By Leong Sze Hian & Choo Zheng Xi

Like a responsible board of directors, we may have been constantly keeping our eyes on the bottom line, obsessing over the most cost efficient solutions to build up the solidly reliable Singapore Brand. Perhaps, keeping a country together requires something more than keeping a company solvent, profitable and growing.

But what is it?

While economic news is regularly upbeat, some of the ‘softer’ indicators of success may seem to be going south almost as quickly as our GDP’s going up. Sometimes, the response to these, like a dismissive board of directors faced with corporate social responsibility activists, is to explain away some of these statistics as soft numbers. But aggregated, these ‘soft’ numbers may paint a disturbing picture. Perhaps some of the following statistics give an idea of what we may be leaving by the wayside in our rush to reach ‘the first tier of the First World’:

Singapore was ranked 130th out of 178 countries for Happiness, 40th out of 41 countries for Libido, 30th out of 35 countries for Courtesy, 105th in the world for Income Equality, 140th out of 167 countries for Press Freedom, and 15th out of 16 countries in the Asia Democracy Index, and we have been 5th in the world for Prisoners Per Capita.

Taking It Apart

So we’re a country of unhappy, rude, sexually repressed people with a good crime management system? Many of the above statistics seem to be a barrage of indicators that don’t really make a difference. However, looking at the numbers in totality, one may be inevitably drawn to certain disturbing hypotheses:

That widening chasm

The Gini coefficient is a measure of inequality applied to income distribution. The higher the coefficient, the greater the inequality. Singapore’s latest Gini increased from 0.468 to 0.472. And a closer look at the statistics shows how brittle the rice bowls of the lower income have become.

The percentage of employed households with household income from work below $ 1,000, increased from 5.4 to 5.7%. Average monthly income from work per household member among employed households was only $300 for the 1st to 10th decile, and $540 for the 11th to 20th decile. Average monthly income from work per household member among non-retiree households was only $160 for the 1st to 10th decile, and $470 for the 11th to 20th decile.

With about over one million households, does it mean that about 90,000 non-retiree households are still surviving on only $160 average monthly income from work per household member?

The 1st to 10th decile among employed households had the lowest number of working persons at 1.28, supporting the highest number of average persons in the household of 3.92 persons. Generally, the larger the average household size, the lower were the average number of working persons. This trend persisted until the 70th percentile for average number of working persons.

The number of part timers, the class of workers that have less job security, more than doubled over the decade from 51,400 to 112,300 expanding their share of employment from 3.5% to 6.3%. The median monthly income for part-timers is still the same at $500 compared to 10 years ago. In view of the 118 per cent increase in part-timers for the last decade, it seems that more part timers are working for income of $500 that has not changed for 10 years.

Some may be without a roof over their heads

As at the end of last year, banks have repossessed 1,445 HDB flats financed with bank loans since the start of bank origination in January 2003. In recent months, the rate is about 60 cases a month. This means that 1.6 per cent of HDB flats on bank loans have been foreclosed. 7 per cent of the 89,000 HDB flats with bank loans, which is about 6,230 HDB flat owners, have not been able to pay for more than 3 months. Some of these may become foreclosures.

From 2002 to 2006, some 360 households voluntarily surrendered their flats after defaulting on their HDB concessionary loan repayments. HDB’s annual report said that it provided financial assistance to 28,386 flat-owners in its last financial year. Does this mean that 28,386 flat-owners had difficulty paying their HDB concessionary loan monthly repayments or HDB rental?

Again, it would seem that society’s most vulnerable are the ones who may not have got a good deal, relative to others: in the HDB’s last two offers of 2-room flats, about 42 per cent of the applicants were 55 years and older, and 56 per cent had household incomes of less than $ 1,000 a month.

Folding Our Arms: Too Many Helping Hands?

Is “welfare”a dirty word? While this is a conclusion that many Singaporeans may firmly agree with – thanks to caricatures of Scandinavian 40% taxes and the unemployed being paid substantial amounts to watch TV, consider the following:

At the announcement of the setting up of the ComCare Fund on 19 January 2005, it was said that the five Community Development Councils (CDCs) handled 35,000 hardship cases in 2004, granting almost $40 million in assistance. It would appear that about two years later, the amount of assistance given out has only increased by 70 per cent ($68 divided by $ 40 million), against an increase of 157 per cent in the number of needy families (90,000 divided by 35,000)?

We need many helping hands; and the basic premise that welfare is bad, self reliance good, is perhaps an oversimplification of a complex issue. Preaching self reliance to those who may have worked their lives away and may be in bad shape now, may not be the best starting point with which to help those most in need.

Lock them up and throw the key away

Singapore’s pride and joy is its no-nonsense criminal justice system. It was indeed brutal efficiency that stamped out the gang violence and regular riots Singapore experienced in the 60s. However, high rates of convictions results in an uncomfortable statistic: high rates of prisoners and ex-offenders.

Last year, there were 120,000 ex-offenders whose records were spent, 11,000 ex-offenders are being released every year, plus the current 14,453 prison population. According to the World Prison Population List of King’s College London International Centre for Prison Studies, the prison population rate (per 100,000 of national population) for Singapore, at 350, was the fifth highest in the world.

Consider the social stigma these offenders carry with them: only those convicted of minor crimes and who remain crime-free for five years may have their records marked as spent and those convicted of serious offences and jailed for more than three months or fined more than $2,000 cannot have their records erased. First class prisons systems, maybe. First World attitude in societal attitudes to offenders? Perhaps not?

In Conclusion

With a competent board at the helm, Singapore has grown from strength to strength, and is now talking about entering the ranks of the big boys: the ‘first tier of the First World’.

However, society, unlike the boardroom, is held together by important shared values. GDP may not reflect them, but a close look at these ‘softer’ indicators might also be needed. The eroding ideals of egalitarianism are reflected in the ever increasing Gini coefficient, the socio-economic right to have a house over your head is being undermined by increasingly common foreclosures, and the ever increasing ex-offenders’ population may, in a sense, be putting paid to the rhetoric of a ‘kinder, gentler Singapore’.


About the authors:

Sze Hian has 5 degrees and 13 professional qualifications. A Wharton Fellow, alumnus of Harvard University and the United Nations University International Leadership Academy, he has served as Honorary Consul of Jamaica, President of the Society of Financial Service Professionals, Representative of the Inter-American Economic Council, Chairman of the Institute of Administrative Management, and founding Advisor to the Financial Planning Association of Indonesia. He has been invited to speak more than 100 times in over 15 countries on 5 continents, authored 3 books and quoted over 700 times in the media.

Zheng Xi is currently a law undergrad at the National University Of Singapore.


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