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An Old Man, a Girl, and a $50 Note by Lynette Lim

Dear Friends,

The deepest regret I have comes from when I was eight years old and living in Singapore. The usual routine after school was that at about 1:00 I would drop by my mom’s office and do my homework there while she worked. That day, my mom decided to give me a $50 bill and send me off to buy my own lunch at Burger King. I felt proud that I could do this myself. There were about five people in line as I waited for my turn. All eyes were on a man in his seventies with filthy clothes making his way very, very slowly toward the front. There was a stench surrounding him and his eyes were averted toward the floor. He shuffled his feet like a penguin, and in his hand he was tightly holding a two-dollar note. He proceeded directly to the front and without a word banged his two-dollar note on the countertop, his eyes still looking only at the floor. I looked at the menu on the wall and noticed that there was nothing there that cost two dollars or less. The young boy at the counter said sorry, there was nothing that cost two dollars. He tried speaking in English, and then his supervisor came speaking in Chinese, but the old man kept banging the bill and trying to hand the money to the boy. I looked at the adults queueing in line. They stood there trying to look as if they were invisible.  I looked at my $50 bill. I wanted so much to walk to the front and tell the boy that I would pay for this old man, but I was frightened and embarrassed. I didn’t want to make a scene or be a showoff with my large bill, so I stood quietly, too. Finally, after five or ten minutes that seemed like an eternity, the old man clutched his two dollars and shuffled his way out the door, disappearing into the crowd.

Over the years I have replayed this scene in my mind numerous times, wondering what happened to this man. Did he eat that day? Did he die of hunger eventually, in full awareness that no one cared? As an eight-year-old, what did I know, anyway?  But I knew enough about hunger, and I knew that on that day I had made the world a worse place by my cowardice and failure to act. But why couldn’t anyone have spared $0.40 so he could have bought some fries?

vector illustration August 9th Singapore's independence day. city-state Singapore National Day. celebration republic, graphic for design element.

This month, Singapore will be celebrating the 54th anniversary of its independence and also commemorating the 200th anniversary of the British East India Company setting up a trading post on the main island. But the history of Singapore does not begin in 1819 with the British - the history of Singapore stretches back 700 years.  In the 14th century we were a busy maritime trading hub, governed by Siamese and Javanese rulers. Singapore has been called by many names throughout history, including Temasek, which means “Sea Town” in Malay; Dao Yi Zhi Lue, meaning “Barbarians of the Isles”; and Puo Luo Chong, “The Island at the End of the Peninsula.”  The name Singapore comes from Sang Nila Utama, a prince from Palembang, who according to legend was out on a hunting trip and saw an animal that he never seen before.  Taking it as a good omen, he named the island Singapura - “Lion City.”

If you travel to Singapore for the first time, you will be impressed by the Marina Bay Sands Hotel with its boat-shaped deck on top of the building, as well as the clean streets and low crime. I like to tell first-time visitors that Singapore is like the Disneyland of Asia – where things actually work.

If you happen to be in Singapore, I recommend going to this multi-media show that tells the story of Singapore:

The economic growth of Singapore has been nothing short of a miracle.  It has been a textbook example of how strong leadership, visionary fiscal policies, free market capitalism, rule of law, and the education of its people can transform an undeveloped country.  The GDP per capita was less than USD $320 in the 1960s; it has risen to $60,000 today.  Singapore now boasts of being among the top five countries in terms of millionaires per capita. The popular book and Hollywood movie Crazy Rich Asians, while sensational, gives you a glimpse of how the ultra-rich live in the ASEAN region.

Among the current tumults of the US-China trade wars and a post-Brexit world, many UK politicians, including Jeremy Hunt, have advocated Singapore as a country to look up to:

We have indeed relied on our great port, infrastructure, and business-friendly policies to build what Singapore is today.

