Lee Kuan Yew called me a dinosaur after I didn't support his proposal on ministerial salaries: Tommy Koh

Candid as ever.

Sulaiman Daud | January 06, 2022, 09:16 PM

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Tommy Koh, former Singapore Ambassador to the United Nations, current Ambassador-at-large and doyen of local political commentators, had some interesting things to say after reading a book about the People's Action Party (PAP).

The book is titled "A History of the People's Action Party 1985 - 2021", written by Shashi Jayakumar, the head of the Centre of Excellence for National Security at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

It was recently launched by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Dec. 14.

Jayakumar took over ten years to research and write the book, review party materials and government documents from the National Archives, and interview over 60 PAP leaders.

Jayakumar also shared that the idea for the book came from the late Lee Kuan Yew, whom he also interviewed for the book.

Koh didn't delve into the book's contents too much, but instead laid out three issues he was interested in.

Operation Spectrum

The first was the arrest of 22 people who were allegedly involved in a Marxist conspiracy to "topple the government".

Koh wrote that one of the 22 was a student of his at NUS Law School, Teo Soh Lung.

He asked for permission to both read the dossier on her, and visit her at the detention centre on Whitley Road. He was able to bring about "some improvements" to the conditions of her detention.

Koh said:

"The problem was that she was not given an opportunity to confront her accuser and defend herself. According to Shashi the government found evidence of the connection between the 22 detainees and the Communist Party of Malaya. However, we are not shown this evidence."

How the book covered Operation Spectrum

From the book itself, Jayakumar wrote:

"Only after the 2 June 1987 meeting with PM Lee and government officials did Archbishop Gregory Yong (having been shown the evidence gathered) state that he was satisfied that the government had a case against Vincent Cheng, and that the government's actions were not directed against the church."

In a footnote, Jayakumar also said:

"When interviewed, Goh Chok Tong noted that he had shown S Dhanabalan (who was uncomfortable with the arrests) evidence of the links that the security services had uncovered between those detained, Tan Wah Piow and ultimately the CPM."

Dhanabalan was then the minister for foreign affairs and national development.

Dhanabalan did not make public his doubts nor criticise his cabinet colleagues at the time of the arrests as he was part of the cabinet and bound by collective responsibility.

HDB electoral carrot

Koh also commented on the PAP's housing policy. He called the linking of votes to the priority of upgrading of HDB estates "one of the few mistakes" made by Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, and said he wanted to find out more about it.

Koh said, "I believe that we must draw a line between the party and the government and between the government and the state. The queue for upgrading should be decided by the HDB, on objective criteria, free of political considerations."

He added that he felt that the policy has not worked, and that the "more you try to punish the voters of Hougang the more loyal they will be to the Workers' Party."

Koh said the conclusion is that Singaporean voters can neither be bullied or bought.

How the book covered the issue

Jayakumar's book did touch upon the issue, including a 1992 speech from then-PM Goh, where he said, "The voter must feel that he is better off he if chooses the right party and worse off if he votes the wrong one."

Jayakumar also included various PAP members' defence of such an approach. He noted a speech made by then-Labour Minister Lee Boon Yang in 1992, who said that only "mindless" people would liken the electoral carrot of upgrading to "bribery."

Instead, Lee held that it was an "extremely logical" approach, in that people would be naive to think they could vote against the PAP and still expect the same quality of life as if they had supported it.

He added that this would be the surest way to a "freak election result", which in PAP terminology refers to voters who want the PAP to form the government but "unwittingly" vote it out.

Ministerial salaries

Koh covered this well-worn ground, but revealed an interesting new tidbit of information.

The late Lee Kuan Yew invited Koh to lunch to "test (his) reaction" to the proposal of linking ministerial salaries to the top earners in the private sector.

According to Koh:

"He was very disappointed when I told him that I could not support his proposal. I warned him that his proposal would lead to the lowering of the moral authority of our political leaders.

He told me that I was a dinosaur and that my sons would agree with his proposal."

Salary review in 2011

In the book, Jayakumar wrote that then-PM Goh acknowledged the political cost of raising salaries, but believed that it had to weighed against the "greater cost" of not having a Cabinet of "exceptional integrity and ability", referring to the PAP's belief that salaries needed to be competitive when compared to the private sector in order to recruit such talents.

Then-SM Lee Kuan Yew suggested in 1994 to have a formula by which ministerial salaries can be calculated, so that revisions did not need to be made every few years.

However, during the debate on the White Paper on ministerial salaries, Goh notably emphasised the "moral authority" and said that monetary reward could not be the "principal motivating factor" for anyone wanting to become Prime Minister. Instead, they had to be motivated by a "deep sense of responsibility" towards their fellow citizens and further their interests.

In 2011, the same year as the general election, PM Lee Hsien Loong oversaw a review of ministerial salaries.

The Prime Minister's Office released a statement that said ministerial salaries "should have a significant discount to comparable private-sector salaries to signify the value and ethos of political service."

Some of the key recommendations included a new benchmark, which is based on 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.

There was also a new salary framework and National Bonus linked to the socioeconomic progress of average and lower income Singaporeans; and the removal of the pension scheme.

The outcomes meant that there was a reduction of total annual salary of between 36 per cent to 51 per cent for Ministers and the President.

You can see Koh's post below:

Mothership has contacted Shashi Jayakumar for comment.

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Top image from Harvard Law and Tommy Koh's Facebook page.

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