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
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 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.”
选自西汉 刘向 《列女传》
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.”