• BY ZAKIR HUSSAIN
WORKERS’ Party chairman Sylvia Lim cautioned yesterday that as Singapore pursues economic growth, the average citizen must also feel that he gains.
The Non-Constituency MP cited three areas of concern as she noted that “our ultimate aim of growth is to improve the welfare of all citizens”.
One was how much locals benefited from rising gross domestic product. She cited an article last July by economist Manu Bhaskaran which noted that profits took an extraordinarily high 46 per cent of GDP, almost half of which went to foreign-owned companies.
Two, the quality of life for many had fallen in the past five years. Business costs had escalated; an influx of foreigners had worsened congestion and made locals feel like strangers in their own neighbourhoods; and property prices and rentals had shot up.
She took issue with Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s claim that median incomes had risen between 2005 and 2008, saying that the benefits of growth had not been spread evenly.
For instance: foreign workers had depressed the wages of lower-skilled Singaporeans, especially the older and more vulnerable.
Her claims built on those made a day earlier by WP chief Low Thia Khiang, who had lashed out at the strategy of maximising growth, saying it kept low-wage workers’ pay down and widened the income gap. Said Ms Lim: “While I agree that we need foreigners to augment our population and talent pool, the pace and scale of the influx in the last few years was wrong.”
Her third area of concern: income inequality at a level more commonly found in developing countries.
Singapore’s Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality, had risen steadily in the last decade and was now at 0.478, or 0.453 after government transfers – a figure Ms Lim said was way below nations like Japan and South Korea.
“We should not dismiss increasing inequality as inevitable,” she said, as prolonged disparities could reduce social mobility.
She pointed to a recent book by British social scientists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, titled The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. Singapore did not fare well in it.
“If inequalities in Singapore continue at such levels, we should seriously question whether our policies of promoting equality of opportunity are really working,” she added.
Addressing her criticisms, labour MP Halimah Yacob (Jurong GRC) said: “The greatest dignity that we can give anyone is the dignity of having a job.”
She pointed out that the Budget itself was geared towards making sure Singaporeans got better jobs and incomes. “Although there may be a widening Gini coefficient, there are also tremendous social transfers that the Government has provided to those who need help.” A statistic she cited: Government spending on assistance schemes rose by 30 per cent to 40 per cent during the recession.