The Prime Minister or The People: Just Who is Stealing Lunches in Singapore?

The Prime Minister or The People: Just Who is Stealing Lunches in Singapore?
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[OPINION] The Singapore Prime Minister’s fixation on stealing other people’s lunches has raised questions of paranoia, competitiveness, double standards and inequality in Singapore.

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The Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told Singaporeans to steal other people’s lunches at a discussion with union leaders a few days before Labor Day.

Lee said: “You must make sure you steal somebody else's lunch.”

He later repeated his message at the May Day Rally and said: “someone is always trying to steal your lunch and we have to guard our lunch.”

Lee’s rhetoric caused many to raised their eyebrows but this is not the first time Lee seems so fixated on lunches being stolen.

In 2013, Lee said at a live television forum: “If you look at other countries: Vietnam, China, even in India, they're not talking about work-life balance; they are hungry, anxious, about to steal your lunch.

“So I think I'd better guard my lunch,” he added.

And in 2014 at the Dialogue at Forbes Global CEO Conference, Lee said, “I think that is what Singapore needs to do, to be aware, to be paranoid so you always know that somebody can take your lunch away.”

Indeed, Singapore’s Prime Minister’s obsession with exhorting Singaporeans to remain “paranoid” seems to be a trademark of the island-nation.

Back in 2007, Lee pronounced in parliament: “Our model is "paranoid" government - a government which worries all the time.”

In 2014, Lee remarked at the 60th anniversary lecture of the National University of Singapore Society (NUSS) that, “even some paranoia is helpful – because as Andy Grove says, only the paranoid survive. And it can keep you on your toes.” He also said, “we need to be both paranoid and at the same time paradoxically confident.” That, he said, would make Singapore a “special nation”.

But Lee is unabashed about his fixation on being “paranoid”.

At a dialogue to commemorate Singapore’s 50th anniversary, Lee said: “people say we are paranoid, which I suppose we are and we need to be.

“Because you are at a higher level, you expect to be at a higher level,” Lee added.

A question of success

Perhaps Lee is convinced that Singapore is the epitome of success. Singapore’s GDP per capita is one of the highest in the world, and the highest by some reports. Singapore is the envy of many people in its surrounding regions, who also sing praises of the island state, but unbeknownst to them, Lee’s ultimate agenda is to steal their lunches.

The very idea of “eating someone’s lunch” is a financial concept of "an aggressive competitor [...] beating their rivals". This might give guidance as to how Singapore’s leaders see the island-state vis-à-vis other countries. Even when describing its socio-political artefacts, Lee talks about them in financial terms: English is “an important competitive advantage over many other Asian countries”. Singapore’s government, Lee said is “outstanding”, is a “vital competitive advantage” and “if we ever lose it and become "normal, […] we will have lost a precious competitive advantage and it will be very difficult for us ever to become special again.”

Indeed, Lee’s rhetoric seems to parallel the late Grove. Grove had said: “You are in competition with millions of similar businesses, millions of others all over the world, picking up the pace, capable of doing the same work that you can do and perhaps more eager.”

Grove also said: “you have to accept that no matter where you work, you are not an employee; you are in a business with one employee-yourself.” This seems to be a line of thinking that Singapore’s leaders and Lee have adopted.

This has also become how Singapore justifies its disdain for the respect of human rights. At the New York State Bar Association Dialogue in 2009, K. Shanmugam who was then Law Minister had said: “Singapore was viewed as a deviation from the democratic norm because it was seen primarily as a country.”

“This is where most people make a mistake...I have tried to explain that we are different. We are a city. We are not a country,” Shanmugam added.

In other words, Singapore’s leaders consider the country they control to be a business entity where human rights are dispensable.

Singapore Inc.

Indeed, Singapore has been observed by some to be run like a corporation, some even among its citizens believe that Singapore should be too.

In a commentary in Singapore's Today newspaper this week, Charles Tan said: “By treating our citizens more like shareholders in Singapore Pte Ltd, we effectively give everyone a more literal “stake” in the country, which means more even participation in the nation’s prosperity and, hopefully, a greater sense of community and re-enfranchisement.”

Tan’s logic seems to parallel Lee’s. Lee had said in parliament about creating an “inclusive society […] where everybody benefits from the progress of the nation. It is one where everyone has a say, a stake and a sense of belonging. And it is one where everyone aspires to do better through their own efforts and feels that he or she has a real chance to move up.”

