Salary Showdown: Singapore's Prime Minister Tosses Opposition Leader A Few Crumbs

Salary Showdown: Singapore's Prime Minister Tosses Opposition Leader A Few Crumbs
Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images
What you need to know

Singapore’s Prime Minister remains an extravagantly paid outlier.

Singapore’s People’s Action Party (PAP) in July had one of its worst post-independence elections, surrendering 10 parliamentary seats to the Workers’ Party (WP).

In the election’s aftermath, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong created a new official position, Leader of the Opposition, appointing Pritam Singh of the WP. Singapore’s government has been controlled by the ruling PAP since 1959, and the opposition has barely made headway. 

The Leader of the Opposition will be entitled to a salary of S$385,000 (US$280,000) annually. This is roughly equal to opposition leaders of some of the major Westminster system countries. Singapore’s Prime Minister remains the extravagantly paid outlier. 

The chart below compares the salaries of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the U.K. We can see that while Singapore’s prime minister is paid extravagantly more than the other prime ministers, the city-state’s Opposition Leader is paid at a more equivalent level with other opposition leaders.

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Sources: Singapore (Prime Minister Salary, Opposition Leader Salary), Australia (Prime Minister Salary, Opposition Leader Salary), New Zealand (Prime Minister Salary, Opposition Leader Salary), Canada (Prime Minister Salary, Opposition Leader Salary), United Kingdom (Prime Minister Salary, Opposition Leader Salary)

The disparity between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in Singapore is wider than these Westminster system countries. The Prime Minister earns nearly six times the salary of the Leader of the Opposition, compared to only 1.6, 1.4 and 1.3 times in New Zealand, Australia and Canada, respectively. In the U.K., the Leader of the Opposition earns almost on par with the Prime Minister.

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In these other countries, the Leader of the Opposition is also paid similarly to a Cabinet minister, ranging from about 96.1 to 107 percent of a minister. The Australian government explains that the opposition leader’s salary is close to that of a Cabinet minister because his or her duties are “arduous, for he has to be prepared to discuss every Bill introduced by the Government.”

Related: On the Distorted Logic of Ministerial Salaries in Singapore 

However, in Singapore, the opposition leader is only paid between 21.9 and 35 percent of the salary of cabinet ministers, which ranges between S$1.1 million (US$800,000) to S$1.76 million (US$1.28 million) annually. 

While Prime Minister Lee said after the election that the opposition should be expected to “put forward serious policy alternatives to be scrutinized and debated” after winning only 10 seats, it is clear that Singh’s salary at only 17.5 percent of the prime minister and roughly between a quarter and a third of Cabinet ministers is not commensurate with the responsibilities Lee demands of him. If the opposition leader is required to develop policies at the level of the prime minister and ministers, he should be paid a similar salary.

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Globally, the salaries of political leaders tend to correspond to their countries’ GDP per capita. Prime ministers of the four Westminster countries we have been comparing earn between 4.8 to 7.4 times their country’s GDP per capita. However, in Singapore, the prime minister earns 24.7 times the GDP per capita. 

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We next look at whether this is the same case with the salary for the Leader of the Opposition. In the other countries, the opposition leaders earn between 4.3 to 5.1 times the GDP per capita. In Singapore, the opposition leader is paid among the lowest salaries in relation to GDP per capita, at 4.3 times, on par with Canada.

Moreover, Pritam Singh has said that he would donate half the salary increase from becoming Leader of the Opposition, equal to S$96,000 (US$70,000) to assist low-income residents in WP constituencies, fund community programs, and party needs. After accounting for the donation, the WP chief would earn 3.2 times that of Singapore’s GDP per capita.

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While the prime ministers in the four other Westminster system countries earn between 5.2 to 7.9 times the median wage, Singapore’s prime minister earns a whopping 45.8 times this amount. 

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The charts comparing prime minister salaries with GDP per capita and median wages look quite similar — with one exception. While Singapore’s prime minister earns 24.7 times Singapore’s GDP per capita, this number is an even higher 45.8 times the median wage.

Related: The Crazy Rich Salaries of Singapore's Ministers Versus the Poor Peasants Who Support Them 

This is because while the median wages in other countries are almost equivalent to their GDPs per capita, Singapore’s median wage is only 53.9 percent of its GDP per capita. In other words, while the middle-income workers at median wage in other countries are compensated at a level that corresponds to their country’s GDP per capita, Singapore’s middle-income workers are compensated at only half the GDP per capita. 

In fact, Singapore’s GDP per capita is the highest among these countries, but its median wage is the lowest at S$4,000 (US$2,900) a month.

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While Singapore’s prime minister earns a whopping 45.8 times the median wage, the Opposition Leader only earns eight times the median wage. In fact, after his donation, this is brought down to only six times the median wage, to be on par with the other countries in this comparison.

Comparing the prime ministers’ salaries to minimum wages, we see that the salary of the prime minister is 8.2 to 14 times the wage floor in the four other Westminster system countries. The opposition leader’s salary is 7.5 to 9.9 times the minimum wage. Singapore does not have a minimum wage, but even if we compare the basic wage of S$1,236 (US$900) that outsourced resident cleaners earn under Singapore’s “progressive wage model,” the prime minister still earns 148.3 times the salary of these cleaners. 

The opposition leader, on the other hand, earns only 26 times more than the wages of cleaners (or 19.5 times, accounting for the donation), though it is comparatively higher than the other countries because Singapore’s cleaners already earn the lowest wages among advanced economy countries with a comparable GDP per capita.

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The international comparisons reveal that Singapore’s median wage and the wages of low-income workers are paltry. While the salary of Singapore’s prime minister (and other officeholders) is jacked up, the wages of Singapore’s workers are being depressed. 

Opposition leader Singh’s normal salary, and his donation, exposes the rhetoric that Singapore’s ministers need to be paid an extravagant salary to do their job: it doesn’t have to be this way. 

While the PAP government claims it needs to pay Singapore’s officeholders a high salary, that it is only willing to pay the Leader of the Opposition a comparatively low salary — even lower than any of the officeholders — shows that such a claim does not hold water. 


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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty, Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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