Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Singaporean class divide

It's a bad time in Singapore to flaunt your riches, especially if you're a high government official. By Seah Chiang Nee.
Jan 10, 2009

A GOVERNMENT elite has stirred ripples by talking of his expensive cooking lessons in France, revealing how hard times are deepening class differences in Singapore.

Inadvertently creating controversy was the permanent secretary at the Environment and Water Resources Ministry, one of the highest ranking civil servants.

Tan Yong Soon had related how he had spent S$46,000 for himself, his wife and son for a five-day trip to learn fine French cooking.

In ordinary times, this leisurely – but rather insensitive – account would not have amounted to anything much but these days are, of course, far from normal.

Two factors invited criticism to flare.

First, he was seen as flaunting wealth, obtained from his high pay, at a time when Singapore is suffering one of its worst slumps in history.

Many thousands of workers are still losing jobs or suffering wage cuts.

And, secondly, government leaders are accused of being hugely overpaid, as a result of which some are no longer able to relate to the common people.

Tan was also accused of “boasting” about his elitist background when he wrote that his wife was “a senior investment counsellor at a bank” and his son, a soon-to-be student at America’s prestigious Brown University.

“Taking five weeks’ leave from work is not as difficult as one thinks,” Tan said.

“Most times, when you are at the top, you think you are indispensable. But if you are a good leader who has built up a good team, it is possible to go away for five weeks or even longer.”

Singaporeans were largely unimpressed. Some were angry. His fling at France’s prestigious Le Cordon Bleu in the face of rising poverty is the latest example of how out of tune some of Singapore’s well-paid elites are with heartland realities.

About 20% of affluent Singapore’s population lives in poverty with welfare payout to the poorest of the lot limited to a mere S$290 (RM694) a month.

When a government backbencher wanted to have it increased, a Cabinet minister refused, demanding: “How much do you want?”

Many Singaporeans were already unhappy with the multi-million dollar salaries paid to Cabinet ministers and top civil servants even in happier times.

(Despite a recent cut of up to 19%, the government here remains, by far, the highest paid in the world.)

The pay issue remains very controversial and contributes to the class division in society, a them-verses-us mentality that has apparently sharpened as a result of the economic crisis.

The whole episode has shown how the class – and social – divide is widening in high-tech Singapore.

The controversy over Tan’s trip has political implications for a government that is pondering over whether or not to call for a snap general election, which is not due until 2010-11.

In other developed countries from Britain to Japan, it would not have any impact since it involves a civil servant, not a political leader.

But the system is very different in Singapore, where the line separating the two hardly exists.

The Chinese characters “zeng fu” are used to describe the political leadership as well as the civil service.

Some questioned why Tan’s choice of spending his own wealth should be
the public’s business – but not many are buying into it.

Established blogger Redbean articulated: “Tan is no ordinary, rich Singaporean. He is a senior civil servant ... and part of the governing elite.

“(He) should be seen as one who would be able to empathise with ordinary Singaporeans who are going through tough times ... (when) the Prime Minister is preparing the people for some belt-tightening and ‘bitter medicine’.”

Besides, if Tan had wished he should have spent his money at home to help the troubled economy rather than abroad, some believed.

Tan’s is by no means the only example of elitist snobbery, nor the worse.

A bigger controversy flared up four years ago when Wee Shu Min, the teenage daughter of a Member of Parliament, came across the blog of a Singaporean who wrote that he was worried about losing his job.

She called Derek Wee “one of many wretched, under-motivated, over-assuming leeches in our country.

“If you’re not good enough, life will kick you in the balls ... Our society is, I quote, ‘far too survival of fittest’,” said Shu Min, who hailed from the elite Raffles Junior College.

“... Unless you are an arm-twisting commie bully, which, given your whiny, middle-class, under-educated penchant, I doubt,” she added before signing off with “please, get out of my elite uncaring face”.

The girl was flamed by hundreds of Singaporeans, but when her father Wee Siew Kim – an MP in Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s constituency – told a newspaper that “her basic point is reasonable”, the row moved well beyond blogosphere.

A news agency, in reporting this, said: “The episode highlighted a deep rift in Singapore society and was an embarrassment for the ruling People’s Action Party and PM Lee.”

Raffles JC, which has produced several state leaders, had another brush with student snobbishness.

When a student found that a Raffles girl was dating a boy from a lower-achieving neighbourhood school, he hit out at him and had a message for lower-ranking students everywhere.

“Quit trying to climb the social ladder by dating students from top schools.”

There are signs the class distinction is getting into some young minds.

A reporter recounted how her friend was shaken when her young daughter came home one day and mentioned in passing that poor people were “stupid, obviously”.

(The article was first published in The Star, Malaysia).

Source: http://singsupplies.com/showthread.php?t=14576 (Taken on February 4th 2009)