The glorious years according to Goh

Former prime minister, Mr Goh Chok Tong, recently gave himself a hearty pat on the back when he declared: “I feel very happy that I’m coming to the end of I would say 14 glorious years…All in all, I thought my team and I have done a, shall I say, fair job, for Singapore.” (ST, July 19, 2004)

In democratic countries, that appraisal would usually be delivered by the electorate and public opinion. But then

Mr Goh patted harder and faster: “When I took over as Prime Minister, I promised to keep Singapore going, have a kinder and gentler style of Government, open up more political and civil space and build the Best Home . This is a process and not a fixed state. I think the process is growing strongly.” (italics added; ST, Apr 26, 2004)

Fourteen years of glory, with more space for politics and civil society, and a Best Home on the way. You just cant argue with success, can you?

Can you? The Singapore Democrats have been keeping a faithful watch on the PAP rhetoric and the reality that Singaporeans find themselves in. We figure that with such effusive praise lavished on Mr Goh Chok Tong by Mr Goh Chok Tong, it might not be out of place to point out some of the developments that have occurred under the former PM’s watch.

Homes the best kind

Lets start with building the Best Home.

It was reported in 2002 that family violence is on the rise, and counsellors attribute it to the stress of job losses due to the economic downturn.” (ST, Jan 28, 2002)

A year later, another report tells us that young working adults are vulnerable to suicidal thoughts with more calling SOS hotline for help…there were 361 suicides last year, nearly 17% more than 1999.” (ST, June 15, 2003). This is apparently not an aberration because around 300 to 400 suicides are committed in Singapore each year, which works out to one a day. (ST, Apr 4, 2004)

Why all this self-inflicted deaths? The same report somberly reveals that financial problems accounted for a third of Singapore male suicides and 12 per cent of female suicides between 2000 and 2002.”

And in those 14 glorious years, the “divorce rate hits record high even as marriage rate falls. The divorce rate among Singaporeans reached a record level last year, with 1.91 cases per thousand residents.” (ST, June 23, 2004)

Psychological impairment of children

Adults werent the only ones suffering. Under the Goh government about 14,000 children were seen by psychiatrists at the Institute of Mental Health in 2000, of which 2,233 were new cases. These figures have stayed relatively consistent over the last five years.” (ST, April 10, 2002)

Mr Gohs definition of Best Homes obviously includes children morbidly fearful of the one thing that will help future generations of Singaporeans create good homes education. “One in three children between nine to twelve years say that life is not worth living because of the fear of academic failure.” (AFP, Mar 2 2001)

Reaching for the bottom

A Department of Statistics (DOS) report showed income inequality widening over the years. In 2000, incomes for the top 10 per cent of resident households increased by a whopping 8.8 percent, while incomes for the poorest 10 per cent of wage-earning households plunged 13.6 percent. (ST, August 4, 2003)

Singaporean’s are the proud owners of an income gap that is greater than that of the United States and Hong Kong. (As an interesting aside, 500,000 Hong Kongers took to the streets to let their government know how unhappy they are with life there.)

And were not even talking about the unemployed. Heres more grist for the mill:

Between 1998 and 1999, the average household monthly income of the poorest 10 per cent of the population slumped by 50 percent, from $258 to $133, whereas the incomes of the richest 10 percent increased by 2.6 percent (from $15,053 to $15,451). (ST, May 31, 2000)

Between 1999 and 2000, the richest 10 percent of the population saw their incomes rise by another 8.8 percent, and the poorest 10 percent registered a 54 percent drop, from $133 a month to $61. (ST, Feb 11, 2001)

From a ten year perspective, the richest 10 percent of households earned 15.6 times more than the poorest 10 per cent in 1990. By 2000, the gap widened until the richest earned 36 times more than the poorest. (ST May 31 2000)

Of course the rich and powerful would say: “If we want to have successful entrepreneurs, Singaporeans have to accept a greater income disparity between the successful and the not so successful.” That rich and powerful guy is SM Lee Kuan Yew. (Ho Rih Hwa public lecture, Feb 5, 2002)

Readers should be reminded that it was under Mr Goh Chok Tongs rule that PAP ministers have become, by far, the highest paid politicians in the world.

