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Guardian Crippling poverty and an overpaid government mean Singapore is not the beacon of social perfection that Rupert Murdoch claims Letchmi (not her real name), a 40-year-old Singaporean woman, stood in the dock and pleaded guilty to pilfering $743 from the cash register where she worked as a cashier at a local supermarket. She told the judge in mitigation that she stole the money to pay for her medical expenses and that she had a 10-year-old daughter to fend for. She produced medical records to back up her plea. She had returned all the money that she had stolen. Unmoved, the prosecution pushed for a deterrent sentence. The judge imposed a fine of $2,000.
This is a scenario played out repeatedly all over Singapore. The unforgiving high cost of living in the city, coupled with low wages, has led many to commit crimes out of financial desperation. It is, of course, trite to argue that just because one is poor doesn’t mean that one is entitled to commit criminal acts. There are many who face economic hardship but don’t resort to crime.
This is why comments made by Rupert Murdoch in his testimony before the culture and media select committee are so jarring to reason. He described Singapore as “the most open and clear society in the world”, and that since every minister is paid at least $1m a year, “there is no temptation and it is the cleanest society you would find anywhere”.
If ministers need to be paid the amounts that they are in Singapore to prevent corruption, which is a criminal act, why can’t we pay people like Letchmi enough to sustain her livelihood and health so that she doesn’t resort to stealing?
The Global Wage Report 2009, a study by the International Labor Organisation, found that among 13 countries surveyed (Singapore, Cyprus, Japan, South Korea, Iceland, Ireland, New Zealand, Canada, Taiwan, Denmark, Spain, UK, and US) Singaporeans worked the most hours. Yet they saw their real wages decline. There is no minimum wage in Singapore.
Prices and Earnings, a 2010 survey conducted by UBS, revealed that Singapore was the 11th most expensive city in the world out of 73. In that same study, it was found that the domestic purchasing power of Singaporeans was ranked at 49th.
One of the most expensive cities in the world with its inhabitants paid poorly: are these not factors that drive workers like Letchmi to committing criminal acts?
Even the elderly in Singapore are not spared. They are pushed to work way into their retirement years, and for less pay. It is a common sight to witness folks in their 70s, doubled over from old age, working as cleaners at public toilets and food centres in Singapore.
And yet Singapore’s government ministers defend their enormous salaries by making the case that if they are not paid more than excessively they will be tempted by corruption, an argument that now finds an adherent in Murdoch.
In addition, the “open” system that Murdoch claims exists in Singapore is more a figment of his imagination. Let’s start with the media. In the 1960s and 70s, many journalists were imprisoned. Independently owned newspapers were shut down. Today all Singaporean publications, TV channels and radio stations are owned and run by the government.
Civil society is nonexistent. Non-government organisations, student bodies and trade unions are tightly controlled. Public assemblies outside a small and demarcated area are banned.
The opposition is in a moribund state. Many of its leaders have been arrested and detained without trial, prosecuted in court, and sued till bankruptcy for defamation.
The election system is far from free and fair. The “election” of the country’s president to be held in a few weeks’ time, for example, is restricted to a handful of candidates allowed by the prime minister.
Political power amassed in the hands of the few in Singapore is also used to ensure that a disproportionate amount of financial power is accumulated in those same hands.
Officials who seek authority as custodians of political power must have the character to keep away from crime no matter what the temptation might be. The argument that ministers should be paid millions of dollars to keep them from corruption does not hold water.
No one denies those in charge of government should be paid well. But when politicians start to climb on to pedestals and insist that they be rewarded with stratospheric levels of remuneration, it raises serious questions of moral leadership. Public service enriches one’s sense of loyalty and mission, not one’s bank account. There are other vocations if one’s goal is to amass financial fortunes.
Public service and greed don’t mix well. Perhaps Murdoch is just beginning to find this out himself.