a community of singaporeans

Land of milk and money – and the politics of envy

Posted by theonlinecitizen on June 21, 2007

Singapore has changed.

And I am not talking about physical changes such as the new MRT Circle Line or the new shopping malls or even the upcoming Integrated Resorts.

One can almost feel the fundamental changes that are taking place – in the hearts and minds of Singaporeans.

Although economic progress is of course important for our livelihood, it is beginning to become the overarching, some would say over-bearing, force that threatens to consume us into an endless, meaningless cycle.

A selfish nation

The first change one would have observed is the government itself setting a different tone for society – with the rise in the salaries of government ministers. The issue has been debated vigorously and heatedly, with the government electing to go ahead with the increase.

The tone of society has changed.

If those at the top put such absolute importance on monetary rewards, then it is not possible for them anymore to preach about values such as selflessness, charity, compassion and service.

When leaders set such standards, the rest of society takes the cue.

We are at risk of becoming a selfish nation. Indeed, some people think that we already are.

Caring for the old

The Minister in charge of ageing issues, Mr Lim Boon Heng, is quoted by channelnewsasia as saying: “I would like to maintain and promote… that it is the duty of the family to look after its old.” (Channelnewsasia)

On the surface, this looks like a reasonable argument. But when one considers that MCYS Minister Vivian Balakrishnan had said that the government prefers a “many-hands approach” to caring for the needy, one would have to ask Mr Lim Boon Heng if the government would be willing to do more to help the family care for the old.

The perception among some Singaporeans is that when it comes to the needy and the elderly, the government pushes the responsibility to the family. These same family members are then persuaded to work longer, retire later (if ever) and have the withdrawal of their CPF monies delayed.

All this while the government too opens the door wide to foreign workers who is here to help “average down the wage cost for employers”.

It seems like Singaporeans are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

An “all-for-money” nation

If one reads the newspapers or watch our local television channels, one would be inundated with stories and reports of how well we are doing – the stock market reaching new heights, the property market is booming, we are clinching deals everywhere, from India to China to Dubai.

Almost everyday, you would read about millions of dollars here, billions of dollars there being invested by the Singapore government.

The question some have asked is: Do all these benefit the average Singaporean?

Endless cycle of rising costs

With the continued influx of foreigners, wages remain depressed. Indeed, this is the very reason which our then deputy prime minister Lee Hsien Loong cited for letting such huge numbers of foreigners into Singapore:

“If we did not have some foreign workers to average down the wage cost for the employers, are you sure the employers can survive in Singapore?”

DPM Lee Hsien Loong, Straits Times, Oct 29, 2001

The recent spate of cost/price increases has thrown up the question of whether Singaporeans themselves can survive in Singapore instead. And now, there are rumblings by the foreigners (or expats) in Singapore as well, about high rental. It has also been reported that Singapore is now one of the most expensive countries in the world to live in.

A prediction coming true

Many people predicted that once the PAP is elected into government again, price increases will undoubtedly take place. – and indeed, they have.

From the latest announcement of an increase in electricity tariffs to the previous increases in polyclinics and hospital fees, from cable tv subscriptions to the introduction of means testing, from the ERP to even postage stamps, Singaporeans are facing an incessant barrage of such news.

In the coming months, Singaporeans can expect increases in the GST (July), NETs (July), and also transport fares (Oct).

Already, food prices have increased – from those at your hawker centres to those at your supermarkets.

So, who is benefiting from the “sizzling” economy?

It seems that the only people benefiting from this ‘sizzling’ economy is big business – especially those which are government-linked. Most of these are monopolies. And as monopolies, they pay scant regard to protests from average Singaporeans.

Also, watchdogs such as the Consumer Association of Singapore (CASE) and the Competition Commission seem not to be doing anything at all. Even if they do, such as in the case of CASE, they’d rather spend their time and resources “catching” and warning small businesses like hawker stalls and coffeshop stalls holders about increasing their prices.

Not a word about big companies and government-linked companies’ price increases.

What can the average Singaporean do?

Short of public protests and boycotting certain products/services, it would seem that there isn’t much Singaporeans can do.

Which brings us back to the point at the beginning of this essay.

There is a growing sense of envy among Singaporeans – envy that the rich are getting richer and the poor, well….the poor staying right where they are.

This is the very thing which our prime minister wanted to avoid:

“We must not allow ourselves to be divided between haves and have-nots, or winners and losers … if we let a politics of envy drive a wedge between us, our society will be destroyed, and all will suffer. That must never happen.” (Link)

With the government’s seeming disregard to cries and protests about the rising cost of living amidst the latest round of price increases, we may indeed be in the process of being “divided between the haves and have-nots”.

Our income gap divide still remains one of the widest in the world.

