Should Singaporeans “appreciate what we have” or can they look the other way while inequality grows in society?

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Photo: YouTube screengrab

Should Singaporeans simply “appreciate what we have”? Or can they afford to look the other way while inequality is a growing problem in society?

In a letter to The Straits Times published on Friday, August 31, Lee Teck Chuan emphasized that Singaporeans should be grateful for what they have, and must consider how fortunate they are that their governmental systems take such good care of its citizens.

He further explained that the government extends care from birth till death “not in a socialist welfare way that discourages effort.”

Mr. Lee believes that Singaporeans should not take for granted the ability to buy Housing Board apartments, and even bigger ones as personal needs increase. He commended the government for its good governance and stability due to government continuity.

He notes that in the nation “every generation lives better than the last” and asks, “Where else in the world does a government pay attention to even small details – from the affordability of milk powder to utilities to healthcare?”

Mr. Lee admits that social stratification is a cause for concern for many, there is systemic fairness, and “the spoils of our economic achievements are shared equitably.”

Mr. Lee’s letter to the Times’s forum is in stark contrast to Singaporean writer Judith Huang’s widely read article in The South China Morning Post, “In a Singapore full of crazy rich foreigners, inequality is becoming ingrained,” which has evidently struck a s chord and has been shared more than 1500 times.

Ms. Huang points out that while Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asian novel and its sequels have been on bestseller lists, at the same time, many Singaporeans have also been reading This is What Inequality Looks Like, written by sociologist Teo You Yenn, containing essays about families who live on less than S$1,500 a month.

She points out that because Singapore has a tax cap of 22 percent and neither capital gains tax nor estate duty, it has become a haven for rich people of other nationalities, including Eduardo Saverin, who co-founded Facebook. But welcoming the ultra-rich has not been without consequences for others who can afford less.

The author recounts the story from 2012 when a very wealthy mainland Chinese man driving a Ferrari crashed into a taxi driven by a Singaporean national, which ended in the deaths of both the Chinese and Singaporean men. “The crash was a metaphor for the collision course wealthy foreigners and working-class locals were on,” Ms. Huang writes.

Ms. Huang also writes about her own experiences as one person whose forebears are from a lower income group, when her family was forced to give up the land that her grandfather, a bumboat business owner, had worked hard for, and was only compensated with a small apartment.

And while education is supposed to level the field of opportunity, this was not the case for Ms. Huang and her family. Despite her mother’s stellar performance at the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School, she was still looked down upon by her elite classmates. Ms. Huang in turn refused to go to that school, though she ended up getting an education in Harvard.

Ms. Huang cites entrepreneur Ho Kwon Ping, who warned that while education is a “social leveler”, it may actually “perpetuate intergenerational class stratification”.

The author ends her essay with writing, “Every morning in schools throughout the island, children take our national pledge, promising to build a democratic society, based on justice and equality. Do we still mean what we say?”