What kind of a society have we become?

June 2, 2010
Singapore Democrats

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Singapore Democrats

Recently, there has been a spate of deaths at our MRT stations where persons have been run over by the trains. While there is no confirmation about what happened at those incidents, there is reason to believe that these people took their own lives by jumping in front of the speeding trains.

While reasons for the cause of a suicide are varied and complex, we can be sure that a significant portion of those who kill themselves do so because of unbearable financial burdens.

Take Tan Jee Suan’s case. An odd-job labourer, Tan had difficulty feeding his polio wife and children on his income. He finally managed to rustle up enough money to buy his wife a bed that made it less of a struggle for her to get herself up in the morning. The family could afford little else. The pressure and humiliation of not being able to provide for his family got the better of him. In October 2006, he jumped in front of a on-coming MRT train.

But not all Singaporeans live such cursed lives. Many on the other end of the financial spectrum lead extravagant lifestyles. One such person is Mrs Nina Ng who spends $15,000 to $20,000 a month – just on clothes. Her eldest daughter has a personal shopper who calls her when new stocks arrive. Mrs Ng makes it a point to dress her son in Roberto Cavalli and Emporio Armani.

Then there is Mr Tan Yong Soon, the civil servant who gained notoriety when he bragged about paying $46,500 for enrolling his family in a cooking course during a vacation in Paris.

Or how about PAP MP Mr Alvin Yeo who splashed out $6.5 million for a condominium?

And speaking of PAP MPs, Mr Charles Chong of Pasir Ris-Ponggol GRC intoned that “lesser mortals” (a.k.a. average Singaporeans) were envious of folks like Mr Tan Yong Soon. Not only has our society become more divided and unequal, but those on the wrong side of the economic fence are being mocked.

What has this country become? Is this the Singapore that the first generation of political leaders envisaged?

Let’s be very clear: An economic system must be able to differentiate between diligent enterprise and unambitious sloth by handsomely rewarding the former. Having differences in wealth is still a better outcome than a society where everyone is made equally poor.

But how “handsomely” must the talented be rewarded before it degenerates into vulgar profligacy? And are those not rewarded necessarily unambitious and slothful or, conversely, are all the super-rich extra talented and hard-working?

These questions come into greater focus in the Singapore context because our system has been meticulously planned and autocratically maintained by those who benefit from such an arrangement. Unlike some of the other mature economies, ours did not evolve from a laissez faire approach.

We had an opportunity to build a more egalitarian republic. The PAP ditched it. Instead, it engineered a society that celebrates inequality and mocks those who do not possess wealth. While we amend laws and make policy to make the super-rich mega-rich, we continue to exploit our most vulnerable by even resisting minimum wage legislation.

While other societies are re-looking their systems that glorify money for its own sake – systems that have gone bust – the PAP is dragging us into those very failed situations. While the US is in the midst of reforming Wall Street and Europe is breaking up its big banking institutions in the aftermath of the 2008 financial meltdown, Singapore continues to amass wealth in the hands of the few.

Is where the PAP is dragging us to really where we want to go?

But if not, are there alternatives? Of course, there are. We can make policy to reduce the wealth divide and make our society more egalitarian. We can do this in a number of ways: 

Introduce Minimum Wage. We must make it illegal to pay workers amounts that are below the subsistence rate in Singapore. By our calculation this works out to $6.80 per hour of work.

Expand the Public Assistance Scheme.
In 2009 we spent $11.5 billion or 25 percent of our national budget on defence, internal security and foreign affairs but only $110.2 million or 0.25 percent on assistance for the needy.

Pay retrenchment entitlement
s. Retrenched workers should be given temporary allowance to help them tide over the difficult period while they look for another job.

Re-calibrate our tax structure. We should increase the tax bracket for the wealthiest in the country and use the revenue to pay for social programmes.

Adjust the CPF system. Overhaul our social security system including our CPF scheme which is woefully inadequate for a population that is seeing its proportion of elderly growing rapidly.

(For a more detailed account of the Singapore Democrats’ proposals, click here.)

There are alternatives. It’s a matter of whether we care enough or are bold enough to want to take charge of our own destiny and make Singapore a livable home for families like Nina Ng’s as well as Tan Jee Suan’s.