Politics, Jobs and Wages in 2013/4

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By Kumaran Pillai

There are two words that come to my mind when I think of politics in Singapore. It may not be apparent but if one were to reflect on it, he or she may end up with the same conclusions – it is none other than jobs and wages.

At the 6.9M population protest, I spoke to local executive who used to work for an MNC. He was making about $15k per month before he lost his job to a “better qualified foreign talent.”

Another taxi driver I spoke to said that he lost his previous job to “a younger and cheaper foreigner.”

Topping the list is what I heard from a PAP grassroots ex-banker, he could not get back into the workforce after walking the ground for two years. He said, “After walking the ground for two years I thought I’ll go back into the workforce. So I sent my resume to several headhunters and received a call from a Korean who was in his twenties, who was more interested in finding a good place to rent than helping me find a job.”

But our statistics tell a different story. Unemployment is low, we are told that it is hovering at about 2% and our Acting Minister for Manpower Tan Chaun Jin feels, in closed door meeting with me, that enough is being done to tackle the issue of employment or lack of it here in Singapore.

So, we’ve had a good year, economy wise in 2013 – our economy grew 3.7% last year. But costs have also gone up dramatically and the price of public housing does not seem to be abating at any time soon. 2013 has left some people better off, but the majority is still caught up in a middle class rut – where little is left after spending on housing, transport, food and children’s education.

With mounting cost pressures and increased cost of living, wage stagnation may become a major issue in 2014. Unfortunately, nominal increase in wages will not cut it for our middle class, which includes people living in four and five room HDB houses or condominiums.

I do expect the government to come up with a slew of measures to address these issues – they may range from programmes for SME growth, economic growth, wage supplement, healthcare subsidies to public housing.

While I am confident that we’ll have another good economic year in 2014 as a positive outcome of our government’s economic policies; unfortunately and my fear is that it will only manifest well as key economic indicator i.e. GDP numbers. However, the key question to ask is whether there’ll be equitable distribution of wealth – whether the wealth created year on year is going to trickle down to our people or whether it’ll end up in the cash account of Temasek or GIC, or worse to fund the ailing European economies or to fund the next smart city in China?

The solution to this problem, as apparent as it seems to the people and not for our learned bureaucrats, lies in our taxation regime. But, is the ruling party ready to implement a more progressive taxation system?

There are political trade-offs here; PAP needs to be less radical in the taxation and economic policies. They need to tax the rich a lot more. There may lose some political capital with the super-rich but they’ll gain more in the long run with a more stable society and an equitable distribution of wealth.

Politics is unpredictable, they say. It depends on the perception of how we see our leaders and their ability to govern. If 2013 was anything to go by, it is a marked by one electoral disaster, followed by the biggest protest since independence, to sinkholes, floods and a riot.

And on the Internet, the government and the FMI group were engaged in a bitter territorial dispute over who owns it and whether the MDA has the regulatory powers over it. This topic merits an article of its own…

With so many things that have gone awry and wrong last year, it makes the man on the street wonder if the PAP still has its mandate, whether it is from the heavens above or from us, the ordinary citizens.

As we turn a new page, we have an opportunity before us to write yet another chapter for Singapore. And I hope this year unlike the last will be a year that we can build a new, more vibrant, and a more open society that measures itself not in GDP numbers or unemployment rates but by looking at the weakest, poorest and meekest in our society. They are our weakest links and we cannot afford to let a segment of our society marginalized.

It is to this group that I lend my voice – it is the reason I founded The Independent Singapore – to tell the untold story.

With that note I wish my readers and from all of us from TISG, a Happy New Year, have a great 2014!