China Might Want to Look Elsewhere

chinaThe ruling Communist Party of China has expressed interest in adopting Singapore’s politico-economic model. China’s state media have been carrying reports talking about how the country can promote shared prosperity while retaining dictatorial rule.

Unfortunately, Beijing is looking in the wrong place – at least about the “shared prosperity” bit. Various economic indicators consistently show that the headline-grabbing wealth generation in Singapore does not benefit the population in an equitable manner.

Income disparity in Singapore is one of the highest among advanced economies, higher than even that of the United States. While the billionaires from around the world descend upon the island to take advantage of the low tax regime, many local Singaporeans work and live in poverty.

In 2012, Singapore was listed by the Economist Intelligence Unit as the 9th most expensive city in the world – more expensive than London, New York and Frankfurt. And not just by a whisker, Singapore is 42 percent more expensive than New York City.

And yet, 4.2 percent of the workforce draws an annual income of less than US$5,000. Ten years ago they made the same amount.

How is this possible? Because there is no minimum wage legislation and there are no independent trade unions to fight for one.

According to a survey conducted by the International Labor Organization (ILO), Singaporean workers work the longest number of hours among twelve countries surveyed. And yet, the study reported that their real incomes have diminished.

In another study done by UBS in 2011, it was reported that Zurich and Geneva have gross wage indices of 119.8 and 107.5 respectively – the higher the number the merrier. In the Asia-Pacific, Tokyo’s is 83.0, Sydney 74.1, Hong Kong 42.3, Taipei 35.5 and Seoul 32.3. Singapore comes in at the wrong end at 31.3.

No wonder that workers in the city-state are one of the unhappiest in the world. In a survey of fourteen economies, Singaporean workers were found to enjoy going to work the least, are the least loyal to their employers and have the least supportive workplaces. Only 19 percent of those polled in Singapore look forward to their work each day, the global average is 30 percent.

Are such attitudes any surprise when the economy is based on extracting every ounce of energy from poorly paid workers?

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The Purchasing Power Parity, or PPP, of Singaporeans workers is also one of the weakest. The same UBS survey showed that Singaporeans’ PPP was 39.9 compared to Zurich (106.9), Sydney (95.9) and Luxembourg (95.4), Tokyo (82.2), Auckland (68.9), Taipei (58.9), Hong Kong (58.1) and Seoul (57.4).

Even the middle-class are finding themselves squeezed out of the shared prosperity. More and more of them are finding that they cannot even afford public housing.

All this makes Singaporeans want to quit the country. A recent survey indicated that more than half of the people on the island expressed that, given the chance, they would emigrate.

And an astounding number do. According to the World Bank, 10 percent of Singaporeans pack up and leave the island. The emigration rate of skilled tertiary-educated Singaporeans is 15.2 percent while that of medical doctors is even higher (15.5 percent).

Another survey found that more than a third of younger Singaporeans say that they are not patriotic.

Any where else in the democratic world, the government would have been roundly sacked. But that’s not possible in Singapore (otherwise China wouldn’t be looking to us for inspiration).

But this is the danger that the Singapore “model” presents. The problems that the ordinary people face cannot find expression. As unhappy as Singaporeans are, they still live in fear and political helplessness.

The big question is: how long will this last? As economic conditions deteriorate and the PAP Government grows increasingly out of touch with the rising aspirations of the people, there will come a point where the people will turn decisively against their rulers. Presently, such a development is contained by the presence of the country’s strongman Lee Kuan Yew. But he is going on ninety.

If China is searching for a model to sustain its dictatorship while keeping the country’s economic performance ship-shape, it may want to look elsewhere.

Dr. Chee Soon Juan is the Secretary-General of the Singapore Democratic Party. He was awarded Defender of Democracy by Parliamentarians for Global Action in 2003 and Prize for Freedom by Liberal International in 2011.