The cost of prosperity

Our regular readers will have noticed that we strive to write and comment on what’s happening in Singapore with a fair and balanced point of view. But last week some members of the editorial team – including me – got so enraged at something we read online that we almost broke character.

What could get us so riled up? Well, like most public outcries, it all started with a misunderstanding.

While going through my Facebook newsfeed I stumbled on an article titled “Singapore society will be poorer with more millionaires and billionaires”. “Hmmm”, I thought, “another pointless debate about whether successful people should be ashamed of their hard work?”

Before I clicked on the link I read the status one of my contacts had written to go along with the link: “PM Lee says he wants to attract 10 more billionaires even if it means driving up the Gini co-efficient! How dare he??!”

That headline really annoyed me; could our PM really say something so stupid? If so, then how come my newsfeed wasn’t full of angry posts? If not, why would anyone so blatantly lie?

I decided to calm down and get a cup of tea before investigating further.

A few minutes of online research led me to this article which summed up the PM’s full speech at the inaugural DBS Asia Leadership Dialogue. As I read the summary I couldn’t find anything on wilfully ignoring dangerous social and economic divides in the name of increasing prosperity.

Instead, I found some fairly insightful stances on what Singapore must do to stay ahead in the global economy and how income inequality won’t necessarily be improved by hindering its advantageous position: “If the economy was stagnant, it doesn’t mean everybody’s going to be happy, and it may be equally unequal”.

True. But the opposite is also true: a vibrant and dynamic economy won’t magically take people out of poverty or resolve deep disparities. But a government is much more likely to be able to do so if it has the necessary funds to back up its ambitions.

As the PM puts it: “I cannot make everybody a billionaire, but I can make sure everybody can earn a good living for himself. I think that’s possible”.

Makes sense, right?

Then came the misinterpreted quote which also sent me in a frenzy: “if I can get another 10 billionaires to move to Singapore and set up their base here, my Gini coefficient will get worse but I think Singaporeans will be better off, because they will bring in business, bring in opportunities, open new doors and create new jobs, and I think that is the attitude with which we must approach this problem”.

This is where people were quick to judge and modified his wording to make him say what he didn’t say.

He didn’t say “I prioritise billionaires above all else and don’t care what the consequences are for the Gini coefficient”. He said “Yes, attracting billionaires to Singapore will negatively impact the Gini coefficient in the short term, but I am convinced it will be beneficial to all Singaporeans in the long run”.

Not the same, right? The first interpretation makes him sound heartless and even ignorant of what Singaporeans expect of their leaders while the second one shows he knows perfectly well that there are obstacles and side-effects but that these are the cost for a durably prosperous society.

Don’t get me wrong, I strongly feel like we can discuss the soundness of this strategy. In fact, I believe it is our duty as citizens to debate what our leaders say.

But what I don’t agree with is getting people on one side of the argument by intentionally misrepresenting and misinterpreting what they said.

If you’re going to weigh in in a debate, don’t modify people’s words, otherwise you’re misleading the very premise of the debate and thus discredit any conclusion you reach as a result.

So whether you’re a reader or a writer of all things Singapore, make sure you’re not putting words into anybody’s mouth, whether it’s a high ranking official or a regular man on the street.

In my humble opinion, that’s the only way we’ll be able to elevate political discussions in our country.

  1. Hi Alvin,

    Nice article. I think a lot of locals think that when billionaires settle in Singapore, they do nothing but just drive up the cost of living in Singapore. You need a separate article to address this conception or misconception.

    For example in Australia, if you want to migrate there and your net worth is in the millions, you need to prove that you invest there before they give you citizenship. I wonder is there a similar rule in SG.

  2. I am not sure what evidence PM relied on to believe that bringing in millionaires and billionaires from abroad would create new jobs for Singaporeans.

    In any case, it appears at least for now that those foreign companies face significant difficulties employing Singaporeans (citing that Singaporean graduates lack many of the characteristics they are looking for; maybe we have to take a second look at our education system if we really want this to work?). As a result, few Singaporeans work in these companies and even if they do, they don’t usually take up good positions (e.g. back office jobs in the investment banking sector).

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