and how politicians think.
After all, there are only 152,000 millionaires in Singapore.
And many out of the 152,000 do not earn a million dollars a year.
This includes many senior People's Action Party (PAP) politicians who are not ministers, by the way.
So, it's good that ESM Goh took the opportunity to clarify quickly.
In his National Day eve Facebook post, ESM Goh said that he "do not mean nor believe that Singaporeans at whatever level of income are mediocre".
Goh also emphasised that many know that "people matter the most" to him and that was what he was in politics for.
So what's the online kerfuffle about?
Here are three ways to sum up the whole saga.
1. It's not just about asking the right questions, for offering populist suggestions may not solve the problem for Singapore.
The whole saga started when Abdul Aziz, a 70-year-old resident, was concerned about the plight of the elderly and asked ESM Goh whether the government can reduce the salaries of the ministers or the defence budget to pay for an elderly pension fund.
In response, Goh felt that Aziz was asking a populist question, even though he acknowledged that Aziz's idea of supporting the elderly is not wrong.
Hence, the challenge that Goh posed to him and the audience was the need to ensure that the fund is financially sustainable and politically acceptable to the young Singaporeans who are likely to be the ones footing the bill.
2. Ministerial salaries debate, updated.
In his Facebook post, Goh said that while he has no doubt that "Singaporeans will step forward to serve" Singapore in times of crisis, "personal aspirations, freedom, privacy and life-style take precedence" during times of peace and prosperity.
But not everyone can be like Edwin Tong, an example Goh highlighted last week.
Tong was recently appointed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong as a senior minister of state in the latest cabinet reshuffle in April.
Before Tong accepted PM Lee's offer, he sought ESM Goh's advice:
"Edwin Tong, he is a Senior Counsel, he earns more than $2 million. PM asked him to be a Minister of State, one quarter. He came to see me. 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 were you in politics for? Here to serve. So I said you’ve got to serve, 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. So Edwin told me his job in politics is to serve, he said yes, I will take on, and he felt very strongly that he could do the job."
* SC is symbolically recognised as being among the best lawyers in Singapore. There are 60 plus SCs in Singapore, and this constitutes to less than 1 percent of the practising lawyers.
Goh disclosed that Tong likely took a 75 percent pay cut (from his current salary of S$2 million) when he became an office-holder in July.
Actually, Tong is likely to earn about S$935,000 as a Senior Minister of State, not exactly a 75 percent cut. Having said that, a 55 percent pay cut is still substantial.
The point that some failed to understand is that a competitive salary is not used as a pull factor to attract political talents.
Instead, a non-competitive salary is likely to be a push factor for some to not even step forward and serve.
3. Letting Singaporeans decide and allow them to come to their own conclusions.
What is striking from this incident was that fact that ESM Goh decided to share the full transcript of his remarks and that he name checked sociopolitical site The Online Citizen (TOC).
By sharing the whole transcript, ESM Goh is offering transparency to interested Singaporeans who wanted to know the full dialogue exchange.
What ESM Goh perhaps took issue with was a truncated audio clip that distorted his message by omitting the full discussion.
By mentioning TOC, ESM Goh shows that he is confident enough to engage TOC as long as the site made the effort to reach out to Goh.
Goh concluded by saying that he welcomes "diverse and dissenting views" and hopes that more Singaporeans could think deeply about Singapore.
He added that he hopes to engage these diverse and dissenting views soon because "Singapore deserves the best".
Indeed, such a post is one good way to kick start Singapore's 53rd birthday tomorrow.
Top photo from MParader Facebook page