Nourishing the People

By Dr Wong Wee Nam
26 October 2010

“Virtue is seen in the goodness of the government, and the government is tested by its nourishing of the people.” Yu the Great

禹曰:“於!帝念哉!德惟善政,政在养民。

Mr. Lim Swee Say, Minister without Portfolio and chief of the National Trade Union Congress, once said publicly that when he looked at his Central Provident Statement, he felt rich.

He was adorably frank. Any other person with the kind of humongous pay that he is getting would have felt the same way.

Moreover he was grateful and satisfied with what he is paid. Any other arrogant person would have said, “When I see my CPF statement, I felt poor. You know, I could get so much more in the private sector.”

But the Minister is not an arrogant fellow. In fact he is very down to earth. On 28th July 2010, he surprised everyone by turning up at Singhealth’s Nurses Day celebrations disguised as the legendary folk hero Zorro.

I don’t think he came thus dresssed because he had mistaken it to be a theme party. Rather, I think he wanted to make a mission statement.

Zorro, as we know, is a nobleman and a dashing black-clad masked outlaw whose mission is to defend the people of the land against tyrannical officials and other villains. His mission is “avenge the helpless, to punish cruel politicians,” and “to aid the oppressed.” Zorro is, indeed, a champion of the workers.

Singapore’s Problem

Singapore has a problem. The problem lies in the wide income inequality.

At the moment, we have the widest income inequality in the world. The graph below taken from the book The Spirit Level by Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Picket shows this:

And if we continue to allow the importation of cheaper foreign workers to depress wages further and do nothing about it, the situation is going to get worse. Without a minimum wage to limit the bottom, the lowest rung workers will end up with a pay that would hardly keep them alive. Without a minimum wage, they would not be able to keep up with inflation. This should not be happening in a rich first world country.

What Singapore really needs now is a Zorro. A Zorro who is willing in spirit and strong in flesh.

It is, therefore, puzzling why the Minister, with the spirit of Zorro, is against the idea of a minimum wage.

The Problem of Inequality

While profits and gains are important for economic growth in a country, the blind pursuit of profits and gains will just make the rich richer and the poor poorer. The country will have material wealth but moral poverty. In a society, the moral values of justice and equality are equally important, especially for its social well-being.

It has been shown by researchers that width of income inequality is proportionately related to crime, poor physical health, suicide, mental illness, drug abuse, teenage pregnancies, violence, social mobility, education, trust and community. The problems are not only confined to the lowest rung of the social ladder but cut across all social strata.

The level of trust is an indication of a country’s social cohesiveness and its strength as a nation.

The graph above, taken from a non-profit organization, The Equality Trust, shows not only that Singapore has the highest level of inequality, but also the second lowest level of trust amongst its people.

If the income inequality continues to be widened and the percentage of the native population continues to fall with the influx of foreigners, lack of trust, suspicion and cynicism will continue to increase. Instead of a cohesive nation, Singapore will just be temporary resting place for the various birds of passage.

Even in the 19th Century, Alexis Tocqueville, the French political and historian had observed that difference in living standards is a formidable barrier to empathy.

Wisdom From The Past

Over two thousand years ago, during the Warring States Period in China, a simple old woman had the common sense to realize that people need to be decently fed.

Zi Fa was a general in the State of Chu. In a battle with the State of Qin, his food supplies were running out and he had to dispatch one of his men back home and asked the King of Chu for fresh supplies. While he was there the subordinate paid a courtesy call to the mother of General Zi Fa.

The mother asked, “How are the conditions of the soldiers?”

“The food situation is very tight. The men could only have some beans and grains,” the subordinate said.

“How about your general?”

“Don’t worry ma’am. Our General has Braised Meat to go with his fragrant rice.”

“Oh, “ the mother said, shaking her head.

Not long after, General Zi Fa scored a decisive victory over the Qin army and he returned to his country a hero. However, when he went to his own house, he found the gate locked and he was not allowed in.

His mother then sent a messenger to relay him her message:

“When Gou Jian, the King of Yue, was fighting the State of Wu, someone donated a cask of excellent wine. He poured the wine into the river and together with his men, he drank from the river. Would there be any taste of wine left? Of course not! But the morale of the men had increased five-fold. Later somebody donate him some bags of grain. He divided them among his soldiers. Would the grain be enough to lessen their hunger? Of course not! But their battle resolve had increased ten-fold.

“In your case, while your men starved, you feasted. Why? Did not the Book of Songs advise, “Don’t enjoy yourself too much, only then can the good man be peaceful and relaxed”? Is your behaviour at the warfront something to be proud of? You sent your men to die and yet you live in comfort. Even though the war was won it has nothing to do with you but your men’s valour. You are not my son. Don’t come home.”

原文
选自西汉 刘向 《列女传》
楚子发母,楚将子发之母也。子发攻秦绝粮,使人请于王,因归问其母②。母问使者曰:“士卒得无恙乎?③”对曰:“士卒并分菽粒而食之④。”又问:“将军得无恙乎?”对曰:“将军朝夕刍豢黍粱⑤。”子发破秦而归,其母闭门而不内⑥,使人数之曰⑦:“子不闻越王勾践之伐吴⑧耶?客有献醇酒一器者⑨,王使人注江之上流⑩,使士卒饮其下流,味不及加美⑾而士卒战自五也⑿,异日,有献一囊糗糒者⒀王又以赐军士,分而食之,甘不逾嗌⒁,而战自十也。今子为将,士卒并分菽粒而食之,子独朝夕刍豢黍粱,何也?《诗》不云乎?‘好乐无荒,良士休休’,言不失和也。夫使人入于死地,而自康乐于其上,虽有以得胜,非其术也。子非吾子也,无入吾门!”子发于是谢⒇其母⒅,然后内之。

The Moral of The Story

The moral of the story is: all leaders who can influence the life of others must always think of the lowest denominator. No matter how rich we feel, there will always be a group of people struggling to survive. This is especially so when the income gap keeps widening more and more and the lower income group’s wages fall lower and lower.

I think every member of a rich and first world country needs a minimum level of wage to survive and keep up with inflation and the government should not ignore this problem. As Singapore has the largest income inequality in the world, and this is not good for the country, the government should also think of appropriate re-distributive measures to address this.

In conclusion it would help a lot if, as the official champion of the workers, Mr Lim stops being deaf to all criticisms like the little frog in a fable that he quoted in Parliament recently. In fact he should he should take Kermit the Frog as the model who had said, “I’ve got a dream too, but it’s about singing and dancing and making people happy. That’s the kind of dream that gets better the more people you share it with.”

  1. It is indeed true that the PAP government has turned a deaf ears to the poor and marginalised who are getting in greater numbers as the General Election approaches. PAP government is so complacent with Ministers paid in the millions that they are not doing anything concrete. Vote the PAP out of office!

  2. Simple-to-understand Analogy:

    The PAP Gabra-men has really “messed up very badly” Singapore by leaving a lot of SHIT all over our beloved country of birth.

    We (and our children/grandchildren) will take many years to clean up all their SHIT, while the Muddle-headed Million-dollar Ministers will soon drop dead and no longer be around to ANSWER for their POLITICAL SINS/CRIMES against SINGAPORE (The Nation) and SINGAPOREANS (The People).

  3. Do they care..bullshit. They are the world higest paid, have no accountability. The whole entire public administration system which is suppose to be independent is at their mercy. The population is cowed..come on would you give f_ _ _ if you were in their position. These are not greart generals , mother Theresa or Mahatma Ghandi who lived by their principle. These are men in their own words who will become corrupted if they were not paid enough..period