Singapore is 17th most prosperous country: 1st or 3rd world?

By Leong Sze Hian

I refer to the article “S’pore is 17th most prosperous country” (Today, Oct 28).

Since Malaysia is the only other country in Asean that is in the top 50, at 43rd, I think it may be interesting to compare Singapore and Malaysia, from the perspective of what it may all mean to ordinary citizens?

The Malaysian Government published a 135-page, Mid-Term Review of the Ninth Malaysia Plan 2006 – 2010, in 2008. In contrast, I understand that no comparable review of Singapore’s last national plan  has been done.

Malaysia has a vibrant opposition in Parliament, whereas only two Members of Parliament (MPs) in Singapore are opposition MPs voted into Parliament.

Other than Hong Kong, where half the seats in the Legislative Council (LEGCO) are not voted by the people, under new election laws passed recently in Singapore, there may be up to 18 MPs who will not be elected by the people, namely 9 Nominated MPs (NMPs) and 9 Non-constituency MPs (NCMPs). (Coincidentally, in the upcoming elections next month in Burma, about a quarter of MPs will be appointed by the Government.)

Malaysia has by-elections whenever a Parliamentary seat is vacant, whereas Singapore does not hold by-elections.

Both Malaysia and Singapore still have their respective Internal Security Acts, under which Singapore holds the longer record of having detainees for as long as 26 years.

Currently, Malaysia still has what is widely seen by the people as “political” detainees, whereas Singapore has stopped such detentions.

In Singapore, workers had only a 1.4 per cent per annum real wage increase from 2001 to 2009.  The last two years had seen negative real wage growth, with real earnings falling by 3.2 and 1.2 per cent, in 2008 and 2009, respectively. In contrast, Malaysia has fared better, where real wages grew by 1.9 per cent per annum from 1998 to 2007, and was -4.7 and 1.4 per cent in 2008 and 2009, respectively.

Even though Malaysia’s inflation per annum increase at 2.4 per cent, from 2000 to 2009, was marginally higher than Singapore’s, the important outcome to ordinary Malaysians is that they had a higher real wage growth than Singaporeans.

What is perhaps the most significant difference between Malaysia and Singapore, from the perspective of wages, may be that Malaysia has already approved the implementation of a Minimum Wage, whereas Singapore’s Government is still against having one.

Media reports say labour market is bursting at the seams, but on a seasonally adjusted basis, the resident unemployment rate rose from 3.2 per cent in March to 3.3 per cent in June.

In contrast, while Malaysia’s unemployment rate may appear to be higher than Singapore’s, at 3.2, 3.3 and 5 per cent in 2008, 2009 and 2010, respectively, I understand that Malaysia’s rate is truly reflective of the unemployment of Malaysians, whereas Singapore’s does not break-down the unemployment rate data into citizens and permanent residents (PRs).

Comparing Taxi Drivers

But numbers and figures aside, perhaps one of the better ways to gauge the pulse of a country, is to talk to taxi drivers about their lives. After all, the persons whom you probably will have fairly long conversations with when you first arrive in a country, are likely to be taxi drivers.

Many of my friends around my age (I’m 56), have become taxi drivers – for example, a school-mate from Raffles Institution who has a degree, and who used to be a Human Resource Manager, my tennis partner who used to be a co-ordinator in a construction firm, an ex-colleaqe who was Assistant Vice-President in a financial institution, etc. (One of my taxi driver friends was recently hospitalised due to work stress, for about two weeks in a mental hospital.)

Apparently, the labour statistics seem to indicate that the more qualified and the older one is, the easier it may be to lose your job, and the harder it may be to find one.

When Singapore separated from 1965, presumably, taxi drivers then on both sides of the Causeway, were about the same – with the currency on par, similar cost of living, taxi driving costs and conditions, etc.

Fast -forward to today, and it would seem anecdotally, that there is quite a world of difference between the lives of taxi drivers in Malaysia and Singapore.

The bottom line, as I understand it is that a one-shift full-time taxi driver in Malaysia typically only needs about two hours of driving to break-even and cover his or her total costs. For Singapore, it would take about four to five hours.

Two-shift drivers in Singapore, which is generally about eight hours of driving a day, because of their ability to split the daily rental cost between the hirer and the relief driver, generally need about three hours of driving to cover their costs.  A part-time driver in Kuala Lumpur renting five hours for about RM25 can break-even after about one hour plus.

I understand that about 90 per cent of taxi drivers in Malaysia are one-shift full-timers, whereas only about 30 per cent in Singapore are. About 30 per cent of drivers in Kuala Lumpur, own their own taxis, whereas no Singaporean drivers are owners anymore as individual taxi ownership was gradually phased out over the years. Owner taxi drivers in Malaysia can transfer their taxi ownership to their child, when they die or retire.

In other words, many taxi drivers in Malaysia are entrepreneurs, but none are in Singapore.

With a taxi costing about RM55,000 which is about RM 500 monthly instalment for about seven years, most drivers in Kuala Lumpur may be relatively more relaxed than Singapore drivers, as I understand most drive around eight to ten hours a day, to earn a net monthly income of about RM2,500 plus.

In contrast, Singapore drivers drive about twelve to fourteen hours a day to earn about S$3,000 plus of net disposable income. Two-shift drivers in Singapore typically work about eight hours, to earn about S$2,000 plus.

Given the fact that the cost of living in Singapore is much higher than Malaysia, I would surmise that the life of a taxi driver in Malaysia is arguably better than that in Singapore.

So, perhaps in the final analysis, being ranked as a more“prosperous” country with a focus on economic growth, may not necessarily mean that ordinary people are relatively better off.

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