As someone who doesn’t read newsPAPers, I’m often slow to react to what’s new, trendy and stupid, but thanks to all the sharing from my Facebook friends, some of the juiciest bits do eventually end up in my IN tray. Here’s a letter to the Straits Times written by one Kelvin Hong.
While Professor Linda Lim offered interesting insights in her commentary, I cannot help but wonder if all the focus on indicators like the Gini coefficient is missing the point (Psychological factors may explain resistance to more redistribution; Nov 6).
Indeed, could income inequality be a red herring?
The poor do not care about income inequality. They care about affording basic necessities and having a chance to provide a better life for themselves and their families.
At first glance, Mr Hong may seem rather audacious to speak for the poor this way. But then, after thinking about it, I think he may be right. If so, then I think we should educate some of these poor people and help them realise that the root of their problems may lie in them not caring about income inequality.
When we make comparisons, we must never compare apples with oranges. Top chart bottom chart. Manufacturing jobs in Singapore get the lowest pay compared to the other countries like Denmark, Switzerland, Australia Ireland, Germany, Finland, Sweden, Canada, Netherlands, US, Austria, UK, France, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Spain. But the order is reversed in the chart below. Make a guess. Which job is it in Singapore that pays people better than their counterparts in the other countries.
This is an example of inequality. For a certain groups of individuals, their wages lag behind that of their counterparts in other countries in spite of the fact that Singapore has the third highest per capita GDP in the world. A privileged group however, gets the opposite. They are the highest paid in the world compared to their counterparts in other countries.
Mr Hong goes on to say:
Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam has put it very well. What we need to ensure is that everyone is on an ever-ascending escalator (To tackle inequality, ensure everyone is progressing: Tharman; Oct 26). So long as lives are substantially improving, no one really cares about inequality.
In fact, inequality is beneficial in that it motivates one to work harder to achieve higher incomes.
Yao mo gao chor ah? Go tell a woman that it is to her benefit that our society treats her unequally, saving up all the promotions for the men. Throw in the story of the ascending escalator too. As long as women ascend, it doesn’t matter that they are disadvantaged by the system and are not allowed to overtake the men.
In case Mr Hong has trouble imagining what inequality is really like from the point of view of the victims, here are a few diagrams I have borrowed to help illustrate the point.
They all illustrate inequality. The system openly and legally puts certain people at a disadvantage. It may have something to do with their age. It may have something to do with their sexual orientation. It may have something to do with the industry they are in. It may even have something to do with the political party they support, but it has nothing to do with their abilities. That is inequality.
To say that you can deprive citizens of certain benefits because they have not voted for you is the same as condoning doctors who treat people who don’t share their faith a little less meticulously than people who share their faith. Both are equally unacceptable and it’s absurd to suggest that this sort of discrimination benefits the victims by making them “work harder”.
It is all right if someone else can skip a step up the escalator as that also creates more room for others to ascend.
Yet some have fallen off the escalator while others have remained stationary. These are the real problems we need to focus on.
I’m not sure what Mr Hong means by skipping a step. I just know that when some general in the army skips a step, that space is reserved for only a privileged few. And when our Prime Minister skips a step, well, you know … So why do people fall off the escalator or remain stationary? It’s because they are on a different escalator from those “skippers”. The “skipper” escalator is branded and well-maintained. The others are on broken escalators which “encourage” them to work harder.
Globalisation brings about winners and losers. We need to do more to help the losers and, in fact, avoid having anyone lose out.
I suggest that we should regularly review and tweak our foreign worker and immigration policies. While they have helped to speed up the escalator, they have also resulted in a far more crowded escalator.
But wouldn’t that encourage our own workers to “work harder”? Is Mr Hong deviating from the same line of reasoning as how inequality benefits the under-performers? The rest of the letter makes sense if taken out of context, but it doesn’t gel with the beginning. Suddenly, he’s talking about aggressively giving a leg-up to low income families. Come on, what will that do to our “beneficial inequality”?
Where training and education are concerned, we also need to be more aggressive in giving a leg-up to those from low-income families.
It is not just direct training and education costs but also the opportunity costs – for example, in terms of loss of income – that can be a major hindrance in improving skills and education.
The Government should pledge that no Singaporean who is willing and able to improve his skills will be denied the opportunity to do so as a result of socio-economic circumstances. Community development councils should also play a role to ensure this.
Yao mo gao chor ah? How many times does Mr Hong want our government to pledge this and pledge that? Haven’t they pledged enough already? Yes, we are a spoon-fed people. But most of those who have lost their jobs do not belong to the Strawberry Generation. They are willing to train for a different industry, but regardless of how hard they train, they almost never end up with a job that pays as well as the one they’ve been doing all these years. In fact, many end up underemployed. You know that when a taxi driver or someone collecting trolleys at the supermarket knows the Laws of Thermodynamics.
What do you do if you get a doctor who doesn’t give you a standard of service that matches that of patients who share his faith? You convert to his faith? I hope not. But if your escalator is not getting the maintenance it deserves, will you fight for more equality, enjoy the “benefit” of the inequality or abandon the mediocre escalator and beg for a place on the elite escalator? Ours would really be a tragic society if a person’s station in life has less to do with his ability and more to do with where he pledged his loyalty.
And here is a father so quick to deny “favouritism” that he completely missed the point.
Nobody is suggesting that his son (or all the other students for that matter) didn’t get into the school on their own merit. The whole point is, the motivation there is to rub shoulders with potential scholars and establish early connections that would give them a leg-up in their careers in future. With these connections and the right “beliefs”, they stand a much better chance of earning a higher income than their counterparts in the rest of the world instead of languishing on the first chart to be motivated to work harder.
© Chan Joon Yee