Thursday, 21 September 2023

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A reality check on equality of professions for Singapore’s new social compact

In his recent address at the Institute of Policy Studies’ 35th Anniversary Conference, Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong envisioned a compelling new social compact for Singapore.

He spoke about redefining success, the need for lifelong learning, and the importance of recognising talents across diverse fields equally. However, this optimistic view seems to diverge from the reality that many professionals in Singapore face.

Mr Wong stated, “Success is less about means, and more about meaning.” His words were directed at reframing how society values professions, arguing that not only those at the top of their fields or those launching successful start-ups should be celebrated, but also “those who serve in retail, hospitality or social services; or those who take great pride in their work as skilled tradesmen and artisan craftsmen.”

While this sentiment is noble and desirable, it does not mirror the current labour market in Singapore. This market favours specific sectors and has left the majority of occupational categories — six out of eight categories within the resident workforce — struggling to achieve real wage growth in the past 21 years.

DPM Wong went on to say, “Our refreshed Singapore Story therefore must be more inclusive.”

Unfortunately, the existing narrative is one of stagnation for six out of eight occupational categories, with their wages largely unchanged over two decades.  Such a situation seems far from inclusive, creating a disconnect between Mr Wong’s speech and the lived reality of many Singaporeans.

To compound this, the Finance Minister highlighted the country’s success by pointing out, “Among the advanced economies, we are one of the few where people in the middle have enjoyed significant increases in real incomes in the last 20 years.”

This claim, however, masks the fact that an influx of more than 400,000 new citizens and over 600,000 Permanent Residents (PRs) in the last 20 years or so — who typically earn more than native Singaporeans — has likely influenced these statistics.

Moreover, the rising number of dual-income households skews the median income, creating a more positive picture than what might be the actual situation.

Mr Wong further drew comparisons with other countries, stating, “In particular, median household real income growth over the past decade was higher than what the middle-income in the US and most other European societies experienced, and well above other Asian societies like Japan and Hong Kong.”

This contrast becomes less striking when one considers the socio-economic conditions in these countries, such as their higher minimum wages, shorter work hours, and more robust social welfare systems. Compared to these countries, Singapore falls short in many of these aspects.

Consideration also needs to be given to the adequacy of social welfare benefits. For instance, Singapore’s ComCare assisted more than 80,000 beneficiaries with less than S$200 million (pre Covid). The perspective changes further when not just the median employed resident households are considered, but the entire spectrum across deciles, particularly the lower deciles, while also adjusting for purchasing power parity (PPP) vis-a-vis the cost of living.

As Singapore works towards its refreshed narrative, we must confront the reality that the lofty ideals of equality and inclusivity espoused by DPM Wong are still far from being realised.

The stagnant wages across various sectors serve as a stark reminder that the current socio-economic policies and structures need to be critically evaluated and reformed.

To truly value every individual’s success, it is paramount that tangible economic progress accompanies rhetorical commitment. Only then can we write a Singapore Story that resonates with every citizen, regardless of their occupational category.

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