On Monday (3 Jul), Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told Parliament that Ministers K Shanmugam and Vivian Balakrishnan had done nothing wrong in the rental of two Ridout Road state bungalows for their personal use.
Where ministers decide to live is their personal choice, Mr Lee added.
The parliamentary debate over the issue went on for about six hours. Members of Parliament raised questions ranging from the Code of Conduct for ministers to perceived conflicts of interest and how the Singapore Land Authority values and markets the black-and-white bungalows at Ridout Road.
Mr Shanmugam explained that he moved into his rental property at 26 Ridout Road to prepare for the sale of his family home. He said he has long liked the black-and-white bungalows and was not profiting from rental. Dr Vivian Balakrishnan on the other hand said he wanted to bring his entire extended family together under one roof.
Both did not share how much they are renting out their private properties while residing at 26 and 31 Ridout Road. And Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean who headed the review that exonerated the two, said in Parliament that the ministers do not need to disclose them.
The total land area of the two bungalows is enormous. One has a land area of 136,100 square feet, while the other has 250,000 square feet. Note that an Olympic size swimming pool is only 13,429 square feet, while a football field is about 48,000 square feet.
Hence, one site is more than ten times the size of an Olympic size swimming pool and almost 3 football fields, while the other is about 5 and a half football fields and more than 19 Olympic size swimming pools. Indeed, one can squeeze a lot more families into those bunglows.
Former NMP Laurence Lien lives modestly
While Parliament debated the leasing of those luxurious bungalows to PAP ministers to live in, a very humble former Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) wrote an article 10 years ago describing why he is not living an extravagant lifestyle.
He is Mr Laurence Lien, who was an NMP from 2012-2014. He is also the Chairman of Lien Foundation, a family foundation established in 1980, as well as the Chairman of Lien AID, the foundation’s humanitarian arm.
Mr Lien comes from a very wealthy family in Singapore. He is the grandson of Lien Ying Chow, a founder of Overseas Union Bank, which merged with United Overseas Bank in 2001.
The article “Why I love my modest car”, was published in The Straits Times (18 May 2013). In the article, he revealed that he drove a Honda Civic Hybrid.
“Some people who see me in it have remarked that they are surprised that I drive a modest car. In status-conscious Singapore, they think that if one can afford it, one purchases a luxury car to signal one’s social standing,” he wrote.
“I would demur and say that I think my car is already an excellent car.”
He noted that these days, people are driven by instant gratification and the use of visible signs to mark their social status.
“Our society tends to put people with worldly achievements on the pedestal. We celebrate people who make a lot of money, no matter how they made it,” he lamented. “Prospering people feel that they are fully entitled to their own success and to enjoy the fruits of their labour.”
“It is not wrong to want to live better. What is wrong is a hedonistic lifestyle that assumes having more is more important than being more,” he explained.
“What is also improper are people indulging in mounting excesses, even while their fellow humans are mired in poverty, without their basic needs met.”
Indeed, while the PAP ministers are living on lands that can house multiple Olympic size swimming pools and football fields, many elderly Singaporeans are cleaning hawker centers or collecting cardboards.
Growing wealth gap in Singapore
Certainly, the wealth gap in Singapore is increasing. Mr Lien feared that a greater income divide would manifest in growing political problems and increasing labour issues. He felt the income gap had to be dealt with.
“We should feel uneasy when we see how grossly overpaid top dogs are, when so many toil to eke out an honest living. And it should assault our moral sensibilities when people flaunt their ostentatious toys so blatantly without a care for people who are suffering unrelenting hardships through no fault of theirs,” opined Mr Lien.
“Politically, socially and environmentally, we cannot sustain this escalating consumerism that is plugged as human progress. We need more redistributive justice and regulation to rein in the excesses of the free market.”
Mr Lien also would like to see more philanthropy from the rich, instead of chasing after the lavish experiences.
“Instead of merely chasing after the latest gadgets, luxury collections and lavish experiences, I hope to see more philanthropy from the uber-rich. Philanthropy is not just for wealth redistribution but also about spreading compassion and empathy, and showing solidarity for less advantaged brethren,” he said.
“We ought to make more ethical and sustainable choices in purchasing, caring about the morality of the entire production chain, including environmental impact and the treatment of workers.”
“And even if there are those among us who are realists and cynics, they should perhaps consider the constant chase for the superfluous may be nothing more than an addiction leaving us dissatisfied at the end of the day. Many happiness studies have shown that happiness is found in healthy relationships, in having fewer wants and being content with what we already have.”
“Hence for me, not living an extravagant lifestyle is an entirely self-interested choice. Not just for my own happiness but more importantly, for my children’s.”
On the other hand, Mr Shanmugam said in Parliament that “My empathy did not increasingly decrease as my houses got larger, or as I made more money.”