Fuck GDP: Singapore you don’t need more economic growth to be happy



Reading time:

14 minutes

Four years ago during the 2011 Singapore general elections was when I started to give a shit about politics. Maybe it was because I was far away from home, in Tasmania, I felt connected to what was going on back home at that time. I was very passionately anti-PAP (less now, but wary), possibly a seed planted in my mind by my dad. But I had legitimate reasons. I was and still am mainly upset that the government pays themselves a high salary, while I see the elderly work as cleaners and pick up recycled materials in our society. Basically, I’m against greed, against income inequality, and have an ok/hate relationship with Singapore’s education system – ok because I feel like I turned out alright, hate because I hated the pressure while I was in school.


My desire to talk about politics fluctuates with time, not surprisingly it depends on what I’ve read and heard. I stay away from news sources because negativity it’s bad for the soul. But now and then some news gets a lot of attention on my Facebook newsfeed, and I get sucked in. So now, four years later, it’s election time in Singapore again.


I watched one of the PAP rally speeches by Tharman Shanmugaratnam. He seems smart and reasonable. But when he gave the impression that Singapore’s situation (more capitalist) is better than the Scandanavian countries (more socialist), when he claimed that he has “studied this (the economic process?) a lot”, and when he sorta dissed universal health care – thats when I started to be suspicious.


universal health care


Maybe it’s cognitive dissonance and because I’m more politically left biased. Nevertheless I began my research about tax in different political economic views. It made sense that I should look to Noam Chomsky for advice, because I bet he has given this issue much more thought that TS has, and doesn’t have any invested interest. By the way, Chomsky is an anarchist, more left the socialism. Before images of the Soviet Union start conjuring up in your mind, the SU wasn’t an accurate representation of true socialism; according to Chomsky, they represent state socialism. Google “Chomsky and socialism” if you’re interested.


And I’m not sure if this is what synchronicities is about, but there happened to be an economics seminar today in uni titled: Who controls economic processes? Public agency and individual freedom. Sweet. Even though I studied about capitalism and neo-liberalism in my global political ecology unit in third year, it’s been a while and I needed a refresher. The information was gold. I was so glad I went.


All the information I’ve received regarding this subject matter is making me excited. I feel like there’s something meaningful in all of it. I’ll try to synthesise it here and I’m trying to make sense of it all myself.


The Economic Process

So the guest speaker was Paul Smith, an economics academic created this diagram, which I adapted for the Singaporean context, to depict how the political economic system in industrialised countries (e.g. Singapore) generally works. As you can see it’s a positive feedback system that keeps encouraging the bias for private goods when a country is focused on economic growth.


The scarcity multiplier singapore version. Original by Paul Smith. Note: it’s a positive feed back system. Where are points where we can intervene to make it a more sustainable system?


What is private vs public goods…?


So, I’m thinking about SMRT here. If “public” transport is actually privately owned, the service is subject to demand and supply. Since demand will always be there, and supply is scarce because of population growth, then SMRT can do whatever the fuck they want and increase fares while still having poor services. But if SMRT/SBS became nationalised again and publicly owned, it removes the ridiculous profiteering aspect of it. Just like utility bills, which can be considered fairly priced because it’s a basic need. Since the people pay the government through tax dollars, the government is thus answerable to the people so there would be more pressure to make public transport affordable to everyone and improve the service standard. I think it’s fair to say there will still be some profits made from government owned business but at least the profits are meant to be put back into government funds, which should used to provide more public goods, unless of course, they use it to pay themselves ridiculous salaries! :O dun dun dun!!!


Also I thought it was interesting when Paul mentioned, “the people thinks the government controls them, the government knows the people controls them, nobody knows what’s going on” and this was when someone in the audience said, “the lobbyists knows what’s going on”. I guess it’s a situation more relevant to countries like USA, where many corporations have a hand in the government because they fund their campaigns. It is said that all funding for political campaigns by private businesses should be banned so no one has invested interests.


Income Inequality

So I guess how much tax you pay depends on what services you are willing to pay for.


Maybe Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’ can help.


WiFi recently declared by the UN as a basic human right
WiFi recently declared by the UN as a basic human right


So if every human has the right to access to air, shelter, water and food. What should we do about those living in poverty in Singapore? Yes we still have poverty!


While Singapore has the highest concentration of millionaires in the world and has an average per capita income of over $52,000, there are 105,000 families left with $5 to spend per day and 114,000 individual residents making less than $805 per month.

Source from http://borgenproject.org/poverty-singapore/


So a question to ask is how to help the poor get more money? Hmm… we have lots of millionaires… and we also have poor people… millionaires… poor people. We have a few people with lots of of money who can afford to put it in investments and play this made-up, intangible, financial game thing to earn more money, buy more shit they don’t NEED (to survive). And we have a lot of poor families, struggling to survive with no savings to invest. Would we rather want a society with a few elites with millions of dollars, or a society with more people with thousands of dollars (Eh eh eh! You’re starting to sound like a communist!) Share the wealth? Or let a few people hoard it?


But people talk about fairness, why should I give my hard earned money to the poor? This all comes down to compassion and empathy. Back in the middle ages there were nobles who would open their doors up to the poor and give them free food. Have you heard? You get what you give. The more willing you are to let go of money, the more you will get. This reminds me of buddhist teachings about attachment. The more attached you are to something, the more you will suffer over it. And are you going to tell a poor person that they caused it themselves? That they had equal opportunities for social mobility. Maybe some people did screw up, but do they not deserve a second chance? And others might have just been handed a bad hand in life. Although I believe in ‘taking things into your own hands’ and turning adversity into advantage, a philosophy linked to stoicism which I’m beginning to read more into, but I’m lucky that somehow or rather, I chanced upon this piece of valuable information, I was lucky to be in an environment that allowed me to educate myself. I could give all the poor a copy of The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday, and tell them you can do this! But maybe they can’t read or they aren’t in the right phycological mindset to think about these things. Refer back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs… basic needs for survival first!


accept that increasing benefits to a reasonable level will not significantly increase the desire of people not to work i.e. on its own will not increase the number of unemployed or the number of pregnancies. The contrary view is entirely ideological and not based on research

source: closing the income gap – a NZ initiative. NZ is near the top on the social development index in the world.


Imagine if we had a society/world with majority of the people living to their fullest potential, reaching self-actualisation and doing meaningful work that they actually WANT to do. The world would be a totally different place! Would there still be greed? I think most people would have realised money doesn’t mean shit beyond fulfilling your basic needs. To clarify, I’m not against wealth! I just wonder what all the super rich are doing with all that money that they can’t spend? Surely it has to come to an end point where money is not a problem anymore and it would only make sense to give it to the less fortunate. I recommend checking out Closing the Gap for information about solving income inequality. Basically it has a lot to do with tax.


Eh, LKY didn't realise the answer was staring him in the face...
Eh, LKY didn’t realise the answer was staring him in the face… You mean we could have had more precious leisure time to sit under the banana tree instead of working in jobs we don’t want to earn money so we can buy a plane ticket to bali to sit under the tree there and instagram it with a inspirational quote? never say earlier.

Universal Healthcare

Universal health care is impossible? Why not? Why not provide universal health care, but at the same time, reduce the need for it, i.e. figure out why are people getting sick in the first place? With the rate of western cuisines infiltrating Singaporean’s food scene, I’m not surprised that obesity is getting more common. Import western diet, get western sickness. Drink more milk, get more osteoporosis. True story. Dr Chee… soy milk is cheaper than cows milk, justsayin. Furthermore, how about encourage cycling to work by improving the cycling infrastructure and giving priority to cyclists? This not only helps people keep fit, and reduces their risk of health problems, but it also helps the traffic congestion problem! So wait, government could possibly provide universal healthcare but work towards creating a society of healthy individuals so that health care spending isn’t that great anyway? Maybe I’m being naive, but that doesn’t seem impossible. I think… I can be MP too.


Free WiFi?

Nowadays, if you got wifi, it makes it possible to change your life because you can have access to free education and information. Hey, I’ll be willing to pay tax for free wifi all over Singapore! I know Singtel and Starhub won’t be happy but maybe the aunty that collects cardboard can become a youtube celebrity and turn her life around. Who knows.


Minimum Wage

There can never be ecologically sustainable economic growth. More economic growth means more environmental and social destruction. Especially when Singapore imports so many goods, it’s so easy to forget about our impacts when we can’t see it. That’s what it means “out of sight, out of mind”. That’s why GDP means fuck all. It doesn’t mean success. What good does high GDP do when there is also huge social inequality? How do the rich get rich without the support from their workers? Unless a business is owned and ran by one person, they always require support from OTHER people.


Now I also saw a PAP video explaining this thing called Workfare that they are proposing instead of minimum wage. Their workfare proposal means that the government covers the extra cost of the worker’s pay to a minimum living wage so that businesses don’t incur a greater cost of production due to a minimum wage. This means you are letting businesses off the hook for paying decent wages to the worker. If there is no minimum wage, what will stop bosses from hiring a foreigner who is willing to accept a shit pay as compared to a local who wants more? Why do we allow scumbags who take advantage of others and aren’t willing to pay fair wages in society?


President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, stated “It seems to me to be equally plain that no business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country. By “business” I mean the whole of commerce as well as the whole of industry; by workers I mean all workers, the white collar class as well as the men in overalls; and by living wages I mean more than a bare subsistence level-I mean the wages of decent living.”  Franklin Roosevelt’s Statement on the National Industrial Recovery Act (16 June 1933)

Minimum wage is meant to allow a worker to be able to earn the minimum salary required to live and survive reasonably in society. This is why in a capitalist system, you will always need an excess of workers, so that there will always be someone who is willing to accept shitty pay. The capitalists don’t want a system with 100% unemployment, otherwise cost increases because supply is short. Hmm… 6.9 million you say, PAP? And it all comes back again to what do you want? Economic growth? Well then you gotta keep working to earn money during your prime years so you can enjoy it later when you are old and can’t do shit.


In fact, NZ government also implemented a similar policy to this Workfare thing PAP is proposing. Critics have already said:


Transferring responsibility

By creating ‘WFF’ (NZ’s Workfare equivalent) the Government transferred the long established responsibility of employers to provide sufficient income for their workers, to the State. The Government effectively said, “We will lower our expectations of your role and provide the shortfall (or at least part of it) ourselves”.

In so doing the State added to its own costs. It also enabled right-wing parties to claim that there was an increase in welfare and dependency, when in reality it was a subsidy for (mainly overseas) corporates.


Yeah PAP, don’t later say you spent all these taxpayer money on good things when it was to cover the asses of businesses. And I would guess mainly big businesses? Doesn’t Singapore have a very low tax for big overseas businesses, that’s why so many of them set up shop in Singapore? They probably did that to increase economic growth. It comes back again to, as Dr Chee says it, PRIORITIES! And to be clear again, I know it’s not a black and white issue, but it’s not like you can’t attract businesses if you increase taxes. It’ll slow down economic growth for sure, but I think we can afford to do that. But bare it mind, currently in 2015, there’s no such thing as an ecologically sustainable constant growth. Sustainability = a closed loop system, it feeds itself. You can’t keep growing in a closed loop system!


I don’t have all the answers, but I know what can’t be the status quo. During the economic seminar, one of the main conversation topics was what can we do about it? How much change can we create by personal choices, and how much of it requires a more deeper change at the system level. Right now this system we are operating in is dominantly neo-liberal capitalism, a flawed system where economic growth is the measure of success, and social inequality is the foundation that allows it to operate. Things don’t seem too bad to most people, we tolerate the crowded streets, we tolerate that the government has high salaries, we tolerate a percentage of poor people, that’s because we grew up in this environment, and it has become the norm. You think you have freedom of choice, when really the default option is already a bad one, and you don’t even realise it. I suddenly feel like watching the Matrix again.


P.S. I’m not against foreign workers, but obviously we have increased our population too quickly. Current infrastructure cannot cope yet. Maybe one day when technology evolves and we can use the third vertical dimension more efficiently, we can have a lot more people in Singapore. But maybe as we get closer towards becoming a more fair society, we can teach our neighbouring countries how to make theirs one as well then they wouldn’t need to go elsewhere to a better life!


matrix red blue pill



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