While the top echelons of our society are making a killing right now, the poor – like those on public assistance who continue to receive only $290 per month from the same government which preaches about “a politics of envy” – continue to worry about their livelihood.

So, what can the average Singaporean do?

Not much, really.

It is hard to do anything when what you’re faced with is an all-powerful, all-pervasive government, monopolistic companies and civil servants who give non-replies to questions asked.

It would seem that the politics of envy is not being propagated by anyone else other than the PAP government.

Glitzy and dizzying news headlines and all.


27 Responses to “Land of milk and money – and the politics of envy”

  1. When politics of envy is seen as a lesser evil than policies that might change Singapore’s political landscape, you and I know the outcome pretty easily.

  2. Law O said

    To those that believe that ‘politics of envy is seen as a lesser evil than policies that might change Singapore’s political landscape’, let us not forget that the history of our land (Tumasik) is longer than the current regime. For thousands of years, so many other, big or small, regimes have come and gone from the face of this land. If Singapore I fails or becomes undesirable, try Singapore II, or III or IV…

  3. Iahur said

    The perception among some Singaporeans is that when it comes to the needy and the elderly, the government pushes the responsibility to the family.

    If the Govt (i.e. tax-payers) now take care of the elderly instead of their families, then anyone who supports his parents will be paying not only to maintain his own parents, but other people’s parents as well (via higher taxes). These same people could very well be richer than him, just that they prefer to leave the responsibility of looking after their parents to the Govt. Is that fair? Asking family to take the responsibility to take care of their own needy and elderly in the first instance appears sensible unless someone can propose a viable alternative.

    There are many other things wrong with the article but it will take whole day to point them out one-by-one. For instance, it is not consistent to argue against foreign workers and higher cost of living in the same article. Businesses will not employ foreign workers if they are not cheaper than what they can find locally. If business cost goes up, the cost of living will have to as well.

    I don’t think society has changed. Even 20 yrs ago people are talking about how Singaporeans are caught up with the 5 Cs; 20 years later there will still be people lamenting that Singaporeans are caught up with material pursuits.

    Suffice it to say that if so much time and resources can be devoted to arguing over the cost of something as essential to keeping body and soul together as cable TV and live EPL matches, the ‘average’ Singaporeans cannot be too badly off…

  4. Lifeslikethat said

    Dear Iahur,
    I do not think the writer is saying that it is wrong to ask family members to care for their elderly. What, I believe, the writer is saying is that the govt should be doing more. And I agree. A pathetic $290 per month for those on PA? Come on. Even PAP MPs do not agree with that. One MP even said: “Anyone who thinks $290 is sufficient to survive in Singapore is out of touch with reality.” (Or words to that effect).
    As for foreign workers, did the writer say he is against this? I don’t believe so. I believe what he is saying is the open-door policy on foreign workers. This is something which many singaporeans are saying – that we are opening the door too wide.
    **Remarks deemed to have nothing to do with the issues raised in the article is deleted by the editor.</em><strong>

  5. scb said

    A very frank and sincere article which I hope will remind the Leadership and the Citizenry that things are not working well for both if the Former bathe in the glories of their powers and wealths while the Latter wails in self pity and hopelessness. For the Country and its’ people to progress, more correctly to survive; synergy of both is vital, whereas doom is inevitable if synergy fails. Indeed we are at a very critical point, more so to the Country than its’ people, it is up to the Leadership. Does it think more about their personal wellbeings or the wellbeing of the Country, it is their choice.

  6. Chew said

    **Remarks deleted by the editor.

  7. GC Chwee said

    >>”So, what can the average Singaporean do?
    Not much, really.
    It is hard to do anything when what you’re faced with is an all-powerful, all-pervasive government, monopolistic companies and civil servants who give non-replies to questions asked.”

    This is where I’d vehemently disagree with the otherwise good article. There is much the average Singaporean can do. Like their counterparts in HK and Taiwan, Singaporeans can pour onto the streets and make their voices heard.

  8. Numb Already said

    With these price and cost increases, can’t wait to see what the next Consumer Price Index will come out to be. Another single digit number? Ever wonder how come, year after year, this price index is single digit when, as consumers, prices of most things seems to be going up by double digit? Some wise crack said “there three kinds of lie – Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics!” Another tool in the Gahmen’s arsenal!

  9. Scratcher said

    Too many govt controlled companies directly involved in our daily lives. Look at how NTUC renders services and products! Now they even produce house-brands of all sorts of services (funerials) and products (Fairprice potong ice-cream) which of course directly compete with the small, original firms. To make matters more complicating, NTUC is labour union but the largest local employer.
    I am not happy with the directions this country is going. None of them is going my way. Nor yours. I would like to protest but cannot do it like CSJ. Nor like this blog. So I do it my simple little way.
    I BUY Royal Umbrella AAA rice instead of Fairprice AAA at NTUC supermart.
    Royal Umbrella is a bit more expensive but I feel good paying for the opportunity to show my unhappiness with NTUC and the real masters, who are certainly not the working class.

