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Madam Letchmi (not her real name) stood in the dock and pleaded guilty to pilfering $743 from the cash register when she was a cashier at the Shop n Save supermarket. The 40-year-old told the Judge that she stole the money to pay for her medical expenses. Her lawyer produced medical records from the Singapore General Hospital to substantiate her claim.
In mitigation she also said that she had a 10-year old daughter to look after and that living expenses were very high. She had returned all the money she stole. Unmoved the DPP pushed for a deterrent sentence. The Judge imposed a fine of $2,000.
You probably know where we are going with this story: The unforgiving high cost of living coupled with low wages in Singapore have led many to commit crimes out of financial desperation.
Of course, one would argue that just because one is poor doesn’t mean that one is entitled to steal. There are many out there who face economic hardship but don’t resort to crime. This is true.
But then Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong wrote:
…that judges who are poorly paid are more likely to succumb to the temptation of bribes from litigants, special-interest groups and members of the other arms of government or the public.
Ministers also say they need to pay themselves millions of dollars in salaries to keep themselves from falling into crime.
If makers and keepers of the law can be tempted to criminal acts of corruption, why can’t Madam Letchmi be tempted into stealing to pay for her medical bills?
More important, if ministers and judges need to be paid handsomely in order that they yield not to temptation why can’t Madam Letchmi, for similar reasons, be paid adequately?
As a cashier, Madam Letchmi earned $960 a month – that’s one-tenth of what a minister makes in a day. Shave off her CPF contributions and she’s left with $770 to take home. A single individual would find it impossible to live on such an income, let alone a mother with a child to fend for.
The controllers of the system certainly know how to make life an extravagant splendour for themselves while they continue to insist on “deterrent sentences” for those who offend out of economic desperation.
This is why the Singapore Democrats insist on introducing just and fair wages for Singaporeans – wages that are commensurate with today’s cost of living, wages that would lead workers not into temptation.
On this May Day when we commemorate labour rights, there is little to celebrate for workers like Madam Letchmi who continue to be exploited by those who rule them.
The SDP’s call for minimum wage rings louder and more urgently than ever.