Singapore’s Riches: How Much is Too Much? Rethinking Pro-Wealth Policies in Consideration of the Rest

 73% of total country wealth is controlled by the wealthiest 20%.

The poorest 20%, on the other hand, handles 1% of overall wealth[1].

Why is this the case?

There is strong institutional and sociocultural evidence for how the Singapore system supports wealth and wealth accumulation.

PART I. SINGAPORE’S ACCUMULATION-FRIENDLY STRUCTURE.

Unpacking the Tax System

In an economic institutional sense, Singapore has one of the most rich-friendly tax system, with a low overall degree of taxation and tax policies oblivious to big money.

A brief snapshot of relevant legal facts[2]:

  • No estate tax since 2008.
  • No inheritance tax for lump-sum intergenerational transfers.
  • Corporate tax decreased from 20% to 17% from 2007 to 2017.
  • GST increased from 3% to 7% from 1994 to 2017[3].

Tax revenue is primarily channelled to public goods and not redistribution. Comparing pre- and post-tax Gini garners a statistically insignificant difference of 0.052[4], which is indicative of a tax system ineffectual in levelling the field. By overt legality and covert excuses[5], Singapore’s tax institution is somewhere between unprogressive and regressive.

There is also amplification effect: as wealth stockpiles are not institutionally targeted, the wealthy continues to have greater control of wealth-generating capital[6], while the poor in comparison has less capital control and smaller chance of changing their luck. As such, potential for wealth growth is unequal contingent on existing wealth – it is much easier to get rich if you are already rich in Singapore. On a larger scale, wealth gaps can be expected to widen. 

Immigration policies

In a non-economic institutional sense, immigration policies reserve an entire class of residency application for wealthy investors/entrepreneurs[7]. This additional imported inequality skews the balance even further; as expensive tastes within essential sectors e.g. healthcare drive up demand and thus prices. 2017 in particular marks Singapore’s pinnacle record for highest cost of living in the world[8].

Social factors

In a demographical sense, world-low and consistently falling birth rates[9][10] translate to wealth becoming concentrated in smaller families, which is in turn compatible with dynasty-building and resource hoarding[11].

Socially, the softer bounds of a low charity culture and acceptability, even praise of accumulation as a virtuous life goal[12][13], encourages wealth immobility.

 

PART II. HOW INEQUALITIES TRANSLATE.

To a considerable extent, policies have paid off handsomely in the macroeconomics department; by promise of keeping wealth largely untouched, Singapore has successfully attracted investments and improved overall wealth standing[14]. Yet national economic growth should matter to a citizen as much as a national title improves his or her life – simply by point of pride. To ascertain how deliberate wealth preservation policies have impacted lives, we examine whether growth on paper parallels real life quality improvements.

Economic standard of living

Singapore’s poverty levels are increasing[15].

The reasons for this are many.

Firstly, trickle-down does not work fast enough. Singapore’s exorbitant barriers of entry to life: the necessity bundle of housing, food, education, and healthcare; constitutes its world-high cost of living. As real inflation spirals faster than income increase, the worst off faces abject poverty amidst incandescent prosperity.

Secondly, general taxes increases affect poor households disproportionately, due to different valuation of the same percentage spending. Although everyone copes with the same tax burden, e.g. 7% flat rate GST, only disposable income of the worst off is lowered to the point of threatening livelihood.

Thirdly, Singapore’s anti-welfarian stance, thin social safety net, absence of minimum wage, absence of universal basic income/unemployment benefits render minimal redistributive help. Expansive means-testing and other administrative barriers further disincentivise one from seeking the meagre social help available.

Psychological effects

Given how 68% place relative success as important measure of success, and that local wealth does not seem to have a ceiling, there is widespread discontent[16].

Increased life expectancy adds additional pressure for Singaporeans to continue working; financial stress appears to supersede post-retirement indulgence for many[17].

12%, or more than 1 in 10 Singaporean adults, report at least one affective, anxiety, or alcohol use disorders during their lifetimes[18]. Financial stress can quickly transpose into mental stress as personal experience diverges from the system narrative: the more meritocratic fairness is flaunted, the deeper defeatism and self-blame can run. In actuality, financial incapability may be better reasoned through wealth-linked inequality, urban poverty cycles, and weak mobility structures.

