It is disappointing that PM Lee had used a poor choice of words in his recent interview with The Australian.
The Australian had quoted Mr Lee as saying:
“People are not so poor. They think their government is not poor so they expect the government to do more for them. They’re not poor but they feel less well off relatively than others they can see in society. There is that relative sense that ‘I should get my entitlement.”
“In America, entitlement spending is a big chunk of your budget. In Britain it’s half the budget. In Europe it’s not just entitlement spending but the whole idea of state welfare, which is entrenched and you cannot undo this. How do you cut back on spending when benefits, once given, cannot be taken back? The Germans have done a big restructuring over the last 20 years, but the French have not given up their attitude to entitlements, neither have fundamentally the Spanish or the Italians … We have started with very minimal welfare and we’ve gone on the basis of growth and high employment and low unemployment. If you’re out of a job you can find a new job. You will get help but the help is not something you’re absolutely entitled to. We have to adjust that without going overboard and ending up where the Americans are or the Europeans are or where the New Zealanders were.”
From a public relations angle, Mr Lee had made a blunder in brushing off Singaporeans as being “not poor” and seemingly want the “entitlement” that he might suggest that they should not be entitled to. He had over suggested that his government should ensure that they do not allow Singapore to go “overboard” with the allocation of their budget for welfare benefits, to end up like the countries which had.
Are Singaporeans poor?
However, what is of more concern is that by saying so, Mr Lee and his government have shown that they are resistant towards responding to the people’s needs.
The question is – is Mr Lee right to suggest that Singaporeans are not poor? There are nearly 300,000 people who are earning less than $1,000 (based on their CPF contributions). Of these, it is estimated that about 100,000 are fully employed and the rest are employed on a part-time basis. It is discussed by some sectors that about 20% of the Singapore population lives in poverty. An article that I had seen on one of SMU’s publications had also opinioned that according to a study, the household income that a family of four should have to ensure a basic standard of living is $1,700. On top of that, Singapore’s Gini coefficient, and our income inequality is one of the highest in the world.
So, are Singaporeans poor? Mr Lee had said this – “They’re not poor but they feel less well off relatively than others they can see in society.” What Mr Lee is suggesting is that Singaporeans feel poor only because we compare to others. He seemingly suggests that we are not contended and what we feel about being poor might actually be imagined.
Clearly, most Singaporeans are not poor. And Mr Lee is partially right in suggesting that for some, our sense of being “poor” might be misplaced – a suggestion could be that as we achieve a higher standard of living, we want to afford things that might be beyond our means, as we strive to be live a more ‘luxurious’ life. But is Mr Lee’s opinion targeted at this group of people?
Even if it is, in broad strokes, Mr Lee had thus slighted those who truly are “poor” – those earning below $1,000 and the elderly who, in their 70s and 80s, still have to work to make ends meet, among others. The question is this – does the government have an eye on them, to ensure that even if we do not go “overboard” in the resources we allocated towards those who are in the lower social rungs of society, that we continue to provide them with a basic standard of living that is respectable in the Singapore economic context?
The truth is this:
- When the government opened up Singapore’s borders to a larger migrant flow in the mid-2000s, in subsequent years, there was a depression in the wages of those in the lower wage groups. In fact, the group earning less than $1,000 grew in numbers. However, it is also a fact that those who earn more than $4,000 grew as well. So, PM Lee isn’t wrong to say that (most) Singaporeans are not poor. But the reality is also that those in the lower wage group have not seen their lot increase, at least over the past decade – their wages have depressed, their numbers have rose and their standard of living has necessarily dropped.
- When the government opened up the borders, necessarily, the larger migrant flow would necessarily result in a moderation of wage increase, due to market forces – which would have slowed down the potentially higher wage increase for Singaporeans. The government had largely taken a capitalistic approach towards allowing market forces to calibrate the wages of Singaporeans, and thus necessarily, our wages would not have increased at a pace that it would have if the government had calibrated the opening of the borders more carefully. This is coupled, with inflation rates that have soured above the increase in wages.
- Thus, if PM Lee wants to talk about relative terms, we have actually grown poorer, than what we could have potentially achieved, if the government had not left wage increase to capitalistic forces but had actively intervened to calibrate the wages of Singaporeans, to compensate for the expected depression in wages, due to a relaxed immigration policy and to adjust for inflation.
But, if we go on debating on whether Singaporeans are actually poorer or not, it will only be a debate of words – we are either poorer or richer, however we choose to see it, in relative terms.
What would be the more important issue is this – what is the right thing that government can do?
Do Singaporeans want what they are not entitled to?
Mr Lee had this to say at the interview:
- You will get help but the help is not something you’re absolutely entitled to.
- We have to adjust that without going overboard and ending up where the Americans are or the Europeans are or where the New Zealanders were.
