Affordability is realism, not perceptions

From: Wiki Temasek <wikitemasek@gmail.com>
Date: Fri, Oct 19, 2012 at 5:16 AM
Subject: Reply to Let’s stop conflating wealth with worth
To: KAMALUDEEN@ntu.edu.sg, yyteo@ntu.edu.sg

Below is a reply to Assistant Professor Teo You Yenn and Kamaludeen Mohamed Nasir of the Division of Sociology from NTU.

Affordability is realism, not perceptions

People are forced to be realistic because circumstances – much influenced by government policies – led them so. Affordability is a reality because the very basic building blocks of a family, from a HDB flat to the baby’s diapers, are not free. The happy situation today is Singaporeans are responsible parents who do not bring their children into the world where they couldn’t even feed themselves. The irresponsible ones of course are hopefully around to tell the story given the harshness of an anti-welfare environment. The must-haves are reality, and the lack of affordability simply deters. Try asking why houses and food are not free next time, that could have better substantiate the warped perception you two professors are propagating to the public.

As you should have already know since the two of you are from an established university like NTU, the PPP(gross domestic product per capita) does not measure purchasing power of the median Singaporeans, and with the record-breaking GINI coefficient economic statistics are having a harder time reflecting the real wealth of Singaporeans. It is apparent you two are sort of hinting that Singaporeans are rich just from the positive spin by the Straits Times on Singapore’s PPP or the length of queue for Iphone 5, and the cheek of you to call it an “achievement”. Isn’t this one very shameful article worth no better than a propaganda leaflet? Spare me what the incompetent Prime Minister has to say when he himself is at a lost of what to do with the rising income inequality problem.

Besides, how does the 2 issues harm meritocracy when the 2 “achievements and targets”(as you called them) are supposed by-products of a working meritocratic society the PAP claims Singapore have? Real meritocracy puts every player in the fair starting point where none will be significantly advantaged just because they start off richer. Our education system favors the rich who can splurge on good tuition teachers while the poor have to make do with the inadequacies of Singapore’s existing education system. Singapore is not meritocratic to begin with, hence having more people meritocratically getting their degrees and earning more income doesn’t harm Meritocracy, rather it harms the leverage the rich and influential have over others.

Class snobbery

When the government says Singaporeans need to pay world-record salaries for “quality” people to service the nation, they themselves are leading the example of class snobbery for Singaporeans. People with low or no net-worth are having the low income salary bracket which was stagnanted for the past 12 years. The fact remains Singaporeans are heavily dependent on the PAP government and their vast business links, and whatever the leaders do, they follow. So when the leaders started boasting how they are worth their wealth and hence deserve millions for charting record GDP when a list of problems unlisted in their KPIs worsens and compounded, Singaporeans merely followed suit. Those who were unconvinced gets further conviction from the self-proclaimed “reliable” government-controlled mainstream media, and the unrepentent ones simply exercised their votes.

Referencing to how Nick Clegg put it, the PAP government themselves are indeed the snobbiest class. In fact, the PAP excludes anyone from helming Singapore who doesn’t come from the class of PAP snobs. How often have the Opposition’s name be tainted and insulted that any government aside from the incumbent would crash Singapore’s economy?

Next time, before asking certain classes of  Singaporeans to “unclassify” themselves, look at the real root of the problem. And unless Singaporeans start cleaning the dirt from the top by 2016, those below will continue to suffer class snobberish from the likes of Amy Cheong.

 

SINGAPORE: We can tell a lot about what people regard as right or wrong by their responses to transgressions. In the case of the Amy Cheong incident, it is interesting to note that the primary focus has been on her racial prejudices – while almost nothing has been said about her presumptions about class
Her presumption that one’s right to marry depends on the amount of money one has is as troubling – if not more so – than her narrow presumptions and negative feelings toward Malays.

The relative silence about the relationship she draws between money and marriage reveals our deeper common sense: One where wealth, worth and deservedness are tightly tethered.

In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber argues that people born into modern capitalism are trapped in an “iron cage” – unable to decide their paths, and compelled to work hard, be frugal and accumulate wealth for its own sake rather than as a means to larger goals.

He perhaps underestimated the degree to which the pursuit and accumulation of wealth can take on tremendous meaning and normative value, with disturbing consequences for human beings’ sense of themselves and their regard for each other.

THE VALUE OF BEING RICH

In Singapore, the recent debates over social spending, education and meritocracy, and population and immigration have brought to the fore the need to narrow the gaps between the rich and the poor and to ensure social mobility.

This seems to be the consensus, even if there is disagreement as to how these goals are to be achieved.

What is less explicit, and where there might be lower degrees of consensus, pertains to how the state and society perceive the value of being wealthy. That discussion has not found a big place at the table of national conversations.

We seem to have accepted too easily that what people can and cannot do in life – including when they can marry or how many children they can have – depends on whether they can afford it.

 

It is apt for society to place this worldview under scrutiny. Two recent pieces of news add to the urgency of this.

First, in the Wealth Report 2012, Singapore sits prettily at the top with the highest gross domestic product per capita – a situation that is expected to remain until 2050.

Second, the Prime Minister revealed in his National Day Rally Speech that, by 2020, 40 per cent of every Singaporean cohort will comprise of graduates, a significant increase from the 27 per cent today.

These achievements and targets come at a time when the government acknowledges that we are experiencing a widening income gap. This intensifies the unequal starting point among the haves and the have-nots, harming the meritocratic ideals of our system.

DANGEROUSLY NARROW BAR

With increasing affluence and educational attainment among a significant proportion of society, what is traditionally considered status goods, such as the often talked about 5Cs in Singapore, is constantly being redefined.

The bar for “success” is increasingly high and, yet, also dangerously narrow. We seem to have a situation where certain sections of society feel a sense of entitlement to various status goods.

Significantly, their practices and values shape social norms that presume certain acts – whether spending on weddings or luxury goods – mark people as superior and of higher (human) worth (it is telling and problematic that rich people are now referred to as “high net worth individuals”).

Ms Amy Cheong’s remarks should be read as being as much class snobbery as racial prejudice. Class snobbery concerns are not unique to Singapore: England’s Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg recently warned that “class snobbery is holding Britain back by creating a society divided between those born with a sense of entitlement to succeed and others who are ‘permanently excluded’.”

It is heartening to witness Singaporeans being comfortable enough to air difficult issues on race, but it would be unfortunate if important observations on social class divisions take a backseat.

The Amy Cheong episode presents Singaporeans with an opportunity to openly debate the ethics of living in a generally affluent society that has widening inequality.

How should we value wealth? How do we make sure citizens’ rights to fulfilling and meaningful lives are not heavily dependent on their abilities to generate wealth? Given that no individual can become rich independent of what society provides, what are the social responsibilities of the haves towards the have-nots?

In a quote attributed to Karl Marx, he mentioned that in examining social inequality, “the least advantaged are the eyes that matter when it comes to looking at justice”. A truly national conversation will have to examine the category of “least advantaged” through multifarious lenses – whether race, age, gender or social class.

It is time to talk about whether the positions and worldviews of the privileged should be a standard for the rest.

Teo You Yenn and Kamaludeen Mohamed Nasir are both assistant professors in the Division of Sociology at the Nanyang Technological University.

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