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Another toothless tiger to deal with cost of living

Andrew Loh /

Mr Yaacob Ibrahim says the Government “is looking into how it can continue to uplift the low income,” when asked whether it will address the concerns of Singaporeans about the cost of living. Saying that the Government “has taken steps to help Singaporeans cope with it”, Mr Yaacob cited the handouts from the “$3.2 billion Grow and Share Package announced in this year's Budget” which Singaporeans will receive on 1 May. (See Straits Times report here.)

In several polls conducted so far, the cost of living has emerged as the top concern of Singaporeans. In January, inflation hit 5.5 per cent, the highest in more than two years, according to the Department of Statistics. To keep an eye on rising prices, the Government set up the Retail Price Watch Group (RPWG) in February. Its aims are to monitor food items and curb concerns of alleged profiteering by retailers.

The RPWG is headed by Mr Lee Yi Shyan, Minister of State for Trade & Industry and Manpower, and includes three mayors of the Community Development Councils (CDC).

It is interesting to note that the RPWG was set up only in February, when talk of a General Election was beginning to heat up. Clearly, the Government is mindful that it be seen to be doing something proactive to rein in prices at the ground level. And indeed, members of the RPWG have been seen at hawker centres and markets urging stall owners and retailers to not raise prices.

This has led to criticisms of the group that it is going after the “small fishes” rather than the big ones – the suppliers and wholesalers. There are also calls for it to take to task the oil companies which seem to behave like a cartel in raising pump prices for motorists. (Read ST forum letter.)

Another criticism is that the RPWG is a toothless tiger, one with no bite. Indeed, the group itself, in a letter to the Straits Times, admitted as much. It says it “works with grassroots leaders to ensure that information on the availability of low-price alternatives reaches the public.”

“This includes the 'I support Retail Price Watch Group' sticker, which helps the public to identify food sellers who have maintained prices,” it says. However, the RPWG clarifies that the initiative is “voluntary and there is no obligation for any hawker to hold prices.”

So, what is the use of a hastily set-up outfit with no bite and which seems to be only interested in “going after” the small retailers, stalls and outlets? It seems to be nothing more than a public relations campaign by the ruling People’s Action Party in the run-up to the elections.

After all, the concerns over the cost of living is not new. It goes back some years, especially after the last general elections in 2006. If one were to collate the extensive rises in the costs of everything, across the board, since GE 2006, it is a very long list indeed. (See here for TOC’s collation of these increases from 2006 to 2010.)

Nothing much were done about these for four years – besides the usual dismissive explanations that these are inevitable because of “global circumstances”.

And when the election approaches, we have Government ministers giving assurances that it is doing something about it – just as it did before the last elections.

After the last election, however, the Goods and Services Tax (GST) was increased to 7 per cent.

The Prime Minister, in the televised forum recently, assured Singaporeans that there was “no need” for his Government to raise the GST after this election. That’s left to be seen.

In the meantime, Singaporeans remain helpless and have to rely on Government handouts to cope with the rising cost of living.

And these handouts, which invariably are only dished out close to an election period which happens once every five years, are what the Government is telling Singaporeans to depend on.

Perhaps it is time for the Government to get to the root of the problem – which spans several Government policies – instead of trotting out another useless public relations toothless paper tiger which is funded by Singaporeans.

We already have one in CASE.

In summary, the cost of living is something which Singaporeans have been facing the last four or five years and even before that. Yet, the PAP Government has done little to deal with it. And now that the elections are here, suddenly a flurry of initiatives are rolled out, cash is dished out, a watch group is set up, PAP MPs are inexplicably able to hear the concerns of Singaporeans.

When the relentless rising cost of living kept rising, the PAP Government was nonchalant about it, dismissing Singaporeans’ concerns.

Perhaps it is time Singaporeans themselves see through and dismiss the PAP’s wayang of showing empathy for the average Singaporean, and insure themselves by having a watch group in Parliament made up of opposition MPs.

That would be more effective than any watchdog the PAP Government sets up.