Seah Chiang Nee wrote in The Star, Singapore is a middle class city. An estimated 70 percent of citizens consider themselves middle class rather than working class. Most are, of course, university graduates or diploma holders, whose numbers and role in society had steadily increased because of strong growth and people’s determination to get higher education. In turn, it helped to shape Singapore into what it is – a rich, middle-class society. Who forms the middle class? There is no universally accepted definition, but Singaporeans generally base it on earnings. People who earn S$4000-S$7000 (RM9,800-RM17,200) are considered middle and upper middle classes.[Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, May 5, 2012]

Surveys in the 1980s showed that most Singaporeans described themselves as middle class, justifying that status by their ownership of a Housing and Development Board apartment and the substantial and secure savings guaranteed by their Central Provident Fund Account. Families in the middle-income ranges usually occupied two- or three-bedroom apartments that they were buying from the Housing and Development Board, participated in one or more formal associations, took an active part in planning and supervising their children's education, stocked their apartments with a range of consumer appliances, and had money to spend on hobbies, sports, or vacations. Automobile ownership was not common, and most middle-income Singaporeans used public transportation. Their mode of life rested on occupational skills and educational qualifications, secure employment in large, bureaucratic government or private organizations, or ownership of their own small business. [Source: Library of Congress, 1989 *]

The upper levels of the society were occupied by a tripartite elite of high-level civil servants, local managers and professionals employed by foreign-owned multinational corporations, and wealthy Chinese businessmen who served as leaders in the associational world of the Chinese-speaking communities. The first two categories were marked by fluency in English, university-level education, often in Britain or the United States, and a cosmopolitan outlook reinforced by foreign residence and travel. Many of the Chinese businessmen were entrepreneurs who operated in an exclusively Chinese setting and often had minimal educational qualifications. Their sons, however, often were graduates of the best secondary schools and of local or foreign universities and worked either as English-speaking representatives of their fathers' businesses, as civil servants, or as professionals. Few of the elite had inherited their status, and all were aware that they could not directly pass it along to their children. Having themselves been upwardly mobile in a society more open to individual effort than most in the region, they valued that society's stress on competition, individual mobility, and success through hard work. In the domestic sphere, they expressed those values by devoting much effort to the education of their children. *

Upper Middle Class Singaporeans Enjoying Life

Yuