Monday, February 29, 2016

Singapore, a weird city indeed.



Singapore has no official national definition of poverty, unlike some countries such as the United States which have poverty thresholds based on household income and size.

I also feel that Singaporeans do not have a good knowledge of how poverty looks like. Many people think that a lot of people in poverty are uneducated and caused by: Low-wage workers' wages are depressed due to the influx of cheap foreign labor, and workers are left out of economic growth.

This is partially true, but the influx of foreigners also drive up costs. Transportation costs a lot more than before, and the train breakdowns are more often. Even the motorcycle, a mode of transportation which people who cannot afford to drive can get around Singapore easily is becoming unaffordable as the COE exceeds $6,000 making the cost of small motorcycles over $10,000.

The rents and property prices can easily cost $250,000 for a 4 room public housing far away from the city, and most new couples who cannot otherwise afford housing, need subsidies and long term loans as their combined salaries may only be $5,000, making the public housing cost more than 50 times their monthly combined salaries.

Increasingly, I do have friends who are not doing well financially. They are not what you expect of people living in poverty. In fact, many of my friends with diplomas, degrees and post-graduate degrees who lose their jobs above the age of 40, find it very hard to find another job with the influx of cheap experienced professional labor.

Many of them end up becoming tutors or driving taxis to get by. Some who have savings decide to start cafes or small businesses, and most of them lost their savings as shop rentals are unrealistically high, and customers have low buying power.

I do know many people living in what I consider poverty. I have a classmate who was lecturing in a Polytechnic, owns a condominium, until his wife got cancer, and after a few operations, fell into a coma which lasted more than a year. Medical costs piled up and to take care of his wife, he eventually sold the condominium to pay for medical bills.

In the final days of his wife, he took care of her and stopped working for a while, but was still left with a huge medical bill after she passed away. He declared bankrupt, and lost his possessions and his job, and teaches tuition and services the bill he owed. In all sense of the word poverty, he fits the description, however, he is highly educated, unable to get any form of financial aid, and all the training provided by the government schemes do not help his case, and this is not unique.

There are in fact many people living in poverty, but due to means testing and loads of bureaucracy, unable to get any aid. Some of them got into hard times, others live with rich relatives, but unable to find jobs as industries disappear when the government change economic directions.

Many of them do have jobs, but the low wages and high costs of living keeps them poor. Even with a degree, many people still live hand to mouth.

I've accompanied people to apply comcare grants, and the questions and checks made can be rather degrading. The process is not fast either, and many who already are desperate could not wait for the process get frustrated and did not get the aid they need.

The fact that the spending on social services from the government is much lower than the SG50 budget is troubling and I do agree, more should be done for the people.

I think the government needs to address the fact that rents can be increasing to a point where a restaurant rent in a mall can triple in a span of 5 years, and yet salaries of the staff increase by only 10% which business owners are not willing to pay more.

There are specific groups of people who benefit from the system, pay low taxes, have not capital gains tax, earning dividends, but they do not seem to be willing to give back, and the fact that the income gap is worsening, yet, nothing is done to address it will only further inequality.

Healthcare in Singapore is also getting worse as queues at public hospitals are getting longer, and medicine costs more. With the typical Singapore mentality, the doctors here, foreign and local, prescribe way too much medicine for typical coughs and cold, making medical bills relatively high. A significant portion of the population would rather not go to the doctor as they do not think they can afford medical bills.

There is a reason for minimum wage, and having an amount where people can work and not be poor is important. The reliance of cheap foreign labor creates overcrowding, and it leads to more social problems which does not seem to be easily resolved.

I also feel that education costs needs to be more affordable. For many years now, many bright students who entered NUS, NTU and SMU cannot afford school fees and have to rely on bursaries and donations. I've donated to many of such bursaries, but when I see that the university has record profits, I do question why is there even a need to charge that high for school fees when there is so much unnecessary construction and buildings which are built and unused.

On the case of SMRT, I recently took the downtown line, and was amazed by some of the shopping areas in the train station, and yet there are ugly overhead bridges. The stations are all very big in size compared to many other countries, and of course, the cost of building these stations borne by the government would be much higher than building a smaller MRT station.

I've heard many reasonable suggestions of building a longer platform so that the lengths of trains could vary if the line become popular, but it was not done due to the additional costs, but looking at the shopping space built, I do not understand why the government needs to build all the additional space for a private companies like SMRT to run rental business, when their primary business should be public transportation which they are not doing a good job, yet having record profits yearly, while increasing fares when oil prices are low.

With a "Satellite ERP" system which costs more than $556 million (Probably will over budget as government cannot handle large budgets) why is there no discussion on such big ticket items which serve no purpose other than "taxing" Singaporeans more, and ERP has never reduced much congestion as costs of vehicles are already so high, and depreciation may likely be more than the cost of ERP.

Many things do not make sense as I strongly feel that those who benefited more from the system -- the rich land owners -- should be taxed more to have more social services without the needs for means testing which can sometimes be demeaning.

-- Ironbowl




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