To poor to go to school

The years under PM Goh became so glorious that “A growing number of Singapore children are not being sent to school because their cash-strapped parents claim they cannot afford to pay for education. Ministry figures show 1921 children did not register for Primary 1 classes in 1999, up 244 on 1997 figures.” (Reuters, Mar 3, 2002)

Report after depressing report show an increasing trend of families being unable to afford educating their children:

“More parents seeking help to pay school fees.” (ST, June 17, 2002)

“About 10,000 students received financial help from the Ministry of Education in the first six months of this year, almost three times that for the whole of 1999.” (ST, Aug 11, 2003)

“Kids in need: 20,000 apply for transport vouchers. More than 5000 parents get pre-school subsidy for their children.” (ST, Jan 9, 2004)

This is how autocrats get away with things.

Go ahead, retire if you dare

The PAP spin-masters say that Singaporeans are cash-poor and asset-rich. What that actually means is that Singaporeans have all their CPF savings tied up in their HDB homes with precious little for retirement. The average Singaporean worker would have a staggering 75% of his assets locked in housing upon retirement, compared with only 20% in the U.S. (ST, Feb 5, 2003) The Messrs Tans and Chans, having worked all their lives, would have savings that would generate a paltry income worth a quarter of [the] pre-retirement pay, barely enough to cover subsistence.” (ST, Feb 5, 2003)

And the message from the government? “Stay employed. If you think you can retire, live off your CPF savings and do nothing else, think again. This was the message Labour chief Lim Boon Heng had for elderly Singaporeans change expectations of retirement and take on part-time jobs if you have to, even those at half the pay. (ST, Feb 23, 2003)

Somewhere along the line, the PAP forgot that it came to power promising to serve the people. But now without any means to hold the government accountable, Singaporeans just stand by despondently and listen to lectures that they have to work until their bodies cannot go on anymore: “If people still expect to stop work at 55, it means that they will have to live off their CPF savings for between 20 and 25 years. For most, this will be wishful thinking. As it is, four in every 10 workers will not have accumulated the CPF minimum sum of $80,000 by the time they reached the withdrawal age of 55. Even those who manage to save the $80,000 and use it to buy an annuity will receive monthly sum of $450. That will just about cover basic needs like food and transport, but not much else.”
– Straits Times, Mar 22, 2003

Leaving the Best Home

A Mastercard survey in 1997 showed that a full 20 percent of Singaporeans indicated that they wanted to leave the country. This is approximately the same number as Hong Kongers showing similar interest. The difference is that in 1997, the Hong Kong people were losing sleep about the hand-back of their territory to communist China. And Singaporeans? Wasnt the Swiss-standard of living just round the corner?

The situation has gotten worse. Now 25 percent want to live out their old age overseas. (ST, Aug 11, 2003) A headline read: “More packing their bags to leave. The number of Singaporeans who migrated to the US almost tripled between 1998 and 2001.” (ST, Feb 27, 2003) As recent as this year, the Straits Times indicated that poor job prospects is the the major push factor now for those quitting Singapore. (Apr 4, 2004)

Happy workers?

“Singaporeans are also the most pessimistic about their future income. In the Asia-Pacific region, only the Japanese are less confident than Singaporeans about the outlook for regular income. These are among the findings of MasterCard International’s latest biannual survey of consumer confidence in 13 markets around the region.” This was the report of The Edge. (Aug 4, 2003)

A more recent survey found a similar trend: “More Singapore workers are becoming angry and disenchanted, according to a study by Gallup Organisation. Their negative work attitudes are likely to cost the economy nearly $5 billion each year.” (ST, Sept 18 2003)

No worries. Mr Goh insists that were a bunch of happy-campers building a Best Home for ourselves on this island of ours.

