Creating "Elysium" in Singapore
"Have you seen the movie Elysium?" asked Yeoh Lam Keong, the former Chief Economist of sovereign wealth fund GIC, in response to an audience member's question about migrant workers and poverty in Singapore.
Yeoh was, of course, referring to the 2013 Neil Blomkamp film, in which the rich live in a privileged, pristine space habitat named Elysium, while those in poverty continue to toil and suffer on an overpopulated, polluted Earth. Although set in the future, it's a not-so-subtle critique of inequality in the world today, and the reference an apt one to make during an afternoon's talk on poverty and social inequality in Singapore.
It's no secret that Singapore is wealthy; that fact is, after all, proudly shouted from the rooftops whenever the city-state pops up in the top 10 of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) rankings.
Yet impressive GDP performance had little to contribute to Saturday afternoon's session of 'Let's Talk: Poverty and Social Inequality in Singapore'; it was quickly agreed among all three panel speakers that, although favoured by some governments as a way to benchmark their performance, a country's GDP is a poor and ineffective measure of social well-being. And beneath Singapore's beautiful GDP numbers, there's plenty to worry about.
According to Yeoh, 10 to 12 per cent of Singaporeans live in poverty. They are part of the working poor, the elderly poor, the unemployed. As sociologist Teo Youyenn said in her speech, these are the people who have stood still even as the rest of Singapore boasts of the country's upward trajectory from "Third World to First". A rising tide has, as it turns out, not lifted all boats.
Social inequality and poverty aren't unique to Singapore; Yeoh described them as the "defining issues of our day", pointing to the surprising and alarming success of Donald Trump as a symptom of widespread inequality and disillusionment in the United States.
"[In Singapore], we've taken great pains to make things worse for ourselves," he quipped before criticising the policy of allowing in large numbers of lowly-paid migrant workers into the country. These migrant workers took over a range of low-income work, depressing the wages of the working class (and perhaps, in many instances, even replacing them).
"We're pitting the rural poor [of other countries] against our [elderly poor] uncles and aunties," he later added.
While the Singapore government has made attempts to address inequality and poverty, both Yeoh and fellow economist and speaker Donald Low felt that more had to be done. Yeoh argued, not for the first time, that schemes such as the Workfare Income Supplement and the Silver Support Scheme need to be tripled, and largely in cash transfers, to be truly effective in alleviating the struggles of Singapore's low-income households.
Singapore's government has long been wary of the welfare state, arguing that self-reliance and individual responsibility is preferable to handouts from the government. Yet, as Low pointed out in his speech, Singapore does provide some welfare for its citizens; it simply does it through asset transfers rather than cash ones. One such example comes in the form of Singapore's very comprehensive public housing scheme, which the government subsidises (the exact amount of the subsidy isn't particularly clear).
But while home ownership seems – on paper, at least – a brilliant idea, Low pointed out that the reality carries more pitfalls that one might care to acknowledge. Although owning a HDB flat has often been characterised as an asset one can depend on in one's old age, allowing one's retirement plan to be at the mercy of a volatile property market is not necessarily the most reliable method. Low further dubbed the concept as "regressive and inequitable": the people most able to cash in on the property they own in their retirement as those who own more than one. After all, a Singaporean can hardly count on the money from selling his or her flat if he or she has nowhere else to live.
"The single-minded obsession of pursuing home ownership is increasingly anachronistic," Low argued, calling for other measures, such as ensuring affordable rents, to help correct inequality.
Achieving such changes would require a massive shift in mindset. Myths and ideas clung on to for generations in Singapore would need to be unlearned and re-examined. As Teo highlighted in her speech, narratives – or "the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves" – would have to be disrupted.
One can begin with the 'logic' of meritocracy, long heralded as a cornerstone of Singapore's success. While meritocracy tells us that success can be achieved through individual effort and talent, it not only sorts us into "inevitably unequal" outcomes, but tells us that we all deserve to be exactly where we are. Following the principles of meritocracy, privileged children backed up with rigorous tuition sessions and enrichment classes have earned and therefore deserve all their success, while poorer children whose families cannot afford such support are given the impression that they have failed to be deserving of that same success.
"From a sociological point of view, meritocracy in Singapore is working exactly as it can," Teo said, adding that such a system exacts a cost from all of us – from those at the bottom of the wage scale who aren't able to afford to move upwards, to those at the top constantly frightened of losing their advantage.
Teo urged the audience not to think of poverty and inequality as a simple problem about helping the poor, but as an indication of wider problems with the structures and institutions in Singapore. "How we see a problem, the questions we ask about a problem shape the solutions we come up with," she said.
"The problem is complex, but not so complex that it is beyond our understanding," she added, encouraging everyone to begin to see the issue of elitism and poverty as two sides of the same coin, to question entire structures rather than one social issue in isolation.
"We need to shift in profound ways, rather than tweak around the edges."