But what is “entitlement”? Here, Mr Lee is suggesting that there are some Singaporeans who feel that they are entitled to assistance that they feel that the government should provide. From anecdotal evidence, this might be true – though it is a human condition that exists in all countries, that there are a group of people who might rely on the government to fulfil their needs because they are unable or unwilling to do so. PM Lee is thus wary of “going overboard” with welfare spending, which might over-compensate this group of people, at the expanse of revenue which can be redistributed elsewhere.
However, aside from this group of people who might feel “entitled”, there are real concerns that Singaporeans have. For example, in the area of healthcare expenditure, even though Singapore has the world’s highest GDP per capita, we spend one of the lowest proportion of our GDP on healthcare and the people pays one of the highest out-of-pocket expenditure for healthcare – which means that we fork out proportionately more to pay for our own healthcare bills. It is obvious thus, that the government can afford to do more to increase funding to subsidise for healthcare needs, to match up to its responsibility, as can be seen by the example that other countries have set. Of course, do the other countries set the standard as to what affordable healthcare is? They don’t. But when even Singaporeans lament about the expensive healthcare, surely, the people can’t be lamenting because they feel “entitled”?
Healthcare is not an entitlement. Healthcare is a basic right that people should have.
In the most ideal situation, the people should be afforded free healthcare, but this is unrealistic in a capitalistic society. However, the government needs to recalibrate the funding for healthcare expenses, to ensure that the people do not feel burdened by healthcare costs, do not feel the need to have to work in their 70s and 80s so that they can continue to live, so that they do not need to worry if they will have enough in their old age – the government has a responsibility to ensure that people’s well-being, in this sense, is taken care of.
Mismatch of Expectations Between the Government and People
Simply put, the government has taken a capitalistic approach to managing Singapore. It’s all about money and managing the country’s purse strings in a most stringent way, that maximises the utilisation of manpower and resources, to achieve the highest profits. But Singapore is not a company, as much as the government chooses to see it that way. Singapore is both a company where there are workers, and where there are people whose well-being need to be taken care of.
Is PM Lee wrong to say that Singaporeans are not poor, that not everyone is entitled to help and that the government shouldn’t go overboard in its welfare spending? No, he is not – not in relative sense.
But the government needs to remember this – it is a matter of principle and expectations.
- The government sees workers in a company. The people see lives in a country.
- The government prioritises revenue and profits. The people prioritise their well-being.
- The government believes in capitalistic controls. The people believes in calibrated redistribution to balance income differences.
There is clearly a mismatch of expectations, and a mismatch of the principles of governance. The government wants to continue on its path of capitalistic management and in recent overtones, is trying to bulldoze its way through – the most recent example as can be exemplified in PM Lee’s interview. But the people are not letting that happen.
Who is Right?
The final question is this – the government still feels that it is a matter of power and control. In the current debate, it is a matter of whether traditional media and government control can survive and outweigh online opinion and fightback. The people are not letting it go, and neither does the government want to back down.
But who is right? Who wants to work for the betterment of Singapore? NO ONE. The government wants to increase its coffers and at this point, people don’t think it’s just for the country’s long term growth – one thing for sure, it doesn’t work for the interests of the people at this current point in time. The people want to fight for their what they perceive to be economic rights to be returned to them, which at this point, the government feels might be an “entitlement” which is not always deserved to a people who are not “poor”.
Who has the big picture? I am disappointed because at this point, both the government and the people have lost sight of Singapore and her future. We are fighting for ourselves – and not supporting one another. We are a complete disgrace to ourselves and our forefathers – brothers in a fight for the country’s wealth, which none had built but which the forefathers had.
The government had created the National Conversation. The philosophy of this is important and necessary – the government and people need to start talking to one another again. But when both sides choose to continue operating in silo, and not talking – both holding their own National Conversation in their own realms, we will forever be a country divided. We have the ask ourselves this then – do we want to become like America, where the people are divided right down the middle, with half supporting the Democrats and half supporting the Republicans?
The government has to snap out of their comfort in wielding the power they had comfortably held on to for the past 47 years of governance. This power has gave them the illusion that their overall plans for the country are the best, and that their tight control to execute these plans by bulldozing the people are the best.
The people have to take a damn good look at themselves. How long more do we want to complain and actually still wait for the government to do what we keep hoping that they would do? How long more do we want to lament and then vote them back in again, so that we can continue to lament? When do we want to take the situation into our hands and say – if you won’t do what’s right? I will show you. We are only allowing ourselves to entrapped by the state of governance as we choose to be stuck in. If we want to regain power, then we have to restructure how we understand governance, and how we can take it into our own hands, to make things work and to provide solutions.
At this point, we are a disgrace and a laughing stock. If we choose to take opposing sides and refuse to have an understanding of each other and reach out to each other, than may peace be upon you.