  10. Iahur said

    <i>I do not think the writer is saying that it is wrong to ask family members to care for their elderly. What, I believe, the writer is saying is that the govt should be doing more.</i>
    If that is what the writer really thinks then some indication of how much more, who to benefit, and who to pay for it will be more useful.
    <i>This is something which many singaporeans are saying – that we are opening the door too wide.</i>
    Too wide compared to what? Even if the door is ‘too wide’ now (whatever that means), it still does not detract away from the fact that closing the door (completely or not) goes against trying to keep the cost of living down. Of course, I have to admit it might also push up the wages of SOME workers — just that everyone else (including retirees and unemployed) will be paying for it.

    Again, I have to be naive and ask: For those who think that Singapore is on the wrong path, what SPECIFIC things should we do or not do? Thanks.

    **Remarks deemed to have nothing to do with the issues raised in the article is deleted by the editor.

  11. Dead Poet said

    A well written article putting across the point well. While I welcome what G.C Gwee has suggested and fully agree that freedom of expression and speech is a hallmark of a true democracy, it is exactly the kind of response the people in power would welcome too. It would be the ideal situation for them to use the tried and tested weapon as proven in 1963, 1987 and 1988. It would also help them reinforce the climate of fear, which has always been the correct atmosphere to ensure their success. What would be more effective, at least in my opinion, would be to chronicle and document all that as happened post 1996 election. When the next ballot is due, this information needs to be disseminated to refresh people’s minds( we have the shortest memory, easily wiped out by a few hundred dollars)and we know we cannot depend on the MSM. Those who know must educate those within their circle and should engage them in debate. If the 33.3% is able to convince one person each, the results would be reversed.

  12. Ned Stark said


    It is perfectly fine if you want to label everyone who questions policy as whiners who have nothing better to do, in fact its your prerogative in this thing called the democracy.

    What i would like to advert to you is KTM’s post on the plans to bring the population to 6.5 million.

  13. Dear everyone,

    I have deleted/edited some of your comments – comments which are deemed as personal affronts or attacks and which have nothing to do with the issues raised in the article.

    This is to keep the discussions focused on the issue/s.


  14. Iahur said

    Ned Stark,
    To question policies seriously, one should be specific and/or suggest some alternatives.
    As for KTM’s article, it is of course true that a much bigger population will bring new problems that must be solved.
    But we should also be mindful of the advantages of a bigger population. For instance, we are spending almost 40% of our annual budget on defence and security because we don’t really have the economies of scale to maintain a large and modern armed forces. It doesn’t take twice the number of F15s to defend a Singapore that has twice the number of people.

  15. Ned Stark said


    That will depend if the person is pedantically whining; if he is not then i see no reason why he should be restrained from highlighting what he feels to be pertinent facts in the hopes of garnering solutions (eg Whistleblower kind of person)Furthermore with regards to solutions, there are those who feel its unworkable and there will be those who find it tenable.

  16. Y.K. said

    Some of the points raised are valid and give rise to concern. Policy shift such as from state to families to care for the elderly should not be the case for one or the other. The state has an obligation to look after core care of the elderly such as providing affordable healthcare, the family has a moral obligation to look after their elderly. To expect one or the other to be solely responsible is not realistic.

    The recent suggestions for probable increase in the retirement age to 65 is something which needs to be very careful about. Our leaders tend to cite other countries as examples but what is cited is often one sided. To the working man and ladies on the street, it appears it is another scheme to delay CPF payout. It appears to be a trend after a few years, something new will be introduced and always for the same reason, “We need to build a nestegg etc”. CPF monies are NOT the state’s monies as they are trustees of the monies hardearned over the years. CPF funds should not be manipulated under different reasoning which ultimately boils down not allowing you to withdraw your funds but delaying it as long as possible as I believe it is part of our foreign reserves that is reinvested.
    I am quite certain most Singaporeans (working class) look forward to some comforts in their later years for a few years and am matured enough to decide how to spend their monies with the exception of a few before its time to go.

    Not many would like to “DIE RICH”. Would you??? err: I mean the working class excluding the rich who do not need the CPF.

  17. Changes for the worst is a sign of bad happening in the future. This is always the case when a dynasty was declining. Chaos will be the daily routine.

    This is to say PAP will collapse in the near future.

    PAP might be able to control Singaporeans but outside influence will be able to bring their collapse. Temasek and GIC have vast investment overseas. If this investments are caught in political matter and cannot make money instead losing billions, then I think the PAP will have to answer to the people, where has the money gone to and what went wrong.

