Singaporeans don’t want handouts, just freedom to earn a living

Mellanie Hewlitt
Singapore Review
6 March 2003

It seems that with the recent economic down turn, the government along with the Straits Times (its pet mascot) have taken pleasure in taking pot-shots at the very people who are under its care.

If Budget 2003 was a slap in the face from the PAP, then the latest article from Ms Chua Lee Hoong in the 5 March 2003 issue of the Straits Times must surely be a follow-up kick in the groin.

The basic thrust of Ms Chua’s long-winded and tedious article is that during this difficult period
a) Singaporeans are “on their own”;
b) We should not depend on the government for “hand-outs” and “freebies”; and
c) We are to be self-reliant and have lower expectations.

Ms Chua referred to a “nascent Singaporean addiction to handouts”, I can only conclude that this addiction has been inculcated and inherited from the million-dollar remuneration packages afforded to PAP Ministers. As they say….”like father like son”, though in this case the “son” (being Singapore citizens) might take stiff offense in the comparison, and rightly so. Singaporeans are not asking for free “handouts” here. What we are asking for are jobs, everyone in the private sector puts in their full 12-hour day and more.

Speaking in defence of all Singaporeans, the allegations of “handouts” are all the more inappropriate when we consider that Singapore is not a welfare state, unlike the US and UK. Can Ms Chua please clarify what she means by “handouts”? In a state bereft of social welfare, there is no room for free-riders in the private sector. The qualifier here is the private sector. The sad ironical twist to this is that whilst ministerial salaries are pegged to the best of the private sector, they are also insulated from market forces. Life is good when you can have your cake
and eat it.

This is fact, unless you are part of the Ruling Elite, life is not easy in Singapore. No Work equals No Income, literally. Its that simple, no rocket science is needed to understand this very harsh reality. Basically if I do not work, I do not eat. At least that is the unspoken law in the private sector. And how can it be otherwise if Singapore Inc is to endure as a viable going concern, the impetus for growth has always been from the private sector as it is inextricably intertwined with the ebb and flow of the international free market.

But in recent decades, additional to the challenges of an increasingly competitive free market, private companies and workers alike have also had to contend with meddlesome government interventions. These come in all shapes and forms, from archaic laws and policies drafted in some ivory towers, to lumbering State Owned Entities and Giant Loss Making Companies. One way or another, they have all added to the burden of an already difficult work and living environment.

Indeed if life is so rosy here in Singapore and Singaporeans have only to wait by the river for roast ducks to fly into their mouths, why are people leaving this little island? Why are birth rates falling? Why is unemployment on the rise? Why are fresh graduates unable to find work? These questions are greeted by a muted silence from our leaders that is deafening. The bottom line is that these signs are indicative that living conditions and quality of life are fast deteriorating.

Perhaps by “handouts” Ms Chua may be referring to the Economic Restructuring Shares that the government “handed out” co-incidentally during an election year. Give us all a break here, Singaporeans just want the chance to earn an honest days wage. So I think the PAP has maxed out whatever PR mileage they can from the ERS.

But then again, perhaps Ms Chua and the PAP are of the view that jobs are the equivalent of “handouts”. Afterall, slaves are “given” jobs by their masters, and this is a privilege, not an entitlement so its argued. But taking this analogy to its final conclusion, the master here is unable to provide the slave with any suitable jobs. This is a failing on the master, and not on the slave.

Make no mistake, in the current recession what is on top of the wish list of average Singaporeans is JOBS, and decent jobs at that. The average Singaporean does not expect freebies, we will work and earn an honest days living. But have the PAP ministers taken a look out of their ivory towers of late?

Unemployment rates are soaring and fresh graduates as well as seasoned workers alike are unable to find employment in their chosen professions. And having graduates (and MBA holders) working as hawkers and cab drivers is not an ideal arrangement. From a purely economic perspective there is tremendous wastage as costs and resources have been spent training these graduates and their skills should be put to good use.

Indeed this issue was explored in-depth in a previous issue (22 Jan 2003 EDUCATION & UNEMPLOYMENT: SUBSTANCE OVER FORM PLEASE) of Singapore Review.

The government has called upon Singaporeans to lower expectations and accept lower wages and longer work hours. These are already harsh, on-going realities in the private sector. Ms Chua has also quoted DPM Lee: “In DPM Lee’s words: We must shake free of our old mindsets, and adjust our positions to better face a changed world order…” These words would be more credible if Singapore’s leaders practice what they preach. Whilst the average Singaporean is “adjusting” to retrenchments, unemployment, pay cuts, and working longer hours for less, Singapore’s Ruling Elite continue with their million dollar salaries, blissfully unaware of the harsh realities faced by its citizens.

