By Kevin Lim
SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Rupert Murdoch praised wealthy Singapore for paying its ministers big salaries to avoid corruption, but a government-appointed committee in the Southeast Asian city-state is reviewing the million-dollar packages because of public anger.
"If you look at the most open and clear society in the world which is Singapore, where every minister gets a million dollars a year and the prime minister a lot more, there's no temptation," the 80-year-old tycoon said in a dig at British lawmakers while giving evidence to a parliamentary committee.
The hearing was also the scene of a dramatic attack on Murdoch by a protestor carrying a pie made of shaving cream as the octogenarian defended his son and his media company, News Corporation, over a phone hacking scandal that has rocked the British establishment.
British MPs were recently embroiled in a corruption scandal over false expense claims that resulted in several receiving jail sentences. In contrast, no politician in Singapore, a former British colony, has been charged with corruption in the last 20 years.
Still, the top salaries enjoyed by Singapore ministers may come down, after a May election in which the long-ruling People's Action Party was returned to power with the lowest percentage of the popular vote since independence in 1965.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the world's highest paid political leader with an annual salary of over S$3 million ($2.5 million), has set up a committee to review ministerial pay.
Members of parliament, most of whom hold full-time jobs, get an allowance of about S$15,000 ($12,340) a month -- or about three times the median household income.
"It is the cleanest society you'd find anywhere," said Murdoch of Singapore, where per capita GDP of over $40,000 is higher than many Western countries, but is ranked below the likes of Zimbabwe in terms of media freedom.
Britain, where Murdoch has a large share of the newspaper publishing business, is ranked 19th in terms of press freedom by Reporters Without Borders while Singapore is number 137.
Tan Jee Say, a former top civil servant and fund manager who hopes to contest Singapore's upcoming presidential elections, said public anger in the city-state stemmed from the perception that ministers were grossly overpaid.
"They told us that they needed the high pay in order to get the most talented and competent people to run the government... We did not get the most talented people," he said.
"The broader issue is that politics is a public service. Other corruption-free countries such as Denmark and New Zealand do not need to pay their ministers astronomical salaries to keep them clean," he added.
Singapore pegs the salaries of its ministers to two-thirds the amount received by top earners in the private sector, and Prime Minister Lee's salary is more than six times the $400,000 earned by U.S. President Barack Obama.
Many Singaporeans do not oppose paying politicians high salaries. The dispute is over how high.
"I agree with Murdoch. We have strict laws against corruption but the stick cannot work without the carrot," said market researcher Aaron Chew.
"(But) given that ministers get to decide on their salaries, aren't we in essence giving them a blank check in the name of preventing corruption?"
($1 = 1.215 Singapore Dollars)
(Additional reporting by Charmian Kok; Editing by Daniel Magnowski)