Last week's Sunday Times had something like 3 articles on how to save money during the recession- buy no frills housebrand goods, use less electricity and eat less meat. I suggest Straits Times not waste its space because most Singaporeans have already been forced to trim down during the "good years" due to relentless hikes - GST, transport, electricity, govt fees, kindergarden fees etc etc. We already know what to do because the good years were also lean years for many Singaporeans. With the recession, retrenchments are expected to hit sometime in Dec 2008. I think more people will go into this recession with near zero savings than in all previous recessions because of the income gap and the relentless price hikes of recent years. Telling them to tighten their belts to spend less doesn't really make sense because they have hardly enough to make ends meet and have been cutting down to the barebones minimum. We saw more poverty during the 2007 economic boom than ever before - regressive taxation, rising income gap, elimination of workers' benefits, rising costs, imported labor etc. What do you think will happen during this recession?
In the very abrupt 1998 recession when scores of Singaporeans were suddenly retrenched and found themselves desperate for help there was no social safety net in place to take care of them. Everything was done in a piecemeal fashion with the unemployed going to the MPs for help. The MPs had to understand what was needed and some token amount was given out as help on the spot. You might think that there were lessons learnt and some kind of comprehensive system should be put in place by now....but once the economy got back on its feet, the govt is sort of busy with the business as usual. With the type of economic system we have in Singapore today, many workers will hit ground zero they day they receive their pink slips because retrenchment benefits were eliminated some time back. They need quick instant help for their immediate needs.
The piecemeal approach of distributing help - queuing up at the MP's office not knowing what help you will get because there is no system in place only adds to the stress. Given the PAP's great fear of giving you too much, the minimum will be will probably be given after an on the spot means test. If the person gets sick, what does he do? Probably let the body heal itself because he has no money to see the doctor. I always wondered what happens if you turn up at the polyclinic sick and without money - will they see you? I don't know and many Singaporeans don't know. May be they will take you to a room ask you to go home and produce all the documentary proof that you have no money before they treat you. Already we are seeing poor Singaporeans not going to the A&E when they really need to do so because they don't have the $65 to pay upfront when they are there.
You might think it is commonsense to have a comprehensive system in place that is well understood by all Singaporeans so that when a crisis of the magnitude we are seeing hits and the bottom falls out, people have to be very clear about the help they can get so they can have some confidence going forward. Giving out help in a piecemeal fashion puts the people under tremendous unnecessary stress. The feller who cannot pay his electricity bill and is given a voucher probably also cannot pay for his child's primary school fees and transport, medical cost, rent and a whole array of expenses. The problem with having a system in place to give help to Singaporeans is this is sometimes called a welfare system ...and welfare is a dirty word for the PAP govt. But it is the PAP govt that created this system in which income gap is the highest among developed countries and frequent hikes by GLCs and the govt takes away the little bit many could have saved for rainy days to boost the corporate profits of Singapore Inc. When the ordinary Singaporean goes down, his plight is as much is own doing as it is result of the system.
Our govt is the most highly paid in the world. During crisis, we expect to see leadership. Hopefully not the same stardard of leadership (or rather lack of leadership) we saw in the recent Lehman Minibonds issue when authorities initially appear to distance themselves from a problem they might created deregulating such products. There don't seem to be any hesitation to 'squeeze' Singaporeans during the 'good' times....but are we going to see a reactive govt dithering on the help for ordinary citizens as the recession worsens? Leadership is about being on top of the situation and not reacting to it. What is about to unfold is foreseeable....so the govt response to impending job losses should also be clear, systematic and reassuring. We don't expect a govt that is paid the highest in the world to go for a minimalist approach when it comes to helping ordinary citizens in troubled times. A system has to be put in place in the coming weeks and clearly articulated to the people before the queues at MP offices stretches around the block.