Killer bills

It is no secret that Singaporeans have resorted to buying their medicines from neighbouring Malaysia because of the high prices of drugs in Singapore. A pharmacist in Johor Baru reported that as many as 95 percent of his clients are Singaporeans. (The New Democrat, 2001)

In a survey, rising healthcare costs remain one of the most serious concerns among Singaporeans, especially among senior citizens. It showed that more than half of Singaporeans felt that healthcare costs remained unaffordable. Nearly 76 percent responded that it was too expensive to consult specialist doctors in government hospitals. (The New Democrat, 2001)

The mother of all upgrading

Remember all the hoo-ha about the upgrading and how rich it would make your homes? That was promise (and not-so-subtle threats) made during the general threats in 1997. Several construction-company bankruptcies, delays and a plunge in the property-market later…”half of the 28 Housing Board precincts selected for the main upgrading programmes have yet to get beyond the polling stage. MPs cite economy as a factor.” (ST, July 15, 2004). In fact, many Singaporeans are now saying thanks, but no thanks.

Honey, our wealth is shrinking

Under Mr Gohs leadership, the “wealth of Singaporeans shrank by $26b in 2001. Falling property and stock prices were the main culprits.” (ST, Mar 28, 2003)

And what happens when wages fall and prices rise? Household debts go kaboom! It took Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam to tell us that household debt in Singapore had surged to 174 per cent of personal disposable income in 2000 – higher than in the developed economies such as the US, UK and Japan.” (TNP, Feb 4, 2003) Thank you very much.

Read the following, no need for commentary:

“An average of 12 people a day were made bankrupt in the first three months of the year – a rate that is about 50 per cent higher than the corresponding periods of the past five years.” (ST, May 4, 2003)

“In 2002, nearly 3600 people went bankrupt, the most since 1986. An estimate for this year … could hit 5,000.” (ST, Oct 6, 2003)

“The number of bankruptcies looks set to hit an 18-year high.” (ST, Aug 27, 2003)

“Thousands can’t pay utility bills, many face power cut. 16,000 households were in arrears of three months or more in February.” (ST, Apr 12, 2003)

“Money woes led to jump in people seeking help of MPs. Last year, a total of 12,182 people sought social welfare and financial assistance – up from the 7,822 who sought similar assistance in 2002.” (ST, Mar 27, 2004)

“Gone forever: 42,000 jobs in Singapore. Why: high costs here; the recession; business restructuring.” (ST, June 17 2002)

“The proportion of Singaporeans who are unemployed for at least 6 months is the worst in 10 years.” (ST, Sept 15, 2002)

“In the first three months of this year, there were only 24 openings for every 100 job-seekers. A third of the 89,400 jobless Singaporeans had been out of work for at least six months.” (ST, Jun 14, 2003)

“By the Manpower Ministry’s own reckoning, ‘re-employment prospects continued to deteriorate.'” (ST, July 19, 2003)

“Job market for graduates is the bleakest in five years with three in 10 of those who graduated last year without a job. (ST, Mar 7, 2003)

“The total number of jobs available in Singapore plummeted by 24,800 in the second quarter – the single highest decline in nearly 20 years.” (ST, Aug 1, 2003).

“There is going to be a lot of structural unemployment, and it is going to grow.” (Senior Minister of State Matthias Yao, AP, Jul 7, 2004)

“Singapore Jobless Still High Despite Econ Rebound. Among the resident labor force, the non-adjusted unemployment rate was 5.9%, up from 4.3% in March. An estimated 103,000 residents were unemployed in June 2004.” (Dow Jones, July 30, 2004)

Mr Goh Chok Tong may still be a bit heady after that upbeat assessment of his tenure. May be this will bring him down to earth a little. But its no good nagging after a former premier. Singaporeans have to live with a new one. How come things just got a little darker?

The Singapore Democrats will post a sequel detailing the how Singapore has become a kinder and gentler society and whether political and civil space has indeed increased.