Inequality: Don’t dismiss Oxfam report

Sense And Nonsense by Tan Bah Bah

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The release of Oxfam’s Commitment to Reducing Inequality report earlier this week was not randomly done. It was timed to coincide with the International Monetary Fund/World Bank meetings – as a counterpoint to the capitalistic goings on at Bali.

Ordinary Singaporeans going about their daily routine would have missed it as they struggled to get to work on the Republic’s still unsmooth MRT and the inordinate number of faulty escalators sprawled all over the stations these days. But Oxfam got into headlines and had our young ministers highly irritated because it ranked Singapore 149th of 157 in its inequality index, below Afghanistan, Algeria and Cambodia, and marginally higher than Haiti, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. The index assesses social spending, taxation and labour policies.

Predictably, two ministers slammed the report

Singapore Social and Family Development Minister Desmond Lee said on Tuesday public service in terms of the standard of education and health care, as well as affordability of housing, spoke loudly about Singapore’s social policy accomplishments.

“We should make sure our poor and even our average Singaporeans have good standards of living, regardless how they compare to rich Singaporeans.”

As expected he aimed his bazooka at Oxfam, saying that even in Britain, it has been criticised as being biased, radical left wing and anti-capitalist. And it’s funded by George Soros and the Open Society Foundation.

He said it’s the outcomes that matter more, and achieving a better absolute standard of living for Singapore’s poorest is far more important than having lesser inequality:”We set out to achieve real outcomes for our people – good health, education, jobs and housing – rather than satisfy a collection of ideologically driven indicators.”

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, who was in Bali, repeated Lee’s points. And he referred to the Human Capital Index released on Thursday by the World Bank. Singapore clinched the top spot in the inaugural index which ranked countries according to how well they are developing their human capital.

The differences highlighted by both reports, whether ideologically (and blindly?) driven or pragmatically conceived (but favouring the wealthy?), are over two things: the levels of spending on health, education and social education versus the actual outcomes/results.

It may be that both sides are right, in their own ways. And each has its own history to build on, without both being necessarily viewed as evil people out to undermine the other.

If we go back to the founding of Oxfam, we will know that it started as an activist group hoping to do something about world famine. Based in Oxford, Britain, it began as the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief. It later became more political, with a range of objectives which often brought it to full confrontation with the countries where it believed their citizens had been denied their rights:

  • the right to a sustainable livelihood
  • the right to basic social services
  • the right to life and security
  • the right to be heard
  • the right to an identity.

The red flag in the latest dingdong between the Singapore government and Oxfam is the fact that Oxfam is funded by George Soros and the OSF. Both sides are not good friends at all, especially going by the allegation that local activist P J Thum’s New Naratif has the backing of the OSF.

Let’s try and put everything in perspective.

Why is the government so enamoured of the World Bank? One obvious reason is that the bank did help us in our early development. The less obvious is that we have become an important de facto Asian HQ for the bank. The World Bank Group has a chapter in the city.

I happened to have read World Bank president Jim Yong Kim’s article on the importance of having a human capital index, published months ago. He was full of praise for Singapore. But he was also very much in favour of community activist groups which went out of their way to prod their governments to take the right direction about inequality.

He wrote about Peru where the campaign by activist groups forced the issue of stunted growth – children who never had enough nutrition to grow properly – on the country’s political agenda in 2006, an election year.

Stunting in early life — particularly in the first 1000 days from conception until the age of two – impaired growth that has adverse functional consequences on the child. Some of those consequences include poor cognition and educational performance, low adult wages, lost productivity and, when accompanied by excessive weight gain later in childhood, an increased risk of nutrition-related chronic diseases in adult life. Sounds familiar?

Politicians responded to the Peruvian campaign by placing a target on reducing stunted growth five percentage points in five years. The South American country managed to outperform even that ambitious growth from 2008 to 2016, the rate of stunted growth fell by 15 percentage points.

And Oxfam’s observations should not be dismissed outright.

Its head of inequality policy, Max Lawson, said the impact of Singapore’s tax policy went beyond its borders, serving as a tax haven for the rich and big corporations.

“Singapore’s harmful tax practices mean that they are eroding the revenue of other countries in the region and globally, revenues that those countries could be investing in schools and hospitals,” Lawson told Reuters. That’s his view, for whatever its worth.

But, as good world citizens, we might want to ponder seriously over this.

Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.