But on this trip back to Singapore, I opened my eyes and heart a little wider and sensed the growing cloud of overhanging anxiety to stay ahead of the rat race, even among my own friends who are living far and well above the median household income. They talk about the rising cost of living in Singapore,  the fragility of job security, the general lack of space, the tensions over their kids getting into good schools, and how much extra tuition they pay for their children just not to be left behind. They talk about how vulnerable Singapore is as a nation to trade war tensions. While I am assured that my friends will be fine economically, amidst the glamor of exotic events like the grand prix and the new Jewel Changi Airport lies a growing strata of people being left behind. I see the very old, hunchbacked, packing old carton boxes in the streets; I see the forgotten clearing the plates in the hawker centres. I see the guardians of public toilets charging 10 cents, or 20 cents with tissue. I see them selling packets of tissues in public. Have they been left behind?  Part of me says, “Well , at least they have a job,” while the other part of me says, “Where is their family?” In sharp contrast, my grandma who is 89 this year has two domestic helpers and loved ones surrounding her 24/7.

One measurement of income disparity is the Gini coefficient, where 0 represents total income equality. Singapore’s Gini coefficient for 2018 after adjusting for tax and transfers is 0.404.  This is better than the US but worse than countries like Japan or Korea.  The good news is that this number has dropped, so the trend is towards the right direction. Some other facts about poverty in Singapore: one tenth of Singaporeans are currently living in poverty, which is defined as a basic living expenditure below $1,250 per month. A rather controversial report by Oxfam last year ranked Singapore among the bottom ten countries in the world in terms of reducing inequality based on the index they created, the Commitment To Reducing Inequality Index 2018; Singapore had dropped 63 sports from the 86th ranking to 149th ranking. They cited Singapore’s low ranking due to “harmful tax practices,” where essentially not enough taxes are raised from the rich and the maximum personal tax income remains low.

 Those of us who studied Economics know that how and what you measure determines the outcome, so even the decision of what to measure is highly subjective. In other words, it is so easy to jump to conclusions if you lack understanding of what the measurement actually is.   (Read more about the Oxfam report here: )

Oxfam’s criticism of how much the rich pay in tax percentages as “harmful tax practices” subscribes to the old familiar “Robin Hood” belief, that the rich should and must pay for misfortunes of the poor, of course ignoring the fact that in many countries with high tax percentages the Gini Coefficient might be higher. It is not that simple. Singapore’s leader - the founder for modern Singapore, the late Lee Kuan Yew, who spend his tertiary education in the UK - was always vocal about his opinion that Singapore should not become a welfare nation like the UK.

While there is no definite yardstick to measure poverty, economists estimate that a good 10-14% of Singaporeans face severe financial problems and have difficulties meeting basic needs, hunger being a real issue for many. Among the most affected by poverty are the old, who saw a 70% increase in required subsidies and aid from the government.

So some forty years later, I see the face of the old man again. I see his hunger but most of all I see his shame.  Will I now do something or do I stand in line and pretend not to see?

I totally agree with the sentiments of Tommy Koh from his article “My Birthday Wishes for Singapore His third wish for Singapore: to reduce the number of Singaporeans living in absolute poverty to zero.
He further elaborates: “We should have the courage to follow the international best practice and set the poverty line, at 50 percent of our median income, which would be $2,200 and ensure that our workers earn wages above the poverty line.”

While the problems and causes of poverty are complex, it requires a very holistic approach to solve this, not simply one action or policy alone. But I believe that this is a laudable goal that can be achieved.  

We have seen the story of Singapore: from a sleepy fishing port to a British colony to a nation kicked out of Malaysia and now set to become an economic powerhouse in Asia. What will the next fifty years of Singapore be like?  My hope for Singapore is that, beyond GDP growth, we should become a more empathetic, caring society. Let the next 50 years show that while we continue to push for excellence and economic growth, we also do not forget those of us who are weaker and might be left behind. Let’s build a society based on our Asian values of taking care of the old and build a more inclusive society. Maybe we should create another measurement not based on GPD or productivity outputs, but on how much time people spend with their loved ones and how much money we are giving away per capita.

Remembering the pledge that I used to recite every morning at school: