I am quite struck by how generous the Singapore Government is becoming towards the lower-income members of our society, usually residing in three-room and smaller HDB flats. This is the leaflet given out to all public housing residents this month informing them of the government subsidies for their utilities bills. All HDB flat dwellers receive this subsidy, known as the GST Voucher as it draws on GST revenues to effect a transfer of wealth from the wealthy to the poor and middle-class. The smaller your flat, the more you get.
Those living in one- and two-room flats received a $130 special payment this month, together with their regular quarterly payout of $65, making a total of $195 in utilities subsidies. Three-room flat dwellers were given a total of $180. These amounts are enough to pay the utilities bills of most households for at least two months, and for some, as much as 4-5 months. By the time those 4-5 months are up, they would have received another $60-65 quarterly voucher. It would not surprise me if the Government announced another two special payments in this year’s Budget.
What this means is that low-income households that use very modest amounts of water and electricity, for instance those which use little or no air-conditioning or have fewer members, may hardly have to pay any utilities bills at all for the whole year.
It is a clear sign of the shifting social compact in Singapore signalled by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his last National Day Rally speech. Then, he unveiled a ‘new way forward’ for Singapore, a new balance between individuals, community and the Government. After decades of what some have called “tough love”, he stated that Singapore would move decisively to shield citizens from the harsh effects of global change, an ageing society and rising inequality as those who are vulnerable can no longer make it through individual effort alone.
It is evident that the Government is strenuously working to reduce social frictions caused by a sharp rise in income inequality in Singapore over the last decade. Look out for other signs of our shifting social compact. They are all around you.
What worries me, however, is that the building of a more cohesive society is being left mainly to the Government. Most ordinary citizens are too busy and stressed to make fulsome social contributions and care about their neighbours. What is worse, our national ‘kiasu’ (fear of losing) mentality motivates us to see our fellow citizens not as brothers and sisters, but as rivals we have to beat. It seems ‘kiasuism’ is inevitable for a country in our geographical circumstances. We need a good dose of fear to drive us to work hard and succeed despite being a tiny country. But the fundamental conundrum that faces us as a society is how we can build cohesion and unity while viewing one another as rivals.
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