NB: This article was originally published in my column on The Malaysian Insider.
“What do you think?” asked the elderly taxi driver as he slapped his steering wheel in frustration. “Look at this jam. Even though the government makes it so expensive, people have so many cars. Not small cars. Look around. All big cars. COE alone how much? So many rich people in Singapore, so many tall buildings. But people like us, what do we have? We are not rich. Life is difficult. Everything is so expensive now. Cari makan also susah.”
The scorn in his voice was unmistakable. All I did was casually ask, “Uncle, how are things in Singapore nowadays?”
“This is the government’s fault,” resumed the cabby voluntarily. “They control everything, but they don’t know anything. They think they know. You see that car park there?”
I turned to where he pointed and nodded politely.
“Today it’s a car park. Tomorrow, it could be an office block. As high as the sky. It’s up to the government. That’s how it works here. They plan everything, all the buildings, all the development. They plan how we live. But what do they know about us? They don’t know us.”
“Why do you say that, uncle?” I offered, having decided that he wasn’t about to stop any time soon.
“Look at the ministers. The only time you see them is on TV. They live in big houses, pay themselves so much money. I know where they live. Big bungalows, big cars. And the prime minister? He walks around surrounded by so many bodyguards, I wonder if he can even see the people in front of him.” He sighed. “If they don’t even see us, how can they understand us?”
It was barely two weeks after Singapore’s watershed general election and the mood on the ground was still tense. Yet what struck me most about the taxi driver’s ramblings was that less than a decade ago, this same man would almost certainly have been a staunch defender and supporter of the government of the day.
It is unmistakably clear that the PAP has lost its core support base.
What happened? Is this not the same country that charted 14.7 per cent GDP growth in 2010, with record revenues continually streaming into government coffers? In the first quarter of 2011 alone, GDP was up by 22.5 per cent.
In theory, all the ingredients of a successful economy are in place. However, reality reveals that they are being prepared according to a recipe for disaster.
In other words, in Singapore we have a case of an economy with pulsating growth and furious development, but whose benefits and effects are hardly felt by those at the bottom. This in turn has given rise to an acute case of “keeping up with the Joneses”, an idiomatic expression that characterises socio-economic envy.
While Singapore’s GNI per capita of USD42,000 (RM127, 491) is extraordinary by regional standards, it is nowhere close to an accurate reflection of the ground where the average income of the bottom 20 per cent is less than USD991 a month.
In addition, the average income of the bottom 30 per cent has actually decreased over the last 10 years. This means that while average working class Singaporeans struggle to make a living, the Joneses among them are effectively earning stratospheric amounts, and are far from shy about it.
Yet it must be understood that income inequality by itself is not enough to cause widespread dissatisfaction. It is not as if the elite have never been rich, and for that matter neither is high ministerial pay a recent phenomenon. For anger to result, income inequality must be coupled with rising inflation and an increasing cost of living.
In other words, it doesn’t matter if Mr and Mrs Jones have bought a Bentley if you are able to afford a Camry. But when you struggle to earn a living and your children find it hard to own homes, the fact that the prime minister gets paid USD2 million a year suddenly sounds ludicrous, especially when his job is to ensure that you are able to live comfortably.
In light of this, it is pertinent that Malaysia takes heed and ensure that income inequality in our country does not spiral out of control, especially in the context of regional inflation due in part to high commodity prices and rising wages in China.
Already, the bottom 40 per cent of our country earns less than 15 per cent of total income while the top 20 per cent are comfortably sharing 50 per cent of the pie among themselves.
We must therefore ensure that in the race to achieve a high income economy and developed nation status by 2020, we must not allow income inequality, which is already prevalent and fast rising, to be coupled with a loss of social upward mobility for the middle and working class.
Capital injection and pump-priming economics may be the solution if we are merely concerned with growth numbers, but it may actually be the problem in the greater socio-economic context.
Whatever we do, we must never forget that ultimately, it is all about the people. If we do, then the Joneses would pull so far away they would no longer be within reach.