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  • Robert Ho
    Ng Kok Lim rebuts Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz [image:
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 25, 2013
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      Ng Kok Lim rebuts Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz

      Correcting Mr Stiglitz’s article “Singapore’s lessons for an unequal US”

      Joe Stiglitz

      Dear Mr Stiglitz,

      I refer to your New York Times article “Singapore’s lessons for an unequal US” which was published by the Straits Times on 20 Mar 2013 [1].

      Your assertion that Singapore has had the distinction of having prioritised social and economic equity over the past 30 years is not supported by facts. The diagram below charts the GINI coefficient of developed economies over 30 years [2]. As can be seen, three developed economies have always stood out above all others in inequality: Singapore, Hong Kong and the United States. It’s bewildering that you could consider Singapore to be a distinction of social and economic equity when it consistently features amongst the top three most unequal developed economies over three decades. Singapore’s high inequality over 30 years means it is unlikely that curbing inequalities was one of the many things Singapore championed.

      It is also incorrect to say that Singapore attained independence in 1963. Singapore switched from British sovereignty to Malaysian sovereignty that year. When Hong Kong was handed over from the British to the Chinese in 1997, did that result in Hong Kong gaining independence? Going from being a British dependent to being a Malaysian dependent doesn’t make us independent in 1963 [3].

      It is not hard to believe that Singapore could come so far since 1963. Back in 1960, we already had the 3rd highest per capita income in Asia [4]. Furthermore, if we set aside nations that struck oil or diamond, the world’s fastest growing economies over the last four decades have all been East Asian economies [5]. Singapore is just one of the East Asian economies that have come far. What is surprising is not that Singapore has come far but the fact that without exception, the entire East Asia has come far.

      CountryPer capita GDP multiple from 1960 to 2010 Remarks
      Equatorial Guinea22.2 Struck oil
      China Version 121.7 East Asian
      Taiwan17.3 East Asian
      Korea, Republic of15.9 East Asian
      Botswana14.2 Struck diamond
      Singapore12.7 East Asian
      Hong Kong11.8 East Asian
      China Version 210 East Asian
      Thailand8.4 Southeast Asian
      Malaysia8.2 Southeast Asian

      It was Dr Albert Winsemius who helped solve our then high unemployment problem by coming up with the industrialisation plan that we followed.

      Your assertion that our government made sure wages at the bottom aren’t beaten down to exploitative levels is again without basis since even our government has recently acknowledged that we are a First World nation with Third World wages [6].

      You’re mistaken that our CPF is adequate for healthcare, housing and retirement. According to the Mercer Global Pension Index [7], Singapore scored the second lowest in retirement income adequacy. It is ironic that you are holding up severely inadequate Singapore as the lesson for the much more adequate USA.

      CountryRetirement income adequacy (%)
      Netherlands 77
      Australia 73.5
      UK 68.1
      Poland 63.6
      Chile 50.1
      South Korea45.1
      Singapore 42

      One HSBC survey shows that 4 in 10 Singaporeans have not set aside a single dollar for retirement because of high cost of living [8]. Another HSBC survey [9] shows that Singaporeans are worried about insufficient retirement funds.

      High level of home ‘ownership’ also means high level of indebtedness as the average Singapore household’s debt-to-income ratio is higher than most developed countries [10]:

      Country2010 debt as percentage of income (%)
      UK 166.4
      US 123.3
      Italy 89.5

      In return for the high price we pay for our housing, we get to keep it for 99 years after which our homes must be returned to the government. This is quite different from the concept of home ownership in the US which usually means owning the land on which the home is built in perpetuity.

      Government schemes aren’t as progressive as they seem. Intervention of pre-tax income merely offsets the increase in Goods and Services tax felt by those at the bottom. The tilt towards those with less economic power is after many years of tilting away from them and also after the issue has been raised by countless Singaporeans.

