Janitor in Singapore (Photo - Terry Xu)

Where is the wealth if there doesn’t seem to be enough to spare for ensuring that cleaners etc get a fair wage?

According to news reports, former labour chief Lim Boon Heng  has said that low-wage workers are underpaid and Singaporeans should be prepared to pay more for things like hawker food and cleaning services, so as to help lift their incomes at a round table discussion on wages organised by ST on Friday. While I have no issue with paying more if I had to in order to create a fairer and more equitable society, I do have issue with the prevailing mentality behind this statement.

People have long been criticising the government ministers for their remuneration packages. Just do a simple google search and hundreds of articles tackling this issue will come up. Yet, the government has not sufficiently dealt with the criticism apart from saying that they need to pay high salaries in order to attract the best talent. This line of logic has also been roundly criticised by detractors as illogical and misguided.

So, does this mean that the government does not feel uncomfortable with the fact that while they ministers receive their high salaries, there remain people in society, many of whom are elderly are washing and cleaning hawker centres for extremely low wages? They seem quick to tell people that they have to cough up if they are concerned about the cleaners but don’t seem willing to cough up themselves?

Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that reducing ministerial salaries will magically solve income inequality. Of course not. But it would be an encouraging first step for Singaporeans if they can see that the ministers are willing to lead by example. We will all have to play a part in creating a more equitable society. However, calls by the government for us to pay more lose credibility when they are pocketing high salaries despite much criticism from Singaporeans.

It is also important to note that Singapore is a country with little safety net for the poor, the old or the infirm. Yet, it is also one of the richest countries in the world. Where is the wealth going to if there doesn’t seem to be enough to spare for ensuring that cleaners etc get a fair wage? I am no economist but surely if Singapore is so rich, where is all the money going that we can’t spare a little bit to ensure a semblance of a safety net for the elderly poor? Is it time to scrutinise our country’s spending to ensure that everyone in the country benefits?