By Ryan Ong
Know what happened last Sunday? Last Sunday I sat around waiting for the next half of the National Day Rally speech. Hell, I waited. By the time of the midnight Simpson’s rerun, I realized two things: (1) you can physically feel your kidney vibrate after 19th cappuccinos, and (2) there was no second half. The speech was over. Cut off, just like that. Where was the mention of these four issues?
What We Would Have Liked to Hear More About
Look, I understand what the term “rally” means. I didn’t expect the Prime Minister to start tackling hard issues in the middle of it. Not any more than I’d expect, say, Anthony Robbins to raise Palestinian rights in the middle of his motivational speech.
It’s meant to be all ra-ra and get you fired up, I get that. But you know what?
The ra-ra would have been much louder, and the patriotic fervour much warmer, had it included a few choice reassurances in:
- Stagnating Wages Among Low-Income Earners
- Population Targets in the White Paper
- Income Inequality
- Career Mentality
1. Stagnating Wages Among Low-Income Earners
In 2011, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) pointed out that real income for the bottom 20% of earners only rose by 0.3%, over the past decade.
So we had a little hoo-ha where the National Wages Council (NWC) stepped in. They recommended a wage hike for Singaporeans earning $1,000 a month or below. The amount indicated was $50 previously, and has been raised to $60.
Local firms heeded the call, and leapt into action with the speed and enthusiasm of a beached whale. Now I pointed out before: Around 3 in 10 (non-unionised) firms met the increases, and 4 in 10 gave nothing at all.
I understand that the government can’t make the selfish twerps give out the raises. That wouldn’t be business-friendly. And could result in mass retrenchments, among firms that are apparently so badly run they can’t even afford $60 wage hikes.
But surely we could get more incentives for these businesses to give the wage hikes? A carrot to dangle in front of them? At minimum, I thought we’d hear the PM egg them on a little.
2. Population Targets in the White Paper
In contrast to more extreme Singaporeans, I’m not an anti-white paper fanatic. I don’t equate our immigration policy with an extinction-level event.
I might equate it with having my nose shoved up an armpit every time I board the train, but not the end of my country per se.
So if the government says we need 20,000 to 25,000 immigrants per year, then fine. I’ll just take their word for it. But at the very least, don’t I get some notice on how we’re upgrading our infrastructure to cope?
What are we doing about our already wheezing and struggling train system? How are we changing bus and taxi services to adapt? How are we going to upgrade schools and employment policies to cope with the influx, or maintain sufficient open spaces?
Instead of hearing all that, we got a cheer leading pep talk about Changi airport. Look, we know our airport’s great; hell if it grows any more, it could probably secede and declare independence. That’s not the reassurance we needed.
The infrastructure question worth asking is: What sort of rising transport and infrastructure costs will come from an eventual population of 6.9 million?
And what are the plans to maintain our quality of life, in the face of that?
3. Income Inequality
Singapore has one of the highest GINI co-efficients among developed countries.
The GINI co-efficient measures income inequality, and we’ve already seen a rise from a GINI of 0.458 to 0.459, between 2011 and 2012. That puts us second highest in Asia, just after Hong Kong.
To be fair, some of the changes covered in the speech seem to help. For example, the stepped up Special Housing Grant (to include the middle class), and the switch to universal healthcare. But frankly, that’s like trying to cure stab wounds by flicking Panadols at the victim’s forehead.
Real changes might involve something like changing the Goods and Services Tax (GST) from a blanket rate. Let the rich folk pay 10% on their yachts or Maseratis or whatever; they’ll barely notice. But don’t dump a 7% tax on, say, diapers and baby food for a single mum.
Higher GST for luxury goods, lower (or no) GST for necessities. Then we might see the income gap start to narrow a bit. So, is there any chance of…oh damn.
Well just stick with us on Facebook then, and we’ll load you with the money making tips you need to stay afloat.
4. Career Mentality
The Singaporean worker has been targeted by the media a lot lately; it’s something I expected the PM would address. It was also in the Straits Times. The headline in print read: PMET – Pampered, Mediocre, Expensive, Timid.
It seems when Singaporeans can’t earn enough, it’s our fault for not being “analytical, creative, articulate, and productive”. When big companies can’t hit their profit margins, it’s not because they lack those exact same qualities.
How about some definition of “meritocracy” here? Is free market capitalism something we’re applying just to individuals, and not to companies with third rate management?
Also, some direction on career mentality would have been nice. Consider:
There’s no minimum wage, so it’s up to me to negotiate the best pay possible. But when I try to negotiate the best pay, I’m “expensive” and showing “a sense of entitlement“.
I’m encouraged to settle down, but when I try to, it means I’m not hungry enough for success. Because I “don’t believe in working late constantly” or “I’m hard to move” overseas.
This is a time when the PM could really help to clarify where we should stand. Are we supposed to be less competitive and more family friendly (I thought that’s one reason we tweaked the PSLE), or are we supposed to embrace our workaholic tendencies?
I don’t even know which side our vision consists of anymore. And I certainly didn’t get a clearer idea from the speech.