  18. lesile said

    Kew Kah Fatt ,
    since when the PAP will need to answer for their action ? The PAP is above all, and anything that applies to laymen and human rat does not apply to PAP. For decades, the PAP has do what it like often saying it is for good of all Singaporean, and get away each time of its failure of its kind. Why do you think in future, it will fall ? I do not think anything has changed because Singaporean is really really really very chicken capable of whining but not doing anything for the society, and that’s include the Chicken Me.

  19. lesile said

    We can continue to bash the gahmen but as long as the establishment stay in absolute power with LKY remove any threat, I do not see why the society will progress by leap and bound, sure sometimes it did leap but it is leaping backwards not forward. The world has indeed changed a lot but Singaporean and gahmen mindset is very much the same as today and tomorrow. Everything look different, but the mindset is still the same. Majority Singaporean has form but no substance.

    We are only asset if contribute to economic success to PAP which in turn means more salary and bonus to gahmen. Anything else is just as liability.

  20. lesile said

    what alternative are you talking about when the gahmen tell us that you need to be politican to discuss politics at all. I don’t believe you not aware of that ? Gahmen ask what you talking when you don’t know their situation. Sure, I do not know what gahmen is doing because they lack transparency and accountability, and by keeping NO REPLY to so many questions, they are suggesting NO ALTERNATIVE solution because we do not know the true situation of Singapore. If we don’t even trust the gahmen and gahmen has no credibility, what the point of talking alternative ?

  21. lesile said

    You need to pay millions to gain moral authority. That’s the greatest joke I ever hear in life.

  22. lesile said

    are we defending Singapore or gov ?
    Will you defend something you won’t even call a home but a parking lot ?

  23. scb said

    I will appreciate and be thankful to Iahur to come up with any advantages that increased population could bring and and what other suggestions he has to improve the wellbeings of the country and its’ people. The progresses that we made in the first twenty or so years of our Independence was satisfactory but our elite leaders went and is going into extremes, particularly in the last fifteen years or so. They are more and more into managing money than managing the Country and the Citizenrys’ wellbeings.

  24. Lesile,

    When they used the ISA to clam down on the supposed communists in the 50s and 60s, many Singaporeans were chicken out. Then came JB Jeyaratnam who spoke against many PAP policies and many supported him and he was able to be elected into parliament.

    But what can he do alone when others are not willing to come forward to join him. They are afraid of been penalised and send to jail. All other political parties are just the same with weak candidates and without any vision for Singapore.

    I don’t have to be in politics now as I am fad up with them. I was in WP and NSP before. I do my duty in my websites and blog in .

    My article of Election1984 was circulated to many people and some people told me I can get sued. But till now I am not yet sued by Lee Kuan Yew. I have the guts to do things, but I don’t have supporters. So what I do now is not to participate in election as I don’t prefer any of them.

  25. blueadamsingapore said

    Hi everyone,

    It is easy to fall into frustration and despair. And it is not easy to find a way out. There’s also not much point in comparing ourselves with other places like HK, Tokyo, Shanghai and compare and say we are not so bad off …. that may be logical, but it’s like the pain is still there.

    The pain will not go away. If you’ve read about globalisation, the BRIC nations rise etc, this is the consequence of being so plugged in. My relatives in Penang, Ipoh etc don’t really face this. Rural/town Malaysia is insulated for now from rapacious globalisation.

    I guess, when we decide to stop suffering, we will find a way. We have always found a way, and if we can’t, our children can. Let it be. But as I’ve mentioned in another post, the monster bureaucracy that LKY has put into place is already beyond his control. The civil service is more powerful than the PAP. They are not directly accountable to the public as well. If you need to focus your energies, focus it on the civil service and how to reform it.

    But truth is, the civil service or our government can do little in this rapacious global environment. We will never retire in our lifetimes, so let us have little retirements all the way in between getting a job. Live simply and invest much in a few children. Give up the delusion of fulfilment in corporate jobs. and so on … this is the luxury of choice that the middle class still has. For the lower classes, it is bleaker. Aid will have to given.

    Have a good day,

    Adam M

  26. Scratcher said

    Politically all Singaporeans, except PAP & “opposition” members, are eunuchs, incapable of standing and/or impregnating an egg naturally. But still as living beings, like pigs for slaughter, we must act responsibly to society and of course to ourselves as a start. The only option freely available to us is economic actions. Do avoid paying to the openly pap established vendors and service providers. This is the only freedom available to us and we must exercise this freedom every hour of the day. If even in day to day, spendings, we must follow the dictate of pap, then we might as well let them keep our CPF as heritage to give to our children instead of taking them out to spend in old age.
    FYI, I am 62+

  27. […] when driving and correlate them to Singapore society as a whole. Whether this state of affairs is a symptom of a society too engrossed in things material or for whatever reason has not been touched here as it is not the […]

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