It is hard to ignore the rich in Singapore. No movie, not even the famous “Crazy Rich Asians”, prepares you for the numerous designer bags, high-end cars, and beautiful mansions you will encounter here. The wealthy here are highly visible and their voices are heard like their presence is felt.
But unlike the “crazy rich”, there is another sizable population that is easily missed. I only noticed them when I tried to look for them as a part of my research on inequality. I found them on the busy MRT stations in the evening after a day of work, or as they cleaned our house with their daughter because she was too sick to attend school and had no childcare, or driving the Grab I ordered because they were laid off at the age of 51 and could not find new work, or on the sidewalk selling tissue to pay for their medicine.
These Singaporeans do not live the life of glitz and glamour that can be easily told abroad but their story must not be neglected from Singapore’s narrative.
As a nation, Singapore has a reputation as a global model. With low crime rates, tremendous economic growth, and a beautiful city, Singaporeans have a lot to be proud of.
As a former British colony, Singapore is an anomaly for the prosperity it has achieved in the short period following independence. These qualities drew my attention to Singapore and I wanted to see first-hand just how this young nation became so efficient and successful. My research began with what I noticed first; the rich. While it seemed like that was the entire population, I soon found it to be far from the truth.
As I examined the statistics, I found that Singaporeans were not all rich, and in fact, the nation was struggling with high levels of inequality. After studying income levels, wealth distributions, GINI coefficients, inequality indexes, gender statistics, and ethnic inequality I saw for the first-time global rankings that placed Singapore on the bottom of the scale.
In the 2018 Global Wealth Databook released by Credit Suisse, as many as 13.8% of Singapore’s adult population possesses a wealth of less than US$10,000 compared with 2% in Korea and 5% in Japan.
It appears that these statistics do not take into account the large population of foreign domestic workers or other work permit holders. Its Gini wealth coefficient is 0.758 which is higher than other high-income Asian countries. (The Gini coefficient is a measure of income or wealth inequality on a scale of zero to one, zero being perfect equality and one perfect inequality and it reflects assets more than just income.)
On the distribution of wealth between the sexes, Credit Suisse reported that “among countries with at least 20 billionaires, Indonesia, Singapore, and Taiwan stand out with zero who are female.”
Oxfam and Development Finance International have worked to measure the commitment of governments to reduce the gap between the rich and poor. The index includes 157 countries and uses various indicators such as government spending on social initiatives, tax, and labor rights to create their data. In the report released in 2018, Singapore had a CRI (commitment to reduce inequality) rank of 149, making them 9th from the bottom of the list.
This is partly because of its tax system: Personal income tax for top earners is very low at 22%. The low CRI score is also due to a relatively low level of public social spending – only 39% of the budget goes to education, health and social protection combined (significantly behind South Korea and Thailand at 50%).
On labor, Singapore has no equal pay or non-discrimination laws for women, and there is no minimum wage, except for cleaners and security guards covered by progressive wage packages.
The data are striking as they illuminate what is often missed in the narrative told about Singapore. But I knew the data alone were not enough to understand inequality in Singapore. In order to understand this social problem, I had to talk to people, and read their books, and see their culture.
What I found was frustration among Singaporeans with materialism, elitism, and meritocracy that was failing society. What I heard were complaints about the salaries of civil servants and hyper-competitive education systems. What I sensed was a general apathy (or was it fear, or both?) towards politics.
In “This is What Inequality Looks Like” by Teo You Yenn, I learned about the mentality of Singaporeans towards their fellow citizens who were not successful. She wrote in one essay, “what the education system does is it selects, sorts, and hierarchizes, and when it gives its stamp of approval to those ‘at the top’ is that it renders those who succeed through the system as legitimately deserving. Left implicit is that those at the bottom have failed to be deserving.”
I know the situations that discourage Singaporeans the most can only be challenged with a passion to tackle the policies that have created these situations. Being a United States citizen, I have felt that same apathy in my own country but what helped me most was seeing the continued hope, and work, that others demonstrated in trying to resolve these problems.
For any country to succeed, patriotism is needed. But patriotism is not just being proud of and loyal to one’s country. It also means being critical of forces and factors that adversely affect the people’s lives, and collectively looking for solutions that benefit all and not just the few.
In this regard, Singapore is no different from any other country.
Makeez Manely is a student at the University of California, Berkeley and an intern at the SDP. She wrote this article as part of her research work during her stint with us. She is placed by the Academic Internship Council (AIC) based in Singapore. International students seeking internships with the AIC are placed with organisations in various sectors in Singapore including business, science, finance and politics. The SDP has a regular programme for interns and we especially encourage local students to intern with us. Please email your enquiries to: [email protected]