The country is rich but the people are poor

by Augustine Low

A friend told me about an encounter with a cleaner at a hawker centre. He chatted up the cleaner, who was hunchbacked and labouring over his task. Revealing that he was 82 years old, the cleaner’s parting shot, in Hokkien, was: “The country is rich but the people are poor.”

More prescient words have hardly been spoken.

The government touts about its help schemes and safety nets, and GST vouchers and Medisave top-ups, but steers clear of why there are hordes of senior citizens who slog so hard for so little well into their twilight years. They are the men and women we see everyday as cleaners, servers, security guards, tissue sellers, and scrap and cardboard collectors.

These are the ones whose pockets are hid hardest by all manner of price increases, from water and electricity to the inevitable, upcoming GST hike.

Yet, as the 82-year-old cleaner said, while many like him are poor, the country is rich.

Last financial year, Singapore had a budget surplus of $9.61 billion, its biggest single-year budget surplus for 30 years.

The full size of the country’s reserves are never revealed (for strategic reasons, according to the government), but it is estimated to be around $1 trillion.

We have the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC) which manages Singapore’s reserves. The sovereign wealth fund’s assets are not disclosed but the international Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute has estimated the assets at about $500 billion.

In addition to GIC, Temasek also manages another sovereign wealth fund of close to $300 billion of assets.

You would remember too that Singapore did not have second thoughts about spending up to $20 million on the recent Trump-Kim summit. This was eventually whittled down to $16.3 million.

And yesterday in Parliament, it was revealed that the country has already spent more than $250 million on the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore high-speed rail project, and is likely to spend another $40 million or so by year-end.

Money that we would have a hard time recovering, or would take years to claw back, now that the project is seemingly being called off by Malaysia.

So, yes, the country is bursting at the seams with money to burn.

Yet ordinary Singaporeans are feeling the pinch and finding it hard to pay their bills. So many senior citizens are slogging away when they should be enjoying their twilight years and relaxing with their grandkids.

Let us not forget too that those at the top, including ministers (or especially ministers) who earn 50 to 70 times what ordinary Singaporeans earn,  would struggle to come to terms with the imbalance, inequality and incongruity.

It bears repeating one more time the words of an 82-year-old hawker centre cleaner: The country is rich but the people are poor.