And based on this observation, he justified the staggering salary levels that he and his cabinet colleagues awarded themselves. “Singapore has to maintain a high quality of government,” he explained in 2012, “otherwise we are going to go back down and we are going to be a mediocre country...To do that, you must have the pay system right.”
(For the record, Mr Lee's salary is not officially made public but estimates have it at nearly $200,000 a month. There is also no information about how much the ministers are paid which, in a world demanding ever greater transparency, is an absurd proposition.)
So is the PM and his colleagues worth what they are paid? If we adjudge ministerial salaries using Mr Lee's rhetoric of “exceptional leadership”, the answer is a clear no.
Every which way one looks, it is exceedingly difficult to find justification that allows one to come to the conclusion that the PAP leadership is unusually outstanding, the textbook definition of “exceptional”.
Economically, Singapore is foundering. There is hardly an indicator on the horizon that one can point to that bodes well for our future: productivity growth is in stasis, skills and jobs are mismatched, shopping malls are emptying out, real estate prices are taking a beating, O&G companies are getting financially unstuck, workers are unhappy, employment growth for locals is flat-lining – the list grows lengthier by the day.
Lee Kuan Yew himself acknowledged that our economy has grown “by just importing labour” (emphasis added) while Lee Hsien Loong admitted that we have milked this tactic dry.
Worse, there seems to be little direction as far as the future is concerned other than the government recycling failed policies and hectoring Singaporeans to work harder and for cheaper.
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Municipally, there has been a horrific spate of mishaps including HDB-lift malfunctions which killed a man and severely injured two women. Heavy concrete structures on HDB blocks in Choa Chu Kang, Tampines and MacPherson estates crumbled off due to shoddy construction which could have ended in fatalities.
Then there is, of course, the interminable breakdowns of the MRT system which the authorities remain at a loss on how to fix.
Security-wise, the riot in Little India and the woeful police response, the repeated breaches of the Causeway checkpoints, the almost-comical escape of Mas Selamat – an allegedly dangerous terrorist – all ask hard questions of the competence of those in government.
The outbreak of the Hepatitis-C virus which killed eight patients and infected many more, the upsurge of dengue cases in recent years, the return of tuberculosis, and the Zika explosion belie the claims of competence – let alone exceptionalism – by the PAP.
In terms of government spending, a damning report issued by the Auditor General earlier this year cited the “lack of financial accountability” across multiple ministries. This included the infamous instances of a dumpster costing taxpayers $800,000 to construct and the purchase of a $500,000 computer that could not be integrated into the existing system.
Any thinking person – even if she thinks that the PAP has its plus points – would not, indeed cannot, reasonably tag such governance as exceptional.
Which brings us to the subject of ministers' salaries. If there is to be fidelity to the idea of meritocracy, then there is no reason why the current set of ministers should retain its present wage levels.
The pedestrian leadership deserves a salary level that is commensurate with its ability. The ministers must go beyond a symbolic salary cut – that is, if they are thinking of staging a show of “solidarity” with the people.
To this end, the SDP has worked out a formula that effectively pegs the prime minister's salary at $56,000 a month and about three-quarters of that for senior members of the cabinet.
Just as workers are told that wages cannot outstrip productivity, PAP ministers cannot insist on paying themselves salaries that are desperately out of kilter with their collective performance.
When politicians tell the people to do one thing, then turn around and do the exact opposite for themselves, there can only be one outcome: the erosion of moral leadership. When this happens, society will ride a slow but inevitable ride to trouble and despair.