Saturday, 22 December 2018

Oxfam Report and the Minister's rebuttal.

Something is wrong with Oxfam’s report?

According to Oxfam, Singapore ranked 149th out of 157 countries - below Ethiopia and Afghanistan, and above Bhutan and Haiti - in her commitment to reducing inequality.

That looks really bad when you flesh it out like that and then slap our little green state with this caption: “Singapore is one of the worst-performing countries in the world at tackling inequality.”

So, you serve, we serve back. It is court challenge and MSF minister Desmond Lee is not going to take it lying down. He came forward almost immediately to set the record straight. 

He addressed Oxfam’s logic for being myopic and unfair. You see, Oxfam’s index was based on our country’s social spending, tax policies and labour rights. 

Oxfam judged the book (Singapore) by its cover (lowest social spending and tax brackets for the rich) and that was how our little red dot got that terrible ranking (@ 149th out of 157). 

Desmond came out to correct that misconceived view and it was reported that “while the report assumes high taxation and high public expenditure reflect commitment to combating inequality, it is more important to look at the outcomes achieved”.

Desmond said: ”We set out to achieve real outcomes for our people - good health, education, jobs and housing - rather than satisfy a collection of ideologically driven indicators.”

He said, “no other country comes close” when we compare the stats that “90 per cent of Singaporeans own their home, and even among the poorest 10 per cent of household, 84 per cent own their homes.”

That’s impressive, to say the least. 

And how about taxes? 

Oxfam said that Singapore has what it called “harmful tax practices” such as “tax incentives for companies that develop intellectual property, or firms that make investments in the maritime or finance sectors. It is said such incentives help corporations evade taxes.”

On this, Song Seng Wun (CIMB Private Bank economist) said that “these taxes are meant to promote economic development and promote Singapore as a hub in areas such as finance and logistics, which in turn creates jobs.”

Now, I am sure Desmond would agree to that to a large extent. Taxes are not all bad if the outcome is generally net good. 

Then, Desmond talked about education and health. 

While Oxfam’s report “criticised Singapore for spending well below countries such as South Korea and Thailand,” who can deny that our young have consistently outperformed others in international rankings.

And on health, he said that (despite the low amount spent), the “Economist Intelligence Unit ranks Singapore second in the world for healthcare outcomes, and the World Health Organisation ranks the Republic’s healthcare system sixth in the world.”

So, bottomline? 

Well, the bottomline is that every bottom dollar gets a bigger bang on the buck. We managed to squeeze more out of a dollar with precise technocratic planning on a national scale than most countries could ever achieve. 

And if you think about countries like Ethiopia and Afghanistan, which we are curiously below in ranking, I am sure no Singaporeans would want to migrate over there just because of the Oxfam’s report that we suck at addressing inequality. 

In the end, the outcomes count and we should not blindly look at the measures we ought to take but did not like high spending, more progressive taxes as starting and ending points. 

Lesson learned? Not quite...

Lesson? One, alas, it’s still about inequality...sorry. And I think Oxfam and Desmond may have missed the point. 

While Oxfam looked at the means and turned a blind eye to the ends, Desmond looked at the ends and turned a blind eye to the unintended consequences that it has produced. 

Of course, to be fair to Desmond, he is just replying to Oxfam’s report and setting things on a more balance perspective. But still this reality cannot be denied - that Singapore (among wealthy countries) is ranked among the most unequal (second to Hong Kong).

It is thus about comparing apple to apple and not comparing Singapore to Ethiopia or Afghanistan. 

In such balanced comparison, is inequality the price of prosperity among wealthy countries? 

And if so, when should the poor stop paying that price and the rich start paying their due? How do we close a gap that keeps growing wider and wider? What is causing the gap growth? 

This is important because wealth does not equate with happiness and I will not be surprised that we may be one of the wealthiest but also one of the unhappiest. 

Mind you, statistics are merely the tip of the measuring iceberg of things, and what lies below can be worlds apart in experiential terms. 

Yes, we undoubtedly get more bang for our buck and so we spend less to build up our reserves for a rainy day in the future. 

But, the issue has gone beyond spending less and saving more to how the poor are being exploited by the rich in more naunced ”legit” ways, how the lower stream students see themselves and are rather resigned to the stereotype that they are “inferior”, “lazy” and “stupid”, and how meritocracy has mutated to the insidious narrative about assuring the masses that hard work will be rewarded when the reality is that income gained, bonuses awarded and investment profit reaped have nothing (or little) to do with industry, but almost everything to do with the skewed corporate reward scheme, anti-productive speculation, and inter-generational wealth inheritance. 

In the end, what Oxfam got right was inequality, but ranking us below Ethiopia and Afghanistan is more sensationalistic than realistic when measured against proper context. 

And what Desmond got right was how developmentally sound we are in terms of healthcare, education and taxes to encourage investment and work, but he is however tongue-tied about the unintended consequences of a once-hailed-as-the-holy-grail policy called meritocracy. 

So, both are feeling the “inequality” elephant blindfolded (or half-blind), with Oxfam identifying it as a fan or a tree trunk, and Desmond riding on it to enjoy the economic breeze from atop and thinking that it is heading towards some inevitable technocratic compromise that is the best of both worlds. 

Now, who is more deluded? Cheerz.

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