Social effects

One would suppose that the democratization of knowledge through Singapore’s universally affordable tuition would increase mobility; however, wealth accumulation can erode mobilizing meritocracy of social institutions[19]. The deeply-rooted cultural submission to wealth as a dominant good, that it must invade and hold currency in other spheres, creates a positive correlation between wealth and educational[20], later bureaucratic/political opportunities one and one’s children may access.

 

PART III. LOGIC GAPS: DEBUNKING CONFIDENCE IN WEALTH-PRESERVING PRACTICES

First off, wealth inequality does not benefit the worst off per a difference principle, whereby socioeconomic inequalities optimizes growth of individuals against themselves[21]. In this Rawlsian schema, society’s best is placed in privileged endowment positions to leverage on their natural talents, therefore optimizing common endowments. Society’s worst off must (maximally) benefit from being intentionally less privileged, for such endowments would be less efficient with them; yet nevertheless as rational voluntary participants in society they must (maximally) gain from this common arrangement.

The case of wealth inequality is not an application of talent optimization (assumed to be investment ability, i.e. the best off are better at investing by both expertise/skill and financial ability). Closer investigation into national wealth reveals the primary sources to be property and CPF[22], highly stagnant compositions otherwise known as dead money, which in fact exit fiscal circulations to de-stimulate the economy. As housing bubbles gain ground and estate price rises further; house ownership real wealth value persists outside economic circulations and inflates there instead, worsening wealth inequality. Contra expectations, wealthy residents of Singapore are not so talented at investing as they are as accumulating, returning to the economy a negative money draw.

Wealth inequality also does not benefit the worst off per a meritocratic incentive, as in Cohen’s less stringent position[23]. Application would suppose that society must have pro-rich policies to serve the wealthy contingent on its need for the wealthy to aid economic competitiveness (by channelling investments/opportunities/employment) – akin to the conditional in which the kidnapped’s family must pay the kidnapper contingent on their need for the kidnapper to return the kidnapped. This perverse incentive, Cohen would argue, is morally abject but practically necessary.

Yet another fallacy is at play: indeed Singapore’s lower corporate taxes may have in part increased economic competitiveness by attracting investments[24]; however, the relationship is not sterilely linear. The World Economic Forum finds nations with lower corporate tax margins not as economically competitive while nations with much higher taxes more competitive than Singapore[25]. This is due to differential qualities of infrastructure, human capital, market access – non-monetary factors which Singapore can choose to prioritize instead to win over financiers[26].

 

PART IV. THE MEANING OF SOCIETY

Singapore’s catapulting growth, and corresponding financial capacity to give, makes local poverty unacceptably perplexing.

Firstly, institutions must lead. Assuming a baseline of justice, which ensures that all Singaporeans must gain at least fairly, if not equally, from all public policies; and given the country’s wealth ability for redistribution above the poverty line for all; strengthening the redistributive front of government, with special concerns to opportunities, is an institutional imperative for Singapore.

In other words, we need a bit of handholding when it comes to giving.

Wealth redistribution also resets initial inequalities, repairs meritocracy, and prevents trained incapacities; such that the worst off can improve their own lives, instead of depending on remnant public benefits. This also eliminates need for invocation of the perverse incentive for pro-rich policies.

Secondly, Singaporeans must engage in thoughtful re-deliberation of values.

Institutions tell us the limit of our actions, not their ends.

Culture must be consciously co-created, not thoughtlessly absorbed or used as excuse.

Why, for instance, do we chase wealth? Are the disconsolate realities imposed on fellow Singaporeans, in the name of progress, worth its gains?

Only through both system redesign, and informed personal deliberations, can collective reason take root. Given the expensive trade-offs we have been consistently making, it is only due diligence to re-visit the meaning of society, and how our pro-wealth practices and their consequences fit into this.

 

ANNEX

 

Image 1: the merger of junior colleges in Singapore cuts endowments to the bottom 8 schools by half each, while geographically bundling the bottom schools together even more compactly away from the top schools (source: RWT, 2017).

 

 

REFERENCES

RWT, 2017: “Elite” Junior Colleges Side-by-Side Escape Merger despite MOE’s “Good Spread” Excuse. (2017, April 20). Retrieved December 01, 2017, from http://redwiretimes.com/cow-beh-cow-bu/elite-junior-colleges-side-by-side-escape-merger-despite-moes-good-spread-excuse/

TO, 2016: Enrolment at some elite JCs show education can spawn inequality: Study. (2016, May 27). Retrieved December 01, 2017, from http://www.todayonline.com/singapore/enrolment-some-elite-jcs-show-education-can-spawn-inequality-study

Rawls, 2005: Rawls, J. (2005). A theory of justice. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press.

Koh, S. (2017, March 09). 8 things you should know about Singapore’s wealth gap. Retrieved December 01, 2017, from http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/8-things-you-should-know-about-singapore-s-wealth-gap-7643944

The Economist, 2017: Measuring the cost of living worldwide. (2017, March 21). Retrieved December 01, 2017, from http://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2017/03/daily-chart-13

Ministry of Foreign Affairs: Permanent Resident Application. (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2017, from https://www.mfa.gov.sg/content/mfa/overseasmission/doha/consular_services/pr_application.html

Corporate Tax Rates, Corporate Income Tax Rebates, Tax Exemption Schemes and SME Cash Grant. (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2017, from https://www.iras.gov.sg/irashome/Businesses/Companies/Learning-the-basics-of-Corporate-Income-Tax/Corporate-Tax-Rates–Corporate-Income-Tax-Rebates–Tax-Exemption-Schemes-and-SME-Cash-Grant/

Cohen, G. A. 1995 [1977]. ‘Robert Nozick and Wilt Chamberlain: How Patterns Preserve Liberty’, in Cohen, G. A. Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp19-37.

Sen, S. L. (n.d.). No wealth taxes yet; govt looking at new or higher taxes. Retrieved November 30, 2017, from http://www.businesstimes.com.sg/government-economy/singapore-budget-2017/no-wealth-taxes-yet-govt-looking-at-new-or-higher-taxes

DAS, 2017: Ho, T. (2017, July 03). Income inequality in Singapore. Retrieved November 30, 2017, from http://dollarsandsense.sg/income-inequality-in-singapore/

Mauzy & Milne, 2002: Mauzy, D. K., & Milne, R. S. (2002). Singapore Politics under the People’s Action Party. London: Routledge.

Singapore Business Review, 2017: Why the ageing population could worsen wealth inequality in Singapore. (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2017, from http://sbr.com.sg/economy/in-focus/why-ageing-population-could-worsen-wealth-inequality-in-singapore

Department Of Statistics Singapore. (n.d.). Retrieved December 01, 2017, from http://www.singstat.gov.sg/statistics/visualising-data/storyboards/population-trends

Central Intelligence Agency, 2017: COUNTRY COMPARISON :: TOTAL FERTILITY RATE. (n.d.). Retrieved December 01, 2017, from https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2127rank.html

Tax-deductible donations fall 36% to five-year low in 2016. (2017, September 07). Retrieved November 30, 2017, from http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/tax-deductible-donations-fall-36-to-five-year-low-in-2016-9194086

TOC, 2012: Wen, S. (2012, April 23). Worsening income inequality in Singapore. Retrieved November 30, 2017, from https://www.theonlinecitizen.com/2012/04/24/worsening-income-inequality-in-singapore/

Asia One, 2016: Poh, J. (2016, December 14). If Singapore’s average wealth per adult is so high, why don’t most Singaporeans feel rich? Retrieved November 30, 2017, from http://www.asiaone.com/business/if-singapores-average-wealth-adult-so-high-why-dont-most-singaporeans-feel-rich

Today Online, 2017: Krishnadas, D. (n.d.). Is trickle-down economics working for Singapore? Retrieved November 30, 2017, from http://www.todayonline.com/singapore/trickle-down-economics-working-spore

Asia Adviser Network, 2017: Ang, B. (n.d.). Singapore: 3 in 5 not confident of having enough money in retirement. Retrieved November 30, 2017, from http://www.asiaadvisersnetwork.com/Article/aid/40709

The Independent, 2014: Vadaketh, S. T. (2014, March 10). 
The silence on Singapore’s wealth gap. Retrieved November 30, 2017, from http://www.theindependent.sg/%E2%80%A8the-silence-on-singapores-wealth-gap/

