Singapore’s Opposition leader launching a charity war?

Surekha A. Yadav
·3-min read
Surekha A. Yadav
Surekha A. Yadav

AUG 2 — Singapore’s first-ever official parliamentary Leader of the Opposition, Pritam Singh, is already facing some opposition himself.

With his Workers’ Party winning a record 10 (out of 104) parliamentary seats, Pritam was declared Leader of the Opposition by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. 

This designation enables him to hire more administrative assistants and also entitles him to a significantly higher salary.  

An MP receives an allowance (effectively a salary) of around S$190,000 (RM585,805) per annum but with his new appointment, Singh will receive about S$380,000 as compensation. 

It’s a substantial sum though less than the amount received by any government minister who gets at least S$1 million per year as compensation.  

Now where Singh ran into controversy was when he announced he would donate half of his additional allowance as Leader of the Opposition to charity. 

To be clear, this is half of his additional allowance, not half of his total salary — so around S$90,000 dollar a year has been pledged.  

While this seems a rather positive gesture, he was accused of politicising his remuneration. Former Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Calvin Cheng accused him of politicising his charitable donations — turning them into "political theatre."

Cheng pointed out that figures like Lee Hsien Loong and former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew donated large portions and at times even all of their allowance to charities but typically did not announce this. 

But this criticism of Pritam seems misguided.  

Unlike powerful government figures, he is the leader of a still largely powerless Opposition. A large part of his party’s platform focuses on inequality. 

Accepting a high salary from the same government the Workers’ Party has criticised for years was always going to be politically difficult so the announcement of a donation would have been expected.  

In fact, some could argue Pritam should perhaps have considered donating the whole of his additional allowance and not just half of it. 

He could not have expected the increased salary before the election as the Leader of the Opposition post and its benefits had not previously existed.  

He clearly supported himself on the (not insubstantial) salary he received as an ordinary MP, so why accept a dollar more?  

He settled on donating half of his raise and charitable donations should always be encouraged. Maybe he could have done something more creative like establish a fund for young students or the impoverished elderly but charity seems good enough.  

The issue, if there is any at all here, is that charity too can get competitive. What if another MP announces she will be giving away 70 per cent of her salary?

If everyone tries to out-donate each other to increase their popularity, you may end up in a situation where MPs’ salaries are substantially eroded.  

Singapore offers its ministers and MPs some of the highest salaries paid to politicians anywhere and this policy seems to have worked to dissuade the corruption you see in many nations, so eroding politicians’ pay via virtue signalling donations might be a problem.

For now though, this is a very abstract problem — Singapore isn’t facing an avalanche of MP salary donations.  

Pritam’s position is also quite different from that of government MPs who come from the fantastically well-resourced PAP.  

The Workers’ Party, like all opposition parties in Singapore, chronically lacks funds and the future of opposition MPs is anything but secure so in Pritam’s case, accepting more money would have been extremely tempting. 

His decision to turn down some of the money was both politically expedient and probably a genuinely decent thing to do.   

Trying to cast acts of charity as political micro aggression is unlikely to win the government new friends or make the Workers’ Party look particularly bad. 

In the matter of the salary increment, Pritam seems to have played his hand well but there’ll be many more curve balls coming his way.   

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.