But this contradicts Lee’s message of stealing other people’s lunch – can one steal from someone else's lunch, yet share their pickings with the ones they steal from?

Indeed the statistics put paid to Lee’s rhetoric – it has no factual merit. The Brookings Institution has shown that the countries with rising income inequality are also those with declining social mobility, and it also showed that because Singapore has the highest income inequality among the developed countries, it also has one of the lowest rates of social mobility. A study by Millie Lee and Paul Morris in the International Journal of Lifelong Education also showed that, “despite the remarkable economic growth at a national level and the significant expansion of lifelong learning provision, productivity rates have not improved, income inequality has increased, social mobility has declined and the ‘quality of life’ is, in comparative terms, poor.”

Singapore Inc. does not give Singaporeans a stake in the corporation, at least not for the low- and middle-income.

Shareholders or employees?

One thing that observers fail to realise is that it is misplaced to use a traditional model of governance to understand Singapore because this is not how its rulers see it, as Shanmugam has unwittingly revealed. “The managers of Singapore Inc. tend to treat local citizens somewhat like the employees of an old-fashioned company town,” an article in the Fortune newspaper succinctly describes Singapore’s leaders – at least that is also how Singapore seems to introduce itself to others. Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi had famously described Singapore’s education system as being very "workforce-oriented" after she visited Singapore in 2013.

"That made me think, what is work all about? […] I wonder whether I don't want something more for our country,” she had said.

This also explains Singapore fixation on GDP growth – or revenue, rather – and profit-maximisation, which has been fuelled by a low-wage, high cost rental economy. Indeed, Singapore has been ranked the most expensive city in the world by The Economist for four years in a row now. But the high costs in Singapore have finally put a dampener to Singapore’s growth. Government statistics showed how rents kept increasing until reaching a plateau before declining from 2014. This followed Singapore’s falling retail sales index, in constant dollars term, which has been happening since 2011. Savills World Research in its report on Singapore’s retail sector, wrote that, “retailers are still feeling the effects of weak consumer spending, high overheads from staffing and rental costs, as well as competition from the online space,” which has led to Singapore’s retail vacancy rate climbing since 2012, and which has reached a five-year high of 8.8% on Singapore’s prime stretch along Orchard Road.

But this is not all surprising considering that Singapore’s wages have suffered a bout of depression and Singapore continues to insist on not implementing a minimum wage to protect its workers who happen to be its consumers as well, and thus dampening their purchasing power which in 2011 Singapore was ranked by the UBS Prices and Earnings Report as having the lowest purchasing power than any city in a developed country. Singapore’s net wage level after taxes and payroll deductions was also ranked the lowest, together with Hong Kong, and even lower than Taipei, at that time. UBS’s latest 2015 report does not feature Singapore, so it is not possible to make a more recent comparison, though in the latest report, Taipei has taken the crown from Hong Kong.

The fixation that Lee has over stealing other people's lunches has however hurt a large part of its low- and middle-income workforce. The governing People's Action Party with which Lee leads has pushed for a cheap labor substitution policy since the mid-2000s by wildly throwing open Singapore's borders thereby resulting in Singapore's wages being depressed.

What about the workers

Writing for Singapore broadsheet The Straits Times, Adjunct Professor Tan Kong Yam at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and former Professor of Economics at the Nanyang Technological University, said: “the wage shares of GDP fell from 45 percent in 2001 to 39 percent in 2007. The steep decline reflected the substantial inflow of foreign workers, which weakened the bargaining power of domestic and foreign labour, and allowed rapid economic growth to increase company profits instead.”

“Consequently, foreign employment growth rate rose from a negative 6.3 percent in 2002 to 8 percent in 2005 to 19 percent in 2007. These policies have been favorable to foreigners as well as local employers and companies, all at the expense of the local residents, whose economic, social and physical space has been circumscribed.” The Ministry of Trade and Industry, and of Manpower later released a joint response to rebut Tan but the response was scant in its statistics and analysis.

But this has become a common sentiment among a segment of Singaporeans. Leaving their comments on the Facebook page of Singapore’s television news channel, Channel NewsAsia, the most liked comment came from Shinn Ng who said: “The problem is, (Lee)'s inviting those FTs (foreign talents) to steal our lunch. As if that's not bad enough, his government is stealing our dinner too with all those increases like 30% water fee hikes and increase in gas tariffs for the past few months!” Her comment has garnered 236 likes at the time of writing.

Indeed, Lee’s rhetoric of stealing other people’s lunches have caused a past resentment to be brought up again. Some Singaporeans pointed to the trade agreement – Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) – that the Singapore government had signed with India, where a clause states that, “Neither Party shall require labour market testing, economic needs testing or other procedures of similar effects as a condition for temporary entry in respect of natural persons upon whom the benefits of this Chapter are conferred.” But not only that, a similar clause is found in the trade agreements that Singapore signed with Australia and Panama as well. In both of them, “labour certification tests” replace “economic needs testing”.

This would also explain why the Singapore government has refrained from legislating to protect the labor rights of workers. The World Bank ranks Singapore has having the second least employment protection among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and East Asian countries.

Local views

Lim Hwee Choo characterized the sentiment that many Singaporeans have in a comment on Today’s Facebook page: “I have a question. Why am I only seeing our own lunches getting stolen? While other countries grow talent so that they can take big roles and make their own businesses that can expand to other countries, we have very little of that but we lower ourselves so that these big giants will come invest in Singapore and our workers work for them. What's that mentality?” Her comment was liked 41 times.

Indeed, as Adjunct Professor Tan also said: “The intense pressure of globalization, relocation of factories to China and ASEAN as well as technological progress have exerted strong downward pressure on wages of the unskilled and semi-skilled workers, while the international arbitrage pressure on the highly skilled workers at the top has pulled up wages at the top end.”

When prodded to provide statistics to this in parliament, Minister Tan revealed that for Professionals, Managers and Executives (PMEs), Singaporeans indeed to earn lower than foreigners. In 2013, residents at the 25th percentile and who were professionals earned a gross monthly income of S$4,901 (US$3,500) while Singaporeans earned S$4,736. For residents at the 80th percentile, they earned S$11,766 while Singaporeans earn S$11,533. The same is happening for median-wage workers as well, for whom residents earn S$3,480 in 2011 while Singaporeans earned a lesser S$3,248. Residents comprise both Singaporeans and foreigners working in Singapore, which mean that the income for foreigners would be even higher.

Yet, this again contradicts what Singapore Prime Minister Lee said about asking Singaporeans to steal other people’s lunches. To many Singaporeans, it seems that the government is allowing the situation to happen the other way around instead.

Yeoh Lam Keong, who is the Adjunct Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and former Director of Economics and Strategy and Chief Economist at the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation, weighed in on his Facebook: “Unskilled and semiskilled workers have had their real wages dampened for over 15-20 years over the 1990s and 2000s due to competition from … well over a million such immigrant workers. Our working class and lower service level wages are much below similar developed countries’ wages as a result, and the bottom 10% form the working poor - whose wages are not enough to support a family with. Even PMETS have been hit by cheap engineering and IT (labor) imports from China, India and the Philippines. That's one big (reason) why structural unemployment among PMETs has risen. 12 years ago they only formed 25% of the unemployed. Today they are about half.

“So who is responsible for whom stealing whose lunches? A regrettable and massive policy mistake,” Yeoh retorted.

Inequality rife

Where Singaporeans were welcoming of foreigners working in their midst just two decades ago, the inequality that has been exacerbated by government policies focused on encouraging people’s lunches to be stolen have led to much resentment which a segment of Singaporeans have taken to blaming foreigners for. This was found to be the case in a study conducted in Israel and published in a journal by the Oxford University Press: “individuals of low socioeconomic standing are likely to perceive outgroup workers as a source of threat to economic well-being, and that fear of economic competition is likely to prompt hostility.” But where many a Singaporean feel powerless against a ruling party which has controlled government for nearly 60 years and who do not dare whimper a protest, much of the anger that the citizens have towards government policies have been unfairly channelled towards foreigners, resulting in an underlying animosity that is brewing between the powerless and those who seek opportunity in the island.

The issue of lunches came up again on another issue that has aroused Singaporeans over the last few years: pension.

When opposition politician Steve Chia asked in parliament, “how does the Deputy Prime Minister (Lee Hsien Loong) expect citizens to take the uncertainty of retirement planning under the CPF (Central Provident Fund public pension scheme), which is a defined contribution scheme, at their own cost, whereas Ministers and public officers themselves are under a guaranteed and defined benefit pension scheme, using taxpayers' money?

“In other words, their CPF may run out before the citizens die whereas qualified Ministers are taken care of by the taxpayers' money until they die,” he said.

However, in replying to him, then-Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Lee Hsien Loong told him, “There is no free lunch.”

Lee then asked if Chia was asking if “the Ministers (are) enriching themselves again”, to which Chia followed up with another question: “Does any serving Minister who turns 55 actually receive both salary and pension at the same time? If yes, should he be serving?

To which, Lee replied: “I believe the answer is yes.”

Lee was promoted to Prime Minister later that year. The pension was finally only scrapped in 2013.

Double standards

But this begs the question - why were the ministers allowed the entitlement to keep their high pensions, on top of having CPF, while Singaporeans are left with only the CPF to fend themselves with?

Singaporeans contribute 37 percent of their wages into the CPF pension scheme, which is also the highest social security contribution in the world. This has led to Singapore having the eighth largest pension fund in the world but this belie the fact Singaporeans do not seem to reap benefits from this fund that they pay into – Singaporeans have one of the least adequate pension funds, according to the OECD. The median CPF Life pension payout in 2011 was only S$260 while it increased to only S$394 in 2014.

Perhaps this is also what led Kim Hwee S to exasperate on Channel NewsAsia’s Facebook page: “But the government shouldn't steal our lunches!” Her comment has one of the top likes – 84 – suggesting an agreement from many Singaporeans.

Singaporeans’ CPF pension funds have also enriched the GIC – a government investment firm – which has become one of the top 10 largest sovereign wealth funds in the world, but this is at the expense of the low pension payout of Singaporeans whom many have to forgo their retirement. One wonders how Singapore Prime Minister makes sense of his claim of stealing other people's lunches, in relation to this, especially when he is also the chairman of GIC.

One cannot feel but think - should the leader of a country promote values that encourage citizens to steal lunches from other people? Should a country run itself like a company?

For Singapore's leaders, there is no hypocrisy in its approach. They are benefitting well from their policies. Singapore’s leaders pay themselves the highest salaries in the world, befitting of a “certain natural aristocracy” that Lee had said before he believes the Singapore system needs to have.

But Lee's idea of "free lunches" is quite different from the average Singaporean.

In arguing for the high salaries of his ministers, Lee said in parliament in 2012: “I feel that it is not in the interest of Singapore for our Ministers or office bearers to have to constantly worry about their family income or the welfare of their family. They should have the freedom to concentrate on their jobs of managing their Ministry and planning for the future of Singapore with full assurance that they can provide for their families in the same manner as the majority of their contemporaries.”

Meanwhile, an estimated 20 to 35 percent of Singaporeans who are living in poverty barely earn enough to put lunch on the table.

To them, there is indeed no "free lunch." Theirs are stolen from them on a daily basis.

In fact, to Lee, he believed that, “if I can get another 10 billionaires to move to Singapore and set up their base here, my Gini coefficient will get worse but I think Singaporeans will be better off, because they will bring in business, bring in opportunities, open new doors and create new jobs, and I think that is the attitude with which we must approach this problem.”

But where Singapore ranks fourth on The Economist’s crony capitalism index, after Russia, Malaysia and the Philippines, which means that Singapore is the country where individuals with “political connections” earn the fourth most “riches”, Lee’s ideology has not actually improved the lot of Singaporeans.

Perhaps Jimmy Ng’s 44-likes comment on Today’s Facebook page sums up the thoughts of Singaporeans the best: “Stealing is wrong. We should never create a society where there is not enough. We pay $53m to a group of ministers that have not progressed. The tax income is secured by raising prices. The left over, we need to steal from each other.

“Which institution teaches us to steal? If we need to steal jobs, it means we are not exploring how to create opportunities or make us better?” he added.

But “this sort of lunch-stealing zero-sum rhetoric is part of the problem in the first place,” Singaporean journalist Kirsten Han also pointed out. “The longer we stick with the "eat before you get eaten" mentality, the more we will find that there's less and less to go around for the majority of us.”

“If we've seen anything in recent years, surely it's that this model is not only unethical, but unsustainable and likely counter-productive,” she added.

Perhaps if there is another leaf that Lee should take out from Grove’s book, it is this that Grove said: “Businesses fail either because they leave their customers or because their customer leave them!”

It would serve Lee well to remember that Singapore is where it is today because of the hard work of Singaporeans, and if Lee and his government continues to exploit the citizens – his workers – for gains that go to the top, with the large swath of citizens who are increasingly being left behind, one day they are going to turn their backs on Lee.

One day, it is Lee’s lunch they will steal.

Editor: Edward White