So rich, so what?

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Bentley Singapore with chauffeur

By Augustine Low

Bentley Singapore with chauffeurConventional thinking is that a Third World country has much to learn – even copy – from First World countries.

The contrast between Third and First is huge. Take Myanmar, the poorest country in Asean, with GDP per capita of about $700. While the International Monetary Fund’s 2013 estimates show that Singapore is the world’s richest country, with GDP per capita of $61,567, and projected to rise to an astounding $77,000 by 2018.

But Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, while in Singapore this week, has given a sobering reminder. Perhaps Singapore can learn from her country too – about human warmth, about the value of kinship and family ties.

This reminds me of remarks by Minister Khaw Boon Wan in Parliament a couple of years ago that Bhutan was not the happiest of places, the Shangri-la on Earth, that it’s often made out to be. When he visited the country, he “saw unhappy people, toiling in the field, worried about the next harvest and whether there would be buyers for their products.”

A Bhutanese responded: “Those people you saw in the fields weren’t unhappy, if you have gone closer you would have heard them singing and enjoying social life. Perhaps you won’t understand that. If you had spent a little longer time watching them, you would have seen a woman with basket on her back and holding arms with several children coming with steaming food – we don’t have McDonald’s or KFC. Then everybody will sit down to eat their lunch, laughing and joking, feeding babies, for over an hour – you wouldn’t have had so much time to sit and watch, I know. Time means money in your country. But we have the luxury of time.”

Singaporeans are rightly proud of our shining metropolis, but we need a reality check from time to time to remind us that GDP and world-class airport, port, casinos and F1 are not the be-all and end-all of being exceptional.

Not long ago, a Filipino asked me: “Singapore is so rich, why are there so many old people working as toilet and food court cleaners?”

Indeed, look around and we see Singaporean elderly in their 60s, 70s and even 80s – sometimes hunched back, often physically infirm – toiling as cleaners for public toilets and clearing dirty tables.

We have been told that Singaporeans should be prepared to work longer and harder. That self-help is the best form of help. That there should be no over-reliance on social welfare and public assistance.

But backbreaking work for the elderly? In a country teeming with wealth?

I was told by another foreigner that it is a stain on the family honour if a grandmother has to resort to cleaning toilets to support herself. So the family network invariably chips in to help out.

Are Singaporeans so lacking in filial piety that we refuse to support our parents and grandparents? Are we more inclined to spend lavishly on tuition for the children than give allowance to dependent elderly?

Or is there a shortage of social safety nets for our poor elderly, who helped in building the nation?

Aung San Suu Kyi may well have a point.  A First World country can still learn a thing or two from a Third World country.
Augustine Low is Director of Strategy at a communications consultancy.

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