Thanks to the late Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore was built on a philosophy of cleanliness from the streets to politics.
For the latter, Lee, Singapore’s founding father, believed in paying politicians well. The idea was to secure their commitment while protecting MPs from influence peddling by the private sector. Singapore’s current prime minister Lee Hsien Loong — Lee’s son — receives S$2.2mn ($1.6mn) annually, four times what the US president earns. The benchmark level of a minister’s annual income is S$1.1mn, according to government data, much higher than what politicians earn in countries such as the UK.
But their state salary is only part of Singaporean MPs’ income — many have outside roles, including “full-time” executive jobs at companies.
Now fresh questions over the transparency of such roles have been raised after one of the country’s biggest technology companies appointed an MP to an influential position before backtracking.
The New York-listed Grab is a ride-hailing, food delivery and financial services group that has grown rapidly to have a dominant presence in the city through its “super app”. Its signature green and white logo is everywhere in the Lion City.
Tin Pei Ling from the ruling People’s Action party was appointed as head of public policy for Grab. As chair of the Parliamentary Committee for Communications and Information, she is potentially privy to information that may benefit Grab as well as influence regulatory affairs. Grab is facing regulation that would affect its business, for instance around the rights of gig economy workers.
There is no suggestion Tin or Grab intended the company to reap benefits it might not have otherwise. And taking a second job as an MP is permitted under Singapore law. The problem was the potential for conflicts of interest to arise.
The company itself has acknowledged such risks. “Much thought and care was given to address any potential conflict of interest that may arise when Pei Ling was hired,” Grab said when, in response to a public outcry, it moved Tin to a different role at the tech company in business development.
“The discourse has led us to pause and reflect on how we can create an environment where Pei Ling can serve effectively in both her roles as an MP as well as representing Grab. We acknowledge that this is difficult if the intent behind every action or position she takes in the future is doubted or called into question.”
Tin’s salary was not disclosed. That is not unusual in Singapore. Finding such information — even the roles MPs hold — can be challenging. Unlike in the UK or US, there is no list of politicians’ financial interests. MPs are only required to disclose to the prime minister in confidence their business and professional interests and any other fees they receive.
Such an approach seems an anomaly in transparency to some. Michael Barr, an associate professor in international relations at Flinders University, says: “One of the most extraordinary things about Singapore politicians is how thoroughly they manage to keep their business interests under wraps.”
Mak Yuen Teen at the National University of Singapore believes there is an unhealthy blurring of the lines between government and business in the democratic city-state. As such, a public register of financial interests for MPs would be a “good idea”.
Singapore still has a strong reputation in governance. While not immune to corruption or scandals, it ranks highly globally as a clean place for business. Last year, it scored 83 out of 100 on a widely used corruption index by the global group Transparency International, beaten only by Denmark, Finland, New Zealand and Norway.
The next review of Singapore’s public sector salaries, held every five years, is set for this year. At a time of soaring costs for citizens, MPs earning more than S$1mn while also taking on roles in the private sector may draw more attention than they have in the past. New leadership and elections are also on the horizon and the PAP is facing declining popularity, especially among younger voters.
In such an environment, some argue more transparency on MPs and their outside pay might build confidence. “I’m not sure statements like the ‘ultimate safeguard is still MPs’ own conscience and judgment’ really cut it any more,” says David Black, the founder of Blackbox, a Singapore research firm.