In 20 August 2002, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong averred: “I give you my assurance that the government will look after you, especially lower-income Singaporeans.”
Half a year later, the government announced that it was upping electricity rates by 17 per cent.
In fact, PM Goh had been helping Singaporeans so much that the Straits Times (1 May 2003) reported that in February 2003,16,000 homes had not paid their utility bills for the past three months. The government then said that it would give a (drum roll…) $20 one-time discount for 267,105 of the poorest families living in one- to three-room HDB flats. How can poor Singaporeans ever thank you enough for your compassion and generosity, Mr Prime Minister?
But what if these people still cannot afford to pay their power bills after the 17-percent-hike-and-then-$20-discount offer? Their power is cut off.
But why shouldnt the electricity-rate be increased? Everything else from MRT, bus and taxi fares to the GST to car park fees has. The Straits Times then told Singaporeans on 24 April 2003 what the already knew (and felt) that consumer prices had risen for a fifth month in a row.
Yet more compassion was heaped upon Singaporeans in May 2003: the National Wages Council, a body which includes American, Japanese, and German businessmen, had recommended surprise, surprise! wage freeze and pay cuts. Did we mention how grateful we are, dear Prime Minister?
Two weeks later the consumer price index rose again, this time due to a surge in vegetable prices. No reason why all this goodwill should end, should it? On 26 May 2003, the Straits Times announced that medical fees would be increased. What the heck, pile them on!
Around the same time, Business Times (21 May 2003) delivered the life-draining news that another 9,400 Singaporeans had lost their jobs and that the unemployment rate would hit 5.5 percent later in the year. All this amidst the fact that there are already more than 100,000 Singaporeans walking around without work and income!
Then in an attempt to demonstrate that they still had the ability to empathise with us mere mortals, ministers announced in May that they would cut their salaries by 10 percent for one year.
Straits Times reporter, N. Murugaian, emailed the Singapore Democrats to ask for our reaction. The party issued a statement and called on the ministers to first declare their incomes and assets, and then to reveal the salaries they had been paying themselves since 1994.
This is because the government introduced a scheme that year to peg ministers salaries to the incomes of the six professions who made the most money in a particular year. This has resulted in the prime minister being paid more that $150,000 a month (three times that of the president of the U.S.) and ministers collecting a million dollars every year. The best part of the deal is that ministers wont ever have to go to parliament to debate their salary increases. Put in perspective, is the 10 percent cut really that meaningful?
Of course, the ever-faithful Straits Times did not publish a word of SDPs reactions even though they were solicited.
Now while ministers gave themselves a humongous raise, they announced that workers CPF contribution rate would be cut in 1999. Apparently it is lost on our superstar ministers that most Singaporeans depend on their CPF contributions to service their housing loans. The reduction would not be restored, at the earliest, until 2005 a period of six years!
Which brings us back to the ministers pay cut it would be in effect for only 12 months.
Through these years income disparity in Singapore has been widening. Between 1998 and 1999, the average monthly household income for the poorest 10 percent of Singaporeans nosedived by nearly 50 percent from $258 to $133 while the richest (including our ministers) saw that already fat salaries rise 2.6 percent. The following year this poorest segment of the population saw their incomes plunge by another 54 percent whereas the richest 10 percent got even richer by another 8.8 percent.
Unemployment surges, wages plunge, prices increase, income disparity at an all time high. Great job, Mr Prime Minister, way to go! Oh and thank you for your assurance.