A good leader leads by example and not merely by lip service, so perhaps its time Singapore leaders descended from the ivory towers and put their money where their mouths are. Otherwise, they will have a huge credibility problem with the masses. If a leader calls on the people to be less choosy, to accept lower salaries and work longer hours, he must first lead the way by example. Otherwise he has no right to call upon others to undertake a task that he himself is unable to endure.

If anything, one gets the notion that the government is abandoning its citizens in this hour of need. The call to be “self-reliant” translates into an admission that this government is unable to provide any satisfactory answers to lead the country out of the current economic recession. This admission in itself is forgivable as we recognize that our leaders are after all mortal human beings and not god.

But what is unacceptable is the fact that these are amongst the HIGHEST PAID MINISTERS in the world, raking in annual salaries well in excess of a million dollars per annum. In the past, such handsome salaries have been “justified” on the merits that they were required to attract Singapore’s “best and brightest” and ensure world-class performance. But looking at the dismal state of the economy, it is massively difficult to see what constitutes “world class performance.”

Ms Chua mentioned that “The Government’s protective umbrella is shrinking in size”. There are many who are trying to reconcile her statement with realities of life in the private sector. Many are of the view that the government has no business in the private sector, and view the dominance of the GLCs in a negative manner. The GLC threat has even been formally tabled as an issue to be addressed by the US, and is a major concern of US firms doing business here. If this is an example of the government’s “protective umbrella”, then I’ll take my chances with the elements any time. The odds are far better.

Fortunately, the average man on the street has seen through the veil and the general consensus is that the latest Budget 2003 is not the right medicine that will cure the economic malaise that is present in the economy. It is a mere placebo. Singaporeans recognise that latest budget leaves many issues unresolved. If this is a product from “Singapore best and brightest” who are also amongst the most highly paid ministers in the world, then it is bad news for the city state as the one solitary statement that is obvious from the budget is that the current leaders lack the mantle to lead the country out of the doldrums of the current recession.

US investment bank Morgan Stanley announced on Monday, March 3, 2003 it was lowering its 2003 growth forecast for Singapore, saying last week’s budget for the year to March 2004 offered little stimulus for the economy.

“The F2003 (financial year 2003) budget in our view will not offer much cyclical support to the fragile domestic economy and the Singapore market,” the bank’s economist Daniel Lian said in a report. “The F2003 budget is not an expansionary budget…we believe the lack of meaningful fiscal support to the real economy augurs poorly for the growth outlook.”

For a quick one minute round-up of Budget 2003, click on below link:

What is even more disappointing is that Budget 2003 follows closely after release of an equally disappointing ERC report which was already criticised for its lack of substance and originality.

The ERC report touched on nurturing private entrepreneurs. Singapore seems to be the only country where entrepreneurs need to be nurtured through a ministry of entrepreneurship. Would it not make more sense if the Government just left enterprising Singaporeans to do what all good entrepreneurs do best – generate ideas and wealth in an innovative society? Instead the Government insists on keeping the citizens in a political straight-jacket just so that it can satisfy its obsession to control society, and then sets up a ministry to encourage creativity! So by all means please take back that umbrella and shove it!!

All eyes are now back on the US economy, which is the only hope for domestic recovery. After all, it is clear that our million dollar ministers/leaders do not have the answers for the problem.

Ms Chua has also stated that we (these educated types) should be less concerned with what new grant can be invented or how much more to be given to the needy, and focus instead on how best to ensure that jobs stay in Singapore, how to bring new jobs here, and how to propel the economy to that higher level where Singaporeans can still enjoy the incomes they are used to, together with the assurance of steady employment.”

Begging your pardon, but this seems to fall within the job description of our million-dollar ministers. But if the PAP is willing to pay us SGD1.6 m a year as basic salary, I am sure there are many in the private sector who would be ready, willing and able to take up her challenge.

What a great contrast there is between the bona fide opposition articles and insightful discussions in the New York Times, and the propaganda ridden poems of love and political tributes of adulation in the Straits Times, between Maureen Dowd and Chua Lee Hoong.

Well, how like the local press to always blame Singaporeans, never the government. For those that are into propaganda literature, Ms Chua’s article will be a good read for you.

Oh yes, about the roast ducks that Ms Chua has sighted, which fly on their own volition into her mouth, this particular species do not thrive in the private sector, they are native only within GLCs, State Owned Enterprises and on breeding grounds of the PAP. I certainly have not been privileged enough to sight these mystical creatures, let alone taste their succulent flesh. But I am sure Ms Chua, being employed in SPH, is in a unique position to give us a first hand account of this dish.

For a quick one minute description of Budget 2003 in a rap, click on below link under. Trust me, you will not be disappointed; Splish Splash its the brown and round thing in the tub.