In Parliament, who stays and who goes?

By Calida Soh and Gwen Lee

ILLUSTRATION: LORAINE LEE YEN


The short answer is that nobody really knows, not even the MPs themselves. That’s because leaders of their respective political parties will make the call. Former Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say, an MP for East Coast GRC, found out about this in 2011 after he dropped public hints about retiring from politics only to have the Prime Minister say: "(it) is not up to him to decide on his own; it depends on me and I haven't agreed to let him go".


So Mr Lim stayed on to fight in GE2015, moving from head of the labour movement to take the post of Manpower Minister.


Since the release of the new electoral boundaries on Mar 13, some political parties have staked out territorial claims and most are likely in discussions of who to field and re-field.


Related Story: Boundaries report: What’s changed and why it matters


For GE2011, a total of 18 MPs stepped down, including eight office-holders. Among them were Cabinet ministers including Deputy Prime Minister S Jayakumar, who retired at age 72 citing health reasons, and Ministers Lee Boon Yang, Yeo Cheow Tong, Yu-Foo Yee Shoon and Lim Boon Heng.


Before GE2015, there were 15 outgoing MPs, including four former Cabinet Ministers: Mr Wong Kan Seng, Mr Raymond Lim, Mr Lui Tuck Yew and Mr Mah Bow Tan. Mr Wong, Mr Lim and Mr Mah left the Cabinet after GE2011, an election which resulted in the People’s Action Party (PAP) vote share sinking to 60.1 per cent, its lowest since independence. They remained as backbenchers after GE2011 and were not fielded in GE2015.


Mr Lui’s case was somewhat different. The incumbent Transport Minister did not just leave the Cabinet, but left politics altogether, which was a move to salve public displeasure over the state of public transport. He had asked to quit one month after Singapore’s worst rail disruption on July 7, 2015 and to not stand for re-election. PM Lee Hsien Loong said his resignation was accepted ‘reluctantly’. After that, Mr Lui was appointed the Ambassador of Singapore to Japan in 2017 and was appointed Ambassador of Singapore to China last year.


Another notable move was by Mr Hri Kumar Nair, former MP for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC. While no one bats an eyelid when a civil servant becomes a politician, he took the reverse route. The private-practice lawyer dropped out of politics and was appointed Deputy Attorney-General in 2017.


See our chart on who stepped down here:

ILLUSTRATION: LORAINE LEE YEN


The reason for the turnovers given by the PAP has always been the need to refresh the party ranks with new blood, including those whom the party believes have a long run-way, that is, of ministerial calibre.


Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, at age 79, is the oldest MP in the current term of Parliament. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan are both 10 years younger. This is likely to be Mr Lee’s last election as Prime Minister, his 9th since he first joined politics in 1984 as the MP for Teck Ghee Single Member Constituency (SMC). Mr Khaw is from a later cohort. He first joined parliament as MP for Tanjong Pagar GRC after the 2001 election.


The median age of PAP MPs in the current Parliament is 53 years old. Of the six elected opposition MPs, the median age is 57 years old.


Former office-holders who are now backbenchers are Mr Yaacob Ibrahim, 64, Mr Lim Hng Kiang, 65, and Mr Lim Swee Say, 66, who stepped down from their ministerial posts in a 2018 Cabinet reshuffle.


See our chart on who’s how old in the 13th Parliament here.


It seems likely that Mr Lim, who had helmed both the Manpower Ministry and the National Trades Union Congress, will get his wish this time round. If so, the PAP will lose a heavyweight candidate in East Coast GRC (which has been increased from four to five members) unless the ruling party moves its chess pieces around the board.


In 2018, Dr Yaacob Ibrahim was asked by CNA if he would be running as an MP in the next election. His reply was: “You have to ask the Prime Minister that”. He added that he will wait for instructions from PM Lee before prioritising other aspects of his life.


The former Minister of Communications and Information gave a further hint of his own inclination when he delivered what appeared to be his swan song during the Budget Debate last month in Parliament.


“It has been an opportunity of a lifetime to be able to serve the people of Singapore, as an elected member of parliament,” he said in his speech thanking past and present speakers of parliament, colleagues and parliament staff. “I will always cherish this experience for the rest of my life.”


But like Mr Lim in East Coast GRC, Dr Yaacob’s four-member Jalan Besar GRC does not have another Cabinet minister on the slate. The other three MPs are Dr Lily Neo, 67, Mr Heng Chee How, 59, and Ms Denise Phua, 61.


Mr Lim Hng Kiang has been in political office since 1991 and he ranks as one of the longest-serving ministers after PM Lee. Even after he stepped down from Cabinet in 2018, he was appointed special advisor to the trade and industry minister. Since Mr Lim’s first election, he has stayed in West Coast GRC, which will have Communications and Information Minister S Iswaran to hold the fort after Mr Lim retires.


Lower down the line is Mr Lee Yi Shyan, 58, who used to be the senior minister of state for national development as well as trade and industry. He asked for a lighter load right after GE2015 after suffering from a minor stroke.


Then there are MPs who have stepped down because of scandals. In 2012, former MP for Punggol East Michael Palmer stepped down after his affair with a staff member of the grassroots People's Association was exposed. In another incident, the former MP for Bukit Batok David Ong in 2016 resigned suddenly which he said was because of a “personal indiscretion on my part which I deeply regret”. He was believed to have had an extramarital affair with a grassroots activist in his ward.


WHAT DO EX-MPS GET IN RETURN?


Remuneration-wise, office holders and MPs are treated just like civil servants on the CPF scheme. But exceptions are made for MPs elected before 1995 and office holders appointed before mid-2011. These parliamentarians, who must have served for at least eight years, will receive a pension when they step down. The pension is more generous for office holders of at least 18 years, which is about 11 per cent of their last drawn total annual package.


In the current Parliament, notable ministers who will be receiving pensions when they step down include Mr Goh Chok Tong, Mr Lee Hsien Loong, Mr K Shanmugam, Mr Lim Hng Kiang, Mr Teo Chee Hean, Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, Mr Lim Swee Say, Mr Khaw Boon Wan, Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Dr Mohamad Maliki Bin Osman, Mr Gan Kim Yong and Dr Ng Eng Hen.


Based on the salary benchmark from the 2012 White Paper, an entry-level Minister of State (MR4) typically earns a wage of $1.1 million yearly. Putting this into perspective, that is $55,000 a month, based on the fixed and variable pay components. This number is based on 60 per cent of the median income of the top 1,000 Singapore Citizen earners, which will be increased as the ministers are promoted up the ranks.


Those who hold multiple positions will still receive only one pay package. As MPs do not have an executive role, they are only given a monthly allowance with a thirteen-month bonus and an Annual Variable Component (which varies from 0 to 1.5 months). The annual allowance of MPs is pegged at $192,500, which is 17.5 per cent of the MR4’s annual salary. This amounts to approximately $13,750.


It will always be a political gamble to retire experienced politicians, but it is a necessary move to allow young blood to take over the reins for the longevity of the party. As PM Lee prepares to step down after the upcoming general election, all eyes are peeled on the 4G leaders waiting in the wings.

By NUS Communications and New Media

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