      Universal education is universally practised by all developed nations as the UN gross enrolment rate below shows [11]:

      CountryPrimary (%) Secondary (%)Tertiary (%)
      France 11111354.5
      Netherlands108120 62.7
      Ireland108 11761
      Spain 10711973.2
      United Kingdom106102 58.5
      Liechtenstein106 7034.4
      Belgium 10511167.5
      Australia104129 75.9
      Korea (Republic of)104 97103.9
      Japan 10310259
      Italy10399 66
      Germany102 103..
      United States 1029694.8
      Switzerland10295 51.5
      Hong Kong, China (SAR)102 8359.7
      Singapore 101.8106.971
      New Zealand101119 82.6
      Sweden100 10070.8
      Austria 10010060.2
      Luxembourg10098 10.5
      Denmark99 11774.4
      Norway 9911073.8
      Finland99108 91.6
      Canada99 10160

      The notion that all citizens are given access to the best education should be tempered by purported education inequality that has prompted ruling party MPs to suggest nationalising pre-school education to level the playing field [12].

      Contrary to what you said, the current successor to Mr Lee Kuan Yew, PM Lee has been charged by none other than his own parliamentary colleague from the same constituency, Mr Inderjit Singh of having pursued growth at all costs resulting in the overheating of the economy, rising costs and higher inflation [13], [14]. It was only after setbacks in the last election did the government finally concede to the wider needs of our society. Singapore’s higher growth rate vis-a-vis the US since 1980 is the result of us starting from a lower base. Our growth rate is not impressive when compared to fellow East Asian nations.

      Retention of green spaces is due to the need for water security, a fact that all Singaporeans understand when the British surrendered at Fort Canning after running out of water, not a peculiarly PAP wisdom.

      Singapore’s recent push for green roofs comes five decades after those in Germany which began in the 1960s and was partly triggered by the problem of flooding.

      Institution of housing programmes for our ageing population is only quite recent and we still have a long way to go.

      While Singapore is not the kind of nanny state that takes care of your needs, it is the kind of nanny state that pokes into your personal life, dictating when you should have two children and when you should have more.

      Our cohesiveness as a society is increasingly frayed by tensions arising out of government policies. Our so-called dynamism is highly dependent on the continued reliance on foreign investments which seem less like dynamism and more like reliance.

      Singapore’s life expectancy is nothing out of the ordinary compared to fellow First World nations. Taking Japan and Hong Kong as the benchmark for 100%, all First World nations score close to 100% in life expectancy [15].

      Country Name2010 life expectancy As percentage of highest life expectancy
      Japan82.9 100%
      Hong Kong SAR, China82.9 100%
      Switzerland82.2 99%
      Italy81.7 99%
      Australia81.7 99%
      Singapore81.6 98%
      Spain81.6 98%
      Sweden81.5 98%
      France81.4 98%
      Norway81 98%
      Canada80.8 97%
      Korea, Rep.80.8 97%
      Netherlands80.7 97%
      New Zealand80.7 97%
      United Kingdom80.4 97%
      Austria80.4 97%
      Ireland80.3 97%
      Luxembourg80.1 97%
      Germany80 96%
      Belgium79.9 96%
      Finland79.9 96%
      Denmark79.1 95%
      United States78.2 94%

      The US’ lower life expectancy is commonly attributed to causes other than healthcare including gun violence, obesity, smoking and other non-healthcare reasons [16].

      Our high mathematics, science and reading test scores merely reflect the high scores of East Asian nations / economies which occupy 6 out of 9 top positions in the PISA ranking [17].

      RankCountry / economy Average of reading, math and scienceOverall readingMathematics Science
      1Shanghai-China 577556600 575
      2Hong Kong-China 546533555 549
      3Finland 543536541 554
      4Singapore 543526562 542
      5Korea-South 541539546 538
      6Japan 529520529 539
      7Canada 527524527 529
      8New Zealand 524521519 532
      9Chinese Taipei 520495543 520

      Singaporeans have been pointing out problems for the longest time but the government has denied them all along and explained them away with unconvincing arguments like the ones you have used here. It took the loss of a GRC (mega-constituency) during the last election for the g

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