“I don’t understand why you Singaporeans complain about your government.” Colleague from The Philippines.
On Labour Day, sometime after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivered his May Day Rally speech, I was with some of my Workers’ Party colleagues doing house visits at Hougang SMC. I joined them for the second shift where we covered three blocks, one of which was a rental flat.
It was my first time visiting a rental flat and it felt like I was transported to an unfamiliar nation. The units were small (two-bedroom apartments), corridors were dark (admittedly, a storm was looming) and the air stale. We came across strange units where residents were hoarding items, another who was keeping three pigeons, a mynah and countless stray cats, and one who kept a dog that was clearly in need of some medical attention.
All this, while thinking about PM Lee’s May Day Rally speech. The disconnect could not have been more apparent.
Singapore: The Promise of Utopia
I am a Singaporean and I have lived in Singapore all my life. The streets are clean, the economy is booming, lush greenery greets you at every corner and food is aplenty. It is one of the only cities in the world where you can return home safely after sunset. Public transport is easily available; buses link to MRTs, which link to feeder buses stopping less than 300m away from your home. Taxis are easy to find and safe to board. There are few beggars on the streets, only elderly citizens selling tissue paper and other knick knacks. Even busking musicians have to apply for licenses. There are no homeless people, robberies, theft and gang fights are uncommon. Drug trafficking is punishable by death, as is murder. Our government is rated one of the least corrupt in the world. It is one of the most open economies in the world with the least barriers to entry and low start-up costs. Our workers are one of the most productive in the world – we work from 8am – 6pm and take work home if it cannot be completed. Our mobiles are switched on 24/7. This is a country filled with opportunities for people of all races and nationalities; as long as you are willing to work hard, your future is guaranteed.
This is Singapore. The streets are clean, life is good, everything seems perfect. Why then are we so unhappy?
The Cracks Are Showing
In a span of 5 months, every single train line, old and new, has broken down at least once. HDB, COE, ERP costs have increased, inflation is at 5.2% and unemployment has risen. Wages of low income earners have not risen in the past ten years. What my parents earned ten years ago are still what they are earning now, not a cent more. Yet, stagnating wages are being mocked by rocketing costs of living. Ten years ago, one could get a HDB flat for less than $100,000. Ten years later, units are going for as high as $800,000. COE prices have passed the $90,000 mark, which, according to my Filippino friend, can get you four units of Honda Jazz with change to spare to tint your car windows and buy you lunch at a decent restaurant in the Philippines. Our MRT lines, despite being newer than those in Hong Kong and Taiwan, have faced train faults (North-East Line: 1, Circle Line: 2, North-South Line: 1, East-West Line: 3, LRT: 1; please correct me if I’ve miscounted). Taxi fares have increased from $2.20 to $3.20 with only the 9.30am – 5.30pm window free of peak hour surcharges.
Yes, costs of living have obviously increased and we are feeling the pinch.
We not stupid
Yes, of course we know costs of living will increase over time. Of course we are aware that we need to do everything we can to keep our economy open. After all, we have one of the highest literacy rates in the world. Yet, in face of rising costs and increasing competition, what rubs salt in our wounds is the tone and stand taken by our leaders. Train faults? To be expected in view of our aging train lines. Cab fare hike? To battle inflation and increase wages of cab drivers. COE prices increased? Because our economy is doing well. HDB prices increased? Leave it to the market forces. Lowering it by force will hurt the market. Inflation? Average Singaporeans will not be affected by it if you don’t own a house or a car. Wages stagnating? Increasing wages without increasing productivity is dangerous. Ministers’ salaries too high? That is the cost of attracting the best talent to keep our country running.
It is enough that we have to struggle to keep up with rising costs, stagnating wages, a failing public transport system, ridiculously expensive private transport and housing costs. To have our leaders make such statements is simply rubbing salt into already festering wounds.
Walk a month in our shoes
The Working Single: Wake up at 6am. Leave the house by 7am. Walk to the bus stop in 32 degree weather. Reach the nearest MRT dripping in perspiration. Fail to board the train due to crowd. Board the second train. Train delayed due to train fault. Reach work at 9am, 30 minutes late. 226 unread emails. 20 tasks to complete before the day ends. Told by supervisors that wages are frozen and bonuses scrapped. Leave work at 8pm. Reply remaining emails from home. Crash and repeat.
The Working Mother: Wake up at 5am. Prepare breakfast for the kids. Help kids prepare for school. Send kids to school. Leave school at 7.30am, meeting the morning rush hour. Stuck in traffic for an hour. Reach work at 9am, 30 minutes late. 226 unread emails. 20 tasks to complete before the day ends. Told by supervisors that wages are frozen and bonuses scrapped. Leave work at 6.30pm. Prepare dinner for kids. Do housework. Help kids with school work. Crash and repeat.
Would you be frustrated?
Be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle. – Plato
We are all struggling and we know it. No government is perfect and in all fairness, Singapore has done very well for itself in spite of challenges. We may complain about our circumstances, but as many have invited our ministers to walk in our shoes, perhaps we should walk in the shoes of those living in the rental flats I described earlier.
Perhaps it is time to do away with those idiotic statements and focus on finding real solutions to real challenges.
Perhaps change will really come soon.