If there is a theme that makes our chattering classes chatter, it is the topic of inequality. However, unlike the other topic that riles people, namely arseholes and what we do with them, the topic of inequality has a way of making people, particularly those in power, squirming in discomfort.
Just mention the fact that Singapore, when measured by the Gini Coefficient (standard measurement of social inequality), is one of the most unequal societies in the world in a public forum. Before you know if, you’ll have a good portion of the government reminding you that such measurements like the Gini Coefficient don’t really tell you the whole story (which was something my former headmaster used to do when the school wasn’t ranking that highly on the league tables – he changed his tune the moment the rankings reflected something he liked to see) and they’ll then roll out all the wonderful social programs that they’ve come up with to prevent the poor from dying on the streets.
While I’m not going to dive into statistics to prove a point. What I will say is that Singapore is an obviously unequal place. In my daily life, I deal with Indian and Bangladeshi construction workers earning the princely sum of $1,100 a month (US$800/Euro 700 or GBP 646) and I also deal with high flying corporate lawyers earning that amount in an hour. In Singapore, it’s a national celebration when the likes of Facebook’s co-founder, Eduardo Saverin who has a net worth of over 11 billion US dollars settles in Singapore (or when James Dyson buys a very expensive piece of property) and at the same time, we’re perfectly content for a legion of dark-skinned Asian workers to come here to work what can only be described as “slave wages” (we even get indignant when the dark people have the gall to riot after the police protect the guy who runs over a dark person).
In fairness to Singapore, we’re not the only unequal place on the planet. My university days were spent in London’s Soho, and the common sight was tramps on the streets camping outside bars waiting for people throwing a couple of hundred pounds away to spare them some change. You could say that Singapore’s inequality is only more telling for me because it’s physically more compressed.
The other observation that I’d make is that nobody seems to have really “rioted” over the “unfairness” of society. So, the question that we all need to ask is whether inequality is really such a bad thing after all.
For me, the answer was given by Raghuram Rajan, the former Reserve Bank of India (RBI) Governor at IIMPact 2013, when he argued that it all depended on how people saw the elite. Dr. Rajan argued that people could accept inequality if they saw the elite as getting there through hard work and guts. However, if people saw the elite getting ahead at their expense, they would not accept it.
Dr. Rajan’s point was clearly visible in the Arab Spring and seen in places like Tunisia, where the average educated person needed to work a few jobs to buy a loaf of bread while any idiot who had the good fortune to be related to president Ben Ali, would inevitably get rich.
By contrast, America has held relatively steady even though you have the likes of Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates whose net worth’s are comparable with GDPs of some nations and at the other extreme, you have dreadful levels of poverty (American satirist, PJ O’Rouke, went as far as to compare Detroit to war-torn Beirut). Bezos and Gates are perceived as ordinary guys who had a great idea that could change life for the better and made a fortune from it (and made many other people rich in the process – think of the Microsoft millionaires in Seattle). While their fortunes are greater than what the average man could dream of, they are not resented because they are ordinary guys who made good rather than crooks who screwed over the ordinary guy.
The problem with inequality arises when the ordinary guy is made to feel that he’s being screwed for merely being born. To a certain extent, that has become true in America with the election of Trump, who is ironically the prime example of someone who has benefited from the faults of the system (inherited wealth, payed less than minimal wages – if he paid at all, coopted local government officials to do him favours etc). Despite being a product of the faults of the system, Mr. Trump is a genius at tapping into the resentments of the average man and exploiting them to his advantage – the average man being so excited that he’s got poor Mexicans, Chinese, Indians etc to blame that he forgot that the guy really screwing him is the Wall Street banker or dare I say, the Manhattan Property Developer.
In Singapore, something similar is happening. The average person notices that life is becoming expensive. Leaving the rising costs of houses and cars, we, the poor sods notice things like we need to top up our bus cards three times a week instead of twice as we did a few years back. At the same time, we’re noticing how things which were meant to be “equalisers” like the scholarship system are looking more and more slanted against the ordinary people (the idea of the scholarship system is good – your family background is secondary to your academic ability – however, over time, the guys getting the scholarships are – the same guys who’ve been getting them for the last few decades – the families that can afford top notch tutors).
So, what do we need to do? I believe the answer should focus giving those at the bottom of the heap the feeling that they have a chance, no matter how slim of coming up on top. Most people can accept that life is intrinsically unfair, and the poor do accept that the rich will have advantages. What the poor will find hard to accept is that they and their children are automatically screwed for being born into the families they are born into and that the rich remain and get richer at their expenses because the system is slanted in such a way. Society only works when the rich get richer and the poor get richer too.
Free market on its own won’t do the trick and some government intervention in life is necessary. To use sporting analogies – you have the European Champion League, where the top clubs (Man United, Real Madrid, AC Milan etc) win pretty much everything, get more money, buy up the best players and continue winning and there’s nothing left for anyone else.
What you need is something like the NFL, where the rules are such that the losers at the bottom of the heap get the first pick of the top talents coming out of the college football system, from where most players come from. This so called “socialist” arrangement has ensured that competition remains healthy and no one team ends up wiping everyone else out of the field.
It’s time for us to reject populist nationalism that leads to nowhere and to look to leaders willing to come up with sensible rules that will offer the downtrodden a glimpse of hope.