Singapore emerged tops among South East Asian countries in Mercer’s 2019 Best Quality of Life Survey. The 39 standards upon which the survey was based include housing, political stability, crime, leisure, air pollution, infrastructure, the health system, education, and the economy.
How it came to be
Five decades ago, Singapore was an emergent country with a GDP per capita of less than US$320. Today, Singapore is an ultra-industrialised society and an entrepôt where trade continues to play a vital function in its economy.
The Port of Singapore is now the world’s busiest transshipment port, surpassing Hong Kong and Rotterdam. In terms of total cargo tonnage handled, it has become the world’s second busiest, behind only the Port of Shanghai.
Singapore’s tourism industry is likewise thriving, drawing in over 10 million visitors every year. Similarly, banking has significantly grown in recent years and many assets formerly held in Switzerland banks have been moved to Singapore due to favorable banking regulations.
The industry on biotechnology has also burgeoned with giant drug makers like GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, and Merck & Co. doing business in the once struggling city-state.
Despite its diminutive size, Singapore is now the 15th biggest trading partner of the United States and has continued to forge and establish robust trade agreements with a number of countries in South America, Europe, and Asia.
There are currently over 3,000 multinational corporations operating in the country, accounting for more than two-thirds of its manufacturing output and direct export sales.
With an aggregate land area of just 433 square miles and a small labor force of 3 million people, Singapore is able to produce a GDP that surpasses S$300 billion dollars annually. At present, Singapore is considered one of the best places to live on earth.
Despite its being an economic miracle, is Singapore really the best location to reside in? Can an ordinary 8-5 employee live comfortably and achieve work-life balance without sacrificing so many things in life?
Cost of living
The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Worldwide Cost of Living (WCOL) 2018 ranked Singapore as the most expensive city in the world. Certain items in the basket of prices are indeed extremely expensive driving up Singapore’s overall cost of living.
An example of this is the price of a car which is notoriously sky-high because before buying a car in Singapore, one needs to obtain a Certificate of Entitlement (COE) and this costs anywhere from S$30,000 to S$60,000, which is only valid for 10 years. Coupled with the fees, taxes and the dealer’s margin, a Volkswagen Jetta that usually costs around S$25,000 can cost S$120,000 in Singapore.
Brief facts and numbers
In 2008, 23,000 children were found to be malnourished in Singapore. In 2011, 1 in 3 elderly Singaporeans were not eating right. In 2012, 1 in 10 Singaporeans were unable to meet basic needs in the form of food, clothing, shelter, and other essential expenditures.
In 2013, 72% of Singaporeans believe that they cannot afford to get sick because of the very high medical costs that a hospital stay entails, for example treating diabetes, in a C-class ward, can cost a patient S$4,500 or more.
In 2017, 180 people were found sleeping outdoors, of the 180, 21 had been sleeping outdoors for more than a year and 18 for more than five years.
Assistant Professor Ng Kok Hoe from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, who was part of the research initiative, said he was distressed at the same time shocked by how long people were sleeping in the streets. “You would think that if people were sleeping outside, if these were the numbers and if it has been happening for so long, we would have noticed. I think it reminds us how invisible they often are,” said Prof Ng.
According to former GIC Chief Economist, Yeoh Lam Keong, 110,000 to 140,000 households in Singapore were unable to meet basic needs.This highlights certain structural issues at play, which cannot merely be resolved through the hard work of an individual.
Statistics provided by the Ministry of Social and Family Affairs (MSF) in 2016 indicate that families living in poverty and relying on ComCare assistance jumped 43.45% between 2012 and 2015, from 20,572 families to 29,511 families. The elderly above the age of 60 are the most afflicted with a 74.32% jump.
Poverty among younger Singaporeans – aged between 15 and 34 – has also worsened with 41,500 earning below S$1,000 a month. The unemployment rate is 5% for Singaporeans under the age of 30, double that of other age groups according to the Ministry of Manpower.
Singapore’s Health Minister Gan Kim Yong inadvertently revealed that 1.3 million Singaporeans are poor.
The “invisible poor”
Poverty in Singapore lacks visibility as it is overshadowed by towering skyscrapers and high-tech trees and those who are economically disadvantaged remain totally invisible. Since Singapore is one of the wealthiest and most well-developed countries in the world, it is this side that the world often sees and thinks of.
It is ironic that while Singapore has many millionaires as its residents, it also has one of the biggest inequality gaps among advanced countries in Asia.
While it is true that the government provides financial aid to any family making less than $1,900 a month, it doesn’t seem to be enough.
And while it is true that the government also provides aid in other forms such as making education more affordable, tax exemptions for impoverished families and more affordable housing, still, many are struggling to survive.
Impoverished families continue to thrash about trying to make both ends meet. Such assistance does not seem to be alleviating the country’s growing issue of poverty.
Since mid-1990s, foreign aid for Singapore has significantly dropped and Singapore receives only tiny amounts from countries such as the U.S. compared to what other countries are receiving.
Even then, the bulk of foreign aid that goes to Singapore does not focus directly on poverty but more on the nation’s trade and economy. This insufficiency of aid extended to Singapore may be partially due to how concealed poverty is in the country.
And though poverty in Singapore is an escalating problem, it is relegated to the background behind the country’s financial successes and development.
And because the issue often goes unnoticed by other countries or financial institutions, little aid is being extended, permitting the spread and prevalence of poverty within the nation.
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