Singapore’s falling living standards

Alex Au
Asia Times
12 Jul 06

A local Singapore newspaper, Today, just suspended one of its regular columnists after the government gave him a tongue-lashing for his writings about the deteriorating state of the local economy.

Lee Kin Mun, who writes under the pseudonym “Mr Brown”, wrote a harsh, though humorous, commentary on June 30 concerning Singapore’s rising cost of living, mentioning that latest official statistics showed that one in every three Singaporean households had suffered a reduction in income over the last five years. The irony, which was not lost on the island state’s government, was that Lee cited official statistics to bolster his argument.

On June 28, the Department of Statistics (DOS) issued a press release with a slew of new data from its general household survey. The most striking result was that only 50% of Singaporean households enjoyed any significant improvement in their income over the five-year period spanning 2000 to 2005.

Moreover, the bottom 10.1% of households reported no or negative income, a marked deterioration from the 2000 level when 8.7% of the population reported they were in the red. The DOS explained that a possible factor for the notable increase was the aging of Singapore’s population and that an increasing percentage of the population was retiring.

More striking, perhaps, the 11 to 20 percentile group saw their household incomes fall a whopping 19.7% over the same five year period. On average, these households had S$1,180 (US$744) monthly incomes last year, compared to S$1,470 (US$927) five years previously. On an annualized basis, their average household income fell 4.3% each year. A smaller income fall was recorded for the next up percentile group.

The DOS suggested that the decline in household income in these two groups “was partly caused by the larger number of households with retired persons and no incomes”. “It could also be partly due to the higher unemployment in 2005 than 2000 … and lower income from employment,” the statement said, which acknowledges both structural unemployment and depressed wages in less-skilled jobs.

The data on household income notably excludes government hand-outs, which the ruling People’s Action Party doled out just before the general elections they resoundingly won earlier this year. The most recent round of hand-outs, which targeted the lower-income households, was called the “Progress Package”. In contrast to the one-third of households which witnessed falling household incomes, the top10% of households saw a 14.8% improvement in theirs. In Singapore dollar terms, their monthly household incomes leapt by an average of S$2,120 (US$1,337) over the period.

The figures show clearly that income inequality in Singapore is increasing rapidly. The DOS reported that the Gini coefficient increased from 0.490 to 0.522 from year 2000 to 2005. The Gini coefficient is a statistical measure of income inequality, whereby the higher the number, the more unequal the distribution.

The Straits Times, Singapore’s government-influenced major English language newspaper, reported that members of parliament were, “not surprised by the survey findings, noting that these reflected the effects of globalization.” This response was consistent with the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts’ letter to Today explaining that the government “had told Singaporeans all along, that globalization would stretch out incomes”.

However, most Singaporeans would probably have taken “stretch out” to mean that incomes would universally rise but at differential rates, not that a large percentage of the population would get poorer. The increasing cost of living was one of the major issues in the May 2006 general election, but the data from this survey was conspicuously not released in time for the May polls.

Shooting the messenger

In his commentary, Mr Brown alluded to how convenient it was that the survey results, together with recent announcements about increases in electricity rates and taxi fares, have come out after rather than before the elections. “We are very thankful for the timing of all this good news, of course. Just after the elections, for instance,” he wrote, tongue in cheek. “It would have been too taxing on the brain if those price increases were announced during the election period, thereby affecting our ability to choose wisely,” he wrote.

On July 3, a stern rebuke from the government appeared in the form of a letter published in Today. Signed by Miss Krishnasamy Bhavani, the Press Secretary to the Minister for Information, Communication and the Arts, she denied that the release of the survey data was in any way delayed for political purposes. She took Mr Brown to task for writing a piece that “poured sarcasm on many issues”, and claimed that his views “distort the truth”.

Characterizing his commentary as “polemics dressed up as analysis”, Bhavani accused him of calculating to “encourage cynicism and despondency”. “Instead of a diatribe,” she continued, Mr Brown “should offer constructive criticism and alternatives. And he should come out from behind his pseudonym to defend his views openly.”

This statement echoed the government’s growing concerns that anonymous bloggers on the Internet have found a venue to criticize the PAP-led administration in ways which otherwise would be impossible in Singapore’s tightly-controlled society. The government’s response has been to try to frame all anonymous posts and blogs as “irresponsible and discreditable”, and is now exploring new laws and regulations to rein them in. Mr Brown also runs one of Singapore’s best-known blogs, even though he also writes a regular column for the print newspaper.

But immediately after the government’s outburst, which included a reminder to the newspaper that, “It is not the role of journalists or newspapers in Singapore to champion issues, or campaign for or against the government,” the editors of Today told Lee his column would be suspended indefinitely. Left with only government-influenced mainstream media, Singaporeans will likely be left to guess if their economic lot is improving or deteriorating until the DOS’s next 5-year survey is released – unless their wallets tell them first.

Alex Au is an independent social and political commentator and freelance writer based in Singapore. He often speaks at public forums on politics, culture and gay issues.

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