Singapore seen through different lenses

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Merlion

By Abhijit Nag

MerlionImagine going to heaven and hearing grave disquiet: rumblings of dissatisfaction about declining living conditions, protesters holding placards proclaiming, “Life is hell in paradise”, God urging angels to provide better service, older denizens sighing, “Heaven isn’t what it used to be.”

The scenario is no different here on earth. Life’s a bitch even in what, according to a global survey, is one of the finest places to live. The locals grumble about foreigners, housing, public transport, the rising cost of living and the widening income gap.

But life doesn’t get any better than this, according to the rich man’s club up in snowy Switzerland. Singapore ranks third overall in the World Economic Forum’s Human Capital Index, which compares the health, education and prospects of the workforce in different countries. Only Switzerland and Finland rank higher, taking the first and the second place respectively.

Singaporeans have it good, from the education they receive to their prospects for a better life,  according to the report. “Stuff and nonsense!” may fume the aggrieved on the ground, but that’s not how it’s seen from the rich man’s club up in snowy Switzerland.

In the Human Capital Index, Singapore ranks third in education, second in “workface and employment” (which measures skills and talents), fifth in “enabling environment” (which assesses whether human capital is used effectively) and 13th in health and wellness. Even that 13th rank is not so bad considering there were 122 countries surveyed.

So Singapore is better than most other countries according to the Human Capital Index, but that does not make you feel any better when you are in a funk.

I know. I feel squeezed when I board an overcrowded train and it’s no consolation to me that the peak-hour traffic is just as heavy from Kolkata to London. I am caught in my own emotions while a global survey dispassionately looks at the whole world. It has a broader perspective which can see the big picture but misses out the little details. So to the people in the picture it may not look like an accurate depiction of their particular corner.

I think that is why, while Singaporeans complain, Singapore ranks so high in the Human Capital Index. The focus is different.

Singapore happens to be a particular favourite of the rich man’s club. The little city-state is second only to Switzerland in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competiveness Index, based on an opinion survey of business leaders. The Human Capital Index is also business-oriented, looking at people as economic assets. It has far more statistical data than complete sentences.

Picking your way through the data, you may be in for a surprise. Despite the growing income gap, Singapore still offers better prospects than most countries: it ranks eighth in social mobility. But while it is second in its ability to attract talent, it is only seventh in retaining talent. Why? That’s not mentioned here.

Oh, I mentioned overcrowded trains, but Singapore ranks sixth in the quality of domestic transport. Public transport has become such a major issue here but that’s not reflected in the global survey.

The one point where the global survey matches local sentiment is the social welfare issue. Singapore doesn’t get high marks for this. It is 54th in social safety net protection. Not just rich Western nations – even countries like Malaysia (25th), Indonesia (41st) and Thailand (46th) rank higher.

The Prime Minister has said “the government will do more to support the individual and the community”, so there is consensus on the need to “strengthen social safety nets”. Those were the exact words he used in his National Day Rally speech.

In other respects, though, the survey gives a more favourable impression of Singapore than the Singaporeans seem to have themselves.

Singapore looks great in the global survey, where it is compared with other countries. But what do you care how things are in Timbuktu when you are strap-hanging on an overcrowded bus, feeling the pinch of the rising cost of living, and that guy in the Merc probably earns three or four times as much as you?

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