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Land of milk and money – and the politics of envy

Singapore has changed.

And I am not talking about physical changes such as the new MRT Circle Line or the new shopping malls or even the upcoming Integrated Resorts.

One can almost feel the fundamental changes that are taking place – in the hearts and minds of Singaporeans.

Although economic progress is of course important for our livelihood, it is beginning to become the overarching, some would say over-bearing, force that threatens to consume us into an endless, meaningless cycle.

A selfish nation

The first change one would have observed is the government itself setting a different tone for society – with the rise in the salaries of government ministers. The issue has been debated vigorously and heatedly, with the government electing to go ahead with the increase.

The tone of society has changed.

If those at the top put such absolute importance on monetary rewards, then it is not possible for them anymore to preach about values such as selflessness, charity, compassion and service.

When leaders set such standards, the rest of society takes the cue.

We are at risk of becoming a selfish nation. Indeed, some people think that we already are.

Caring for the old

The Minister in charge of ageing issues, Mr Lim Boon Heng, is quoted by channelnewsasia as saying: “I would like to maintain and promote… that it is the duty of the family to look after its old.” (Channelnewsasia)

On the surface, this looks like a reasonable argument. But when one considers that MCYS Minister Vivian Balakrishnan had said that the government prefers a “many-hands approach” to caring for the needy, one would have to ask Mr Lim Boon Heng if the government would be willing to do more to help the family care for the old.

The perception among some Singaporeans is that when it comes to the needy and the elderly, the government pushes the responsibility to the family. These same family members are then persuaded to work longer, retire later (if ever) and have the withdrawal of their CPF monies delayed.

All this while the government too opens the door wide to foreign workers who is here to help “average down the wage cost for employers”.

It seems like Singaporeans are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

An “all-for-money” nation

If one reads the newspapers or watch our local television channels, one would be inundated with stories and reports of how well we are doing – the stock market reaching new heights, the property market is booming, we are clinching deals everywhere, from India to China to Dubai.

Almost everyday, you would read about millions of dollars here, billions of dollars there being invested by the Singapore government.

The question some have asked is: Do all these benefit the average Singaporean?

Endless cycle of rising costs

With the continued influx of foreigners, wages remain depressed. Indeed, this is the very reason which our then deputy prime minister Lee Hsien Loong cited for letting such huge numbers of foreigners into Singapore:

"If we did not have some foreign workers to average down the wage cost for the employers, are you sure the employers can survive in Singapore?"

- DPM Lee Hsien Loong, Straits Times, Oct 29, 2001

The recent spate of cost/price increases has thrown up the question of whether Singaporeans themselves can survive in Singapore instead. And now, there are rumblings by the foreigners (or expats) in Singapore as well, about high rental. It has also been reported that Singapore is now one of the most expensive countries in the world to live in.

A prediction coming true

Many people predicted that once the PAP is elected into government again, price increases will undoubtedly take place. – and indeed, they have.

From the latest announcement of an increase in electricity tariffs to the previous increases in polyclinics and hospital fees, from cable tv subscriptions to the introduction of means testing, from the ERP to even postage stamps, Singaporeans are facing an incessant barrage of such news.

In the coming months, Singaporeans can expect increases in the GST (July), NETs (July), and also transport fares (Oct).

Already, food prices have increased – from those at your hawker centres to those at your supermarkets.

So, who is benefiting from the “sizzling” economy?

It seems that the only people benefiting from this ‘sizzling’ economy is big business – especially those which are government-linked. Most of these are monopolies. And as monopolies, they pay scant regard to protests from average Singaporeans.

Also, watchdogs such as the Consumer Association of Singapore (CASE) and the Competition Commission seem not to be doing anything at all. Even if they do, such as in the case of CASE, they’d rather spend their time and resources “catching” and warning small businesses like hawker stalls and coffeshop stalls holders about increasing their prices.

Not a word about big companies and government-linked companies’ price increases.

What can the average Singaporean do?

Short of public protests and boycotting certain products/services, it would seem that there isn’t much Singaporeans can do.

Which brings us back to the point at the beginning of this essay.

There is a growing sense of envy among Singaporeans – envy that the rich are getting richer and the poor, well….the poor staying right where they are.

This is the very thing which our prime minister wanted to avoid:

"We must not allow ourselves to be divided between haves and have-nots, or winners and losers … if we let a politics of envy drive a wedge between us, our society will be destroyed, and all will suffer. That must never happen." (Link)

With the government’s seeming disregard to cries and protests about the rising cost of living amidst the latest round of price increases, we may indeed be in the process of being “divided between the haves and have-nots”.

Our income gap divide still remains one of the widest in the world.

While the top echelons of our society are making a killing right now, the poor - like those on public assistance who continue to receive only $290 per month from the same government which preaches about “a politics of envy” - continue to worry about their livelihood.

So, what can the average Singaporean do?

Not much, really.

It is hard to do anything when what you’re faced with is an all-powerful, all-pervasive government, monopolistic companies and civil servants who give non-replies to questions asked.

It would seem that the politics of envy is not being propagated by anyone else other than the PAP government.

Glitzy and dizzying news headlines and all.