STR, 2017: Ministry: Poverty in Singapore reached worst ever, jumped 43.45% in 3 years. (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2017, from https://statestimesreview.com/2017/04/22/ministry-poverty-in-singapore-reached-worst-ever-jumped-43-45-in-3-years/

LKYSPP & IPS, 2012: L., & I. (2012, September 26). Young Singaporeans Conference: Are Young Singaporeans Happy? Retrieved November 30, 2017, from http://lkyspp2.nus.edu.sg/ips/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2013/06/YSC2012_Report.pdf

Chong, A. S. (2012). A population-based survey of mental disorders in Singapore. Annals of the Academy of Medicine, Singapore, 41(2). Retrieved November 30, 2017, from https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/a8ae/b3d1f1b35cc1a6601c15ba11cd12a2220cfa.pdf.

MAS, 2016: Menon, R. (2016, November 26). News and Publications Speeches and Monetary Policy, “An Economic History of Singapore: 1965-2065*” – Keynote Address by Mr Ravi Menon, Managing Director, Monetary Authority of Singapore, at the Singapore Economic Review Conference 2015 on 5 August 2015. Retrieved December 01, 2017, from http://www.mas.gov.sg/News-and-Publications/Speeches-and-Monetary-Policy-Statements/Speeches/2015/An-Economic-History-of-Singapore.aspx

[1] CNA, 2017

[2] IRAS official site, valid as of 30 Nov 2017

[3] BT, 2017: Government looks to further increase general taxes to compensate deficits, as they do not lower economic activity by producers. Lowering corporate purchase/income taxes, inheritance and property taxes is thought to discourage economic activity and de-stimulate the economy.

[4] DAS, 2017: Pre-tax Gini coefficient is at 0.464 while post-tax Gini is at 0.412

[5] TO, 2017: Studies find that increases in the effective tax rates would not yield much significant revenue; more importantly, they would be symbolic of a changed socio-political model of burden sharing. The shortfall in revenue from a reduction in GST could be made up from increasing the share of Net Investment Returns Contribution i.e. the share of income (50%) from the reserves deployable for current expenditure. The remainder of the income (50%) is returned into the reserves to continue to grow them.

[6] Refer to initial set of statistics

[7] MFA: Permanent Resident status, class 4

[8] TE, Economic Intelligence Unit (EIU), 2017

[9] CIA, 2017: Singapore places at 224/224 country data sets, with an average of 0.83 children born per woman.

[10] Singstat, 2017: Resident Total Fertility Rate (TFR) fell from the peak of 1.96 births per female in 1988 to 1.20 births per female in 2016.

[11] SBR, 2017

[12] CNA, 2017

[13] Mauze & Milne, 2002, p.196: the “Singaporean Dream” under PAP leadership consists of a “pursuit of a comfortable and rewarding life through the acquisition of material wealth, epitomized by obtaining the 5Cs: condominiums, cars, cash, credit cards, and country club memberships.”

[14] MAS, 2016: GDP per capita from US$500 in 1965 to a whooping US$56,000 in 2015

[15] STR, 2017: Ministry: poverty in Singapore jumped 43.45% in 3 years to a landmark high

[16] LKYSPP & IPS, 2012

[17] AAN, 2017: while official retirement age stands at 62, about 38% Singaporeans plan to work through retirement, whilst 27% said they will be over 70 when they retire.

[18] Chong, 2012

[19] TI, 2014

[20] TO, 2016: Enrolment at some elite JCs show education can spawn inequality: Study. Also, RWT, 2017: see annex, figure 1 for details on the JC merger conundrum.

[21] Rawls, 2005, p.65

[22] AO, 2016

[23] Cohen, 1995, p.44

[24] PWC, 2016: Singapore places at 3rd place with a low-medium corporate tax margin of 17%

[25] PWC, 2016: Hungary 9% places 60 US 35% places 2nd.

[26]TOC, 2012: Singapore has a high quality education system, English-equipped workforce, political stability, transparency, low taxes, and low corruption

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At Yale-NUS College, we are thinking about ideals of equality and democracy, and how they relate to practice, in Singapore and in the wider world.

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Articles were originally submitted as course papers for Professor Sandra Field’s classes Contemporary Egalitarianism and Democratic Theory.

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