Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Standard of Living

"The Government distributed back to Singaporeans a good part of the wealth generated from this strong economic growth. We shared close to $14 billion through asset-enhancement programmes and endowment funds. We invested in better healthcare, housing and education. Singaporeans' standard of living went up considerably."-Former Singapore PM, Goh Chok Tong in his 2001, National Day Rally Speech

Six Years On, I would like to question the standard of living that exist in Singapore. It is no secret that our former Prime Minister wished for a 'swiss standard of living' for all Singaporeans. Yet have we achieved this goal?

As a progressive nation (at least in the economic context), we pride ourselves as one of the most developed in Asia. Compared to our surrounding neighbours, Singapore boast a strong dollar, vast financial reserves, high standards of living and a cosmopolitan population. There has even been talk that Singapore wants to emulate cities like New York and London. In fact one only has to go down to Marina Bay to look at the gigantic 'London Eye' that occupies a once barren land. Singapore is prepared to transcend boundaries in the bid to become one of the most attractive cities in the world.

Yet, beneath this superficial layer of concrete and wealth lies a small population of people in dire need. These people have no idea with regards to the government's blueprint for Singapore's future. Their most immediate concern is to get over their next meal. In fact, this small population of people who live in such frugal conditions are increasing.

Today, I noticed more buskers and beggars in our prime district of Orchard Road than in the past. And this is a worrying problem for Singapore.

As I was chilling out with my friends in starbucks outlet in Orchard today, I was shocked by the desperation of one beggar. As my seat was positioned next to the main door, I was victim to one of the most depressing encounters ever. One moment I was talking happily to my friends, the next moment, I felt a tug on my shirt. I turned around to see a pitiful young man kneeling on the floor. With his head bowed, he grabbed my arm and shook it violently. Meanwhile he was mumbling that he was not begging me but he was in a desperate need for two dollars.

My first reaction was of fear. A fear that he might be a robber trying to reach for my wallet. My next reaction was one of shock. Shock at the absurdity of his tactics. He was literally grabbing my arm, refusing to let go. He was almost on all fours as well, going into a maniac trance, raising just two fingers, signalling his intent for 2 dollars. With a mixture of fear and shock, I tried to push him away. His persistance finally waned when my friend tapped his arm and told him that we can't accede to his request.

Reluctantly, he stood up and proceeded, head bowed all the way to the next table. Again he repeated his act. The lady who was monitoring his prior action at my table opened her purse and handed him two dollars. Without a word of thanks he was off and shoving the note into his pocket.

This act was repeated from table to table. And it left the patrons at starbucks visibly shocked.

Mind you, this was not some HDB heartland. This act occured in the middle of a posh starbucks coffee outlet right smack in orchard road. Was this beggar so desperate as to target patrons of starbucks with such aggressiveness? Was it because the standard of living in Singapore was so high that he has no choice but to target people with higher social status? How about the fact that maybe the standard of living has went up so high that he had no choice but to employ such tactics just to survive?

It is mind-boggling that such acts of desperation are occuring in Singapore. It is ironic to see the government claim that Singapore has achieved a considerably high standard of living and yet on the ground, we are seeing people like this man in green begging so desperately for a few dollars.

In fact this upward trend is manifesting itself on foreigners as well.

I am sure most of you heading through the underpass to wheelock place would have noticed this busker. I highly doubt that this man is local. This sight begs the question, how is this busker a foreign talent? This question prompted me to engage a discussion with my friend. We were wondering, why is a foreigner busking? Doesn't Singapore have strict laws on supposed foreign talents? Is busking slowly losing it's competitive edge? Must we introduce foreigners so as not to make the local buskers develop a 'crutch mentality'? I tried to stifle a chuckle when the last question was thrown up.

Indeed, the situation in Singapore is depressing. Young and Old, Foreign and Local are feeling the brunt of a increasing standard of living. Yet on the surface, Singapore looks like it has already achieved everything. Foreigners never fail to praise the efficency, cleaniness and quality of living in Singapore.

Sadly, this praise has gone a tad off tangent. Scratch the surface and Singapore is affronted with possibly an increasing number of people stuck in the poverty trap. Something has to be done to help these people.

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