The West's work ethic just isn't what it used to be, a newly appointed senior minister of state in Singapore has hazarded to suggest.

Newly appointed Senior Minister of State for Law and Health Edwin Tong said in an interview with Channel NewsAsia earlier this month: “I’ve seen the experiences of the Western countries where the more you give, the more one asks and I think that’s really the start of the erosion of the work ethic that Singaporeans have. Once we start giving, we can’t scale back.

"If we erode the competency of the workforce and we introduce a policy that undermines the work ethic, I think that’s going to be a big problem for us as a country," he added.


Photo Credit: AP / TPG

City Harvest Church (CHC) founder and senior pastor Kong Hee flanked by lawyers Edwin Tong (L) and Aaron Lee, leaving the Supreme Court in April 2017, after the hearing of the outcome of the appeal against his convictions and sentences for misappropriating S$50 million of church funds and falsifying accounts. All six City Harvest Church leaders had their jail term reduced.

My my, the Westerners must be a lazy lot!

Singaporeans work the longest hours in the world, and Singapore also has the shortest number of paid annual leave and holidays among the developed countries - so hardworking, these Singaporeans!


Meanwhile, in the West, Europeans work the shortest hours and have the most days of annual leave and public holidays in the world.

In 2017, Singaporeans worked an average of 45.1 hours a week, which based on the Singapore’s Straits Timescalculations, meant that Singaporeans worked an average of 2,345.2 hours for the whole of 2017 – this puts Singapore as having the longest work hours in the world, when compared to Mexico and Costa Rica, whose workers work and average of 2,257 hours and 2,179 hours, respectively.


That is even longer than Taiwan, South Korea and Japan, which already have the longest work hours among developed countries, at 2,035.2 hours, 2,024 hours and 1,710 hours, respectively. At the other end of the scale, Germany, Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands work the shortest hours, at 1,356, 1,408, 1,419 and 1,433 hours, respectively.

Also, when combining the annual number of days of paid leave and public holidays that Singaporeans enjoy, the 26 days that Singaporeans get is the lowest among the developed countries, and in the region compares thus: Taiwan (27 days), South Korea (28), New Zealand (30), Australia (30) and Hong Kong (31).


Sweden, Finland, Denmark and France enjoy 43, 42, 41 and 41 days, respectively. The United States and Canada have fewer days off than Singapore when looking at the national holidays but when including the provincial and territorial holidays in Canada and the state holidays in the United States, they receive more days off overall.

Nevermind that research suggests that workers who work longer hours and have lesser number of breaks also have lower productivity, and indeed shows “that as working time increases, output per hour decreases”.

Additional research from the Royal Economic Society also shows how “output rises at a decreasing rate as hours increase”.

Yet another study, this time provided by Stanford University and the IZA research network, provided “evidence suggesting that the damaging effects for workers’ performance of long hours and days extend beyond the week in which these hours and days are worked, [and that] when a succession of long working weeks or days are scheduled and adequate time for rejuvenation [is] denied, cumulative fatigue is apt to result.”

But that doesn't matter! At least Singaporeans have a strong work ethic, whatever that means!

Tong also said: “I’m not sure about the assumption that giving people social transfers and handouts is the way to level up and decrease inequality and increase mobility. It’s one way, but I would say it’s only a small part of the equation."

Indeed, this is a familiar mantra of the Singapore ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), which has ruled for almost 60 years.

As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in 2014: “Take the problem of poverty. Many countries have generous welfare schemes to alleviate poverty, or minimum wage laws to help poorer workers but none of them have succeeded in eradicating poverty.”

I literally do not know what he is talking about. The countries in Europe with the highest social protection expenditure also have the lowest poverty rates, according to Eurostat.

And nevermind research that shows how cash transfers “are successful in raising the children of recipients out of poverty”, and that the youths who receive such cash transfers “may reap benefits throughout their working lives, long after their parents stop receiving [them]”.

Meanwhile it is in Singapore which has one of the lowest social protection expenditures among the developed countries, while also enduring the highest poverty rates – estimated to be as high as 35 per cent (the government has refused to define an official poverty rate in Singapore, perhaps our of sheer embarrassment).

In fact, Lee believes 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.”

Lee also believes that he is a natural aristocrat: “if you don’t have a certain natural aristocracy in the system, people who are respected because they have earned that and we level everything down to the lowest common denominator, then I think society will lose out ... If you end up with anarchy, it doesn’t mean that you’ll be delivered with brilliance.”


Photo Credit: AP/ 達志影像

Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong looks every inch a 'natural aristocrat' during a meeting with US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis during the 17th International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Shangri-la Dialogue in June 2018.

Not quite sure what Lee meant here but research in the Journal of Comparative Economics has shown that, “wealth inequality has a negative relationship with economic growth,” and that for “billionaires [who] acquired wealth through political connections, the relationship between politically connected wealth inequality and economic growth is negative”.

Singapore also happens to have one of the world’s highest incidences crony capitalism, according to The Economist.

Indeed, the Singapore PAP government detests providing social support for Singaporeans.

When compared with the Asian Tigers, Hong Kong fares as poorly as Singapore, but in Japan and South Korea, the social protection expenditure is much higher – in another report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Japan is shown to spend more than four times as much as Singapore while South Korea spends nearly twice as much.

With all this social expenditure that the Japanese and South Korean governments are squandering on their citizens, surely Japan and South Korea must have a terrible work ethic, at least by Tong and the PAP's logic!

Nevermind that the Japanese are South Koreans are widely known to be the most hardworking people in the world – for example, there was the news about how the Japanese filled a massive sinkhole that appeared in the middle of the road, within two days, and opened the road after just a week, and also the numerous times that the Japanese train companies would apologize for trains missing their departure time by mere seconds – and even then departing early rather than late!

Meanwhile in Singapore, the MRT (mass rapid transit) train breakdowns have become a common occurrence since 2011 and now, even when trains delays occur for more than half an hour, there are no apologies, and not only that – there were not even any train announcements! I suppose this is the kind of work ethic Tong is referring to – to bury one’s head in the sand.


Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG

Service on Singapore's MRT is not what it used to be...

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And in spite of all the train breakdowns in Singapore, even worse than in Hong Kong and Taiwan, the Singapore government has announced that it still wants to increase MRT train fares.

Tong also cautioned, Channel NewsAsia reported, that "the government [should not be] populist in its efforts to win the hearts and minds of voters.” Thank heavens that the Singapore PAP government is not populist!

When the SingFirst political party proposed to give S$300 (US$220) as a monthly allowance to the elderly during the 2015 general election, widely-touted future prime minister Chan Chun Sing said at the time, “I say, please don't insult my residents. You think... they are here to be bribed?”


Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG

Singapore's Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing does not believe in bribing the elderly.

Thankfully the PAP government does not believe in bribing its citizens – it's not as if it is handing Singaporeans up to S$300 in what it called the "SG Bonus" this year, and another S$300 GST vouchers for lower-income Singaporeans. There is, of course, a vast difference.

So thankfully the PAP is not adopting a populist approach in trying to buy over Singaporeans!

Bye bye elections

In the last by-election in 2016, PAP candidate for Bukit Batok town Murali Pillai, who eventually won the seat, said, “This plan that we are presenting is part of the PAP Jurong Town Council ... If we don't have the mandate then we don't have the ability to carry on, because we wouldn't form the town council.”

"That's the rules,” he said.

Aren’t Singaporeans happy that have a fair government who play by the rules – their rules?

Indeed, Singapore spends one of the lowest on healthcare, pension and education for its citizens among the developed countries, and therefore the country's work ethic is amazing! It is so amazing that Singapore’s fertility rate is now the lowest in the world.

Nevermind that a study in culturally-similar Taiwan showed that its “low birth rate is related to […] low salary levels, pay freezes, […] long working hours, [… and] also high housing prices,” and how a comparative study of OECD countries also found that “extending the availability of childcare leave and spending on family services like childcare facilities impact significantly on fertility,” and also how “lower relative income is associated with postponement of fertility, […] indicating that security is an important factor for fertility decisions.”

But no, in Singapore, when there was a debate about how expensive infant milk has become, current Manpower Minister Jospehine Teo told Singaporeans that, “milk is milk,” and that there is “no reason to pay more” and how the milk that should be bought should be the “cheapest or on sale”. She also asked Singaporeans, “will mother hands be laying more eggs”, in a Facebook post, while explaining to Singaporeans that, “you need a very small space to have sex.”

Her comments certainly riled Singaporeans. A John Ng commented on her Facebook: “Again, this shows that PAP is seriously out of touch. […] Obviously you're missing the point. The problem here is [on] why […] milk powder sold in Singapore [is] so much more expensive than other countries when [they are of] the same brand[s and are of the] same thing. It's not [about] buying cheap vs expensive formulas. Even our cheapest formulas are also much more expensive than other countries in the region.”

Another commenter Kai Liang said: “Are you in the manufacturing or poultry business that child birth [has] become [a] production and mothers [have] become hens?

“Why are you disconnected in the first place?” he asked, adding: “If the [government] wants to increase cost[s] here and there, we need more time to earn money for this and that. […] there [are] only 24 hours a day so taking care of a baby will kill us.”

As Leslie Chew, the cartoonist who created the Demon-cratic political cartoons on Singapore, told The Guardian, “Day-to-day life gets harder and harder. We are now one of the most expensive countries in the world with the highest cost of living, and no minimum wage to ensure that a person who puts in a honest day work can afford even the basic sustenance.”

Yeah, Singapore is still one of very few countries in the world without minimum wage, but hey, at least Singaporeans have a solid work ethic!

Perhaps Singapore's ministers are the best examples that the world can learn from - their work ethic has to be the best, right?

Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu once complained: “When I made the decision to join politics in 2006, […] I had some grounds to believe that my family would not suffer a drastic change in the standard of living even though I experienced a drop in my income.

“So it is with this recent pay cut. If the balance is tilted further in the future, it will make it harder for anyone considering political office,” she added.

Fu was commenting on the ministerial salary review, which cut her salary from S$1,251,200 to S$935,000 in 2012.

Now that Fu is a full minister, her current salary could be as high as S$1,760,000 (not including bonuses).

Indeed, Singapore’s ministers have such fantastic work ethic that they pay themselves the highest salaries in the world for government leaders – all of them earn more than the American president and any of the heads of government in the world. The Singapore ministers are so, so hardworking! They manage one of the smallest countries in the world which must be such hard work that requires them to pay themselves millions of dollars to make sure their performance is up to scratch.

To top it off, the PAP has an excellent explanation for their work ethic – pay us high salaries so that we will not become corrupt, so their logic goes.

Such good work ethic! God knows what they will be like if they are not paid high salaries! Thankfully they are paid the highest salaries in the world, so that Singapore is not corrupt, or so it seems.

But for the commoners, they should just suck it up – there is still no minimum wage in Singapore because low-income workers have such a robust work ethics that they do not need higher wages to maintain their sense of corporate responsibility.

The S$1,060 that Singapore’s cleaners are paid is even lower than Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, Austria, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Luxembourg, Ireland, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, Spain, Slovenia, Malta, Greece and Portugal – or pretty much all the other developed countries that have a similar level of wealth as Singapore, or even lower.

And yet, Singapore is among the top five richest countries in the world, as measured by GDP per capita, after converting for purchasing power parity.

Yet, the Singapore PAP ministers use that wealth to pay themselves the highest salaries in the world while keeping low-income workers on the lowest wages among the rich countries.

Indeed, the Singapore PAP government truly believes in their logic - that you should not give people more, or their work ethic will be eroded! They truly walk the talk and pay their low income earners very low wages! How admirable.

Except for the PAP rulers themselves, of course! They are exempted from the rule – they pay themselves the highest salaries in the world, because if government ministers are not paid high salaries, they might become corrupt, so their logic goes!


Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG

Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean talks to Malaysian Defence Minister Mat Sabu at the IISS Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore June 1, 2018.

As the Singapore deputy prime minister Teo Chee Hean said in 2007: “If we don’t [pay high salaries] ... corruption will set in and we will become like many other countries.”

But then if the PAP ministers are given so much, doesn't that mean they will lose their work ethic, at least according to Tong? This is becoming very confusing.

So, if the Singapore PAP ministers give themselves such outsized pay packets , does that mean their work ethic has been undermined and eroded? Should the PAP ministers then be paid lower salaries? But yet the Singapore PAP government also said that if people are not paid high salaries, they will become corrupt! So which is it?

Well, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the PAP’s government school of logical fallacies. But the PAP must be right! Don't question them!

As Tong described very well, "the more you give, the more one asks and I think that’s really the start of the erosion of the work ethic.

"Once we start giving, we can’t scale back.

Poor Singaporeans, since the PAP ministers started giving themselves high salaries in the 1980s, they have not been able to scale back. Your Singaporean ministers are hooked like drug addicts on a drip.

But Singapore's citizens voted for them, which they take to mean that the country supports their drug-addictive behavior.

And in spite of the billions of dollars that you have been paying to sustain their hunger and thirst for more, they would still tell you that they cannot give you more, because it will erode your work ethic. (But it does not erode theirs, mind you! Somehow your PAP ministers are immune to the logic they use on you.)

Again, it doesn't matter what the research says about how countries with higher wages and higher social spending, and shorter work hours and more days of breaks, would also be more productive, the Singapore government disregards all this.

A study of 435 companies in America conducted by Jared Harris, a doctoral candidate at the University of Minnesota, and Philip Bromley, a management professor at the same institution, showed that, “the higher the proportion of the boss's pay in stock options, the more likely the company was to be forced to restate profits. For companies where bosses got 92 percent or more of their pay in options, about a fifth ended up faking their books within five years.”

Another study also showed that, "it does look like the more options you pay your CEO, the more likely the firm is to cheat."

In an interview with Forbes, former CEO Steven Clifford who wrote the book, ‘THE CEO PAY MACHINE: How It Trashes America and How to Stop It’, Forbes reported that Clifford talked about how, “ultra-high CEO pay is not at all correlated to positive performance. In fact, he shows how it just might be the opposite: that huge pay packages result from hitting short-term milestones, but ultimately hurt the company – including shareholders, pension funds, and employees – in the long run.”

But thankfully the ministers of Singapore Inc. are not CEOs and therefore such research would not apply to them.

Thankfully, Singapore’s ministers are paid high salaries so that they are not corrupt!

But Singaporeans can take heart in knowing, that at least they themselves are not given more, because otherwise their work ethic would be undermined!

And at least the same logic does not apply to their ministers, and therefore their ministers can be given more and their work ethic would not be undermined either!

Unless of course, if the logic holds true and the Singapore PAP ministers keep giving themselves more and more, come hell or high water – natural aristocrats that they are – then "I think that’s going to be a big problem for us as a country," as Tong said.

As Lee himself also said in 2012: “benefits once given can never be taken away”.

What a topsy-turvy world Singapore is now.

As Singapore’s second prime minister Goh Chok Tong – while congratulating Malaysia’s prime minister Mahathir on leading the opposition to win in Malaysia’s latest election – reminded Singaporeans of what Singapore’s first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew (and the father of the current prime minister) once said: “Even from my sick bed, even if you are going to lower me into the grave and I feel something is going wrong, I will get up.”

But since he has not gotten up, then either everything is fine and dandy in Singapore, or Lee is not god and natural aristocrats do not have the power of resurrection. Moreover, how can the late Lee make a mistake, right?

As even one of the person closest to him – his grandson Li Shengwu – said, “I'm not sure why my grandfather […] was willing to have his own son go into politics and be prime minister. But all I can say is that […] if there's one person in the world you're going to overestimate, it's your own child.”

The current prime minister has since appointed his own personal lawyer as the government's lawyer, and has charged Li for sedition, for writing on his Facebook that, “the Singapore Government is very litigious and has a pliant court system”.

Maybe cartoonist Chew gave us the most forthright insight when he said to The Guardian: “I have long suspected that the ruling party was a bunch of power-abusing hypocrites, and that encounter merely confirms the notion,”

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Editor: David Green