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A List of the 10 Richest Politicians in Singapore Is Undoubtedly Fake News But Still Grossly Underestimates LHL’s (and His Wife’s) Personal Wealth

Recently my attention was drawn to a list published by a South African news site which purports to show Singapore’s 10 Richest Politicians and their net worth. This appears to be a recirculation of an earlier post but it is not clear what its provenance is. It claims that the information comes from Forbes, who publish their well known ranking of global billionaires but that appears to be false as no such list can be found.

The wealth figures have a fake precision down to the nearest $100,000 yet for most of the long serving Ministers they are probably not too far off given the length of time they have been drawing multi-million $ salaries and ensuring their spouses and children are placed into the best paying jobs working for state-owned companies with the best job security in the world.

Since May 2011 salaries for Ministers have ranged from $1 million at the lower end to $2.2 million for PM Lee but before 2011 salaries were 50% higher. Before they became Ministers most of them would have drawn million dollar salaries working in the Civil Service, GLCs or the private sector (which in Singapore means the best jobs irrespective of merit going to those connected to the ruling family and a narrow elite). Asset values including property values and stock markets have also risen sharply over the last two decades.

What this means is that the figures are probably not too implausible and in some cases may be considerable underestimates. For example it is hard to believe that Goh Chok Tong has accumulated less wealth than Tharman. There are some notable omissions as well such as Tony Tan who on top of the millions he earned as a Cabinet Minister is also related to Tan Chin Tuan, the founder of OCBC, and also to LKY.

But where this fake list is almost certainly a huge underestimate, laughably so, is its figure for LHL’s net worth. Not only has he enjoyed multi-million dollar salaries most of his adult life ever since his dad promoted him to be the youngest BG in Singapore history, but his wife has undoubtedly made hundreds of millions after PM Lee appointed her as head of Temasek. Even though she has stepped down she no doubt has a significant share of the Temasek bonus pool and her retirement package, like her remuneration, remains a state secret without any justification. Back in the 1990s LHL was already snapping up multimillion dollar properties at discounts that were not available to mere untalented, envious and undeserving Singaporeans (the Nassim Jade scandal). LHL also must have inherited a sizeable fortune due to the astute investing skills of his parents. I would hazard a conservative guess that LHL and his wife’s personal fortune must be ten or twenty times at least the estimate above of $108 million. This would work out to $1-2 billion. But Singaporeans will never find out because though Ministers are supposed to declare their assets and LHL is supposed to declare his assets to the President that information is never made public. And LHL ensured that death duties were abolished before his dad passed away so that the size of his parents’ estate remained a secret.

LHL’s skill at accumulating such a large fortune is natural given his genetic heritage. After all it was his Dad who said before the 1976 election something about the Opposition comprising never-do-wells and failures, men who even in the management of their own personal finances had failed to accumulate anything. My father’s riposte, for which he paid dearly when he lost the libel suit that was heard by LKY’s relative, was that LKY had managed his own personal fortune beautifully, since his wife was Managing Partner of Lee & Lee, monopoly conveyancer to the HDB, while his brother’s bank, Tat Lee, had been able to obtain a banking licence when other companies had been denied.

Singaporeans need to decide whether being able to accumulate enormous personal fortunes is, as LKY said, a good indicator of ability, not only to grow the economy by importing foreign labour but more importantly to improve the lives of all Singaporeans, or whether it just shows an ability to grab an outsize share of the financial rewards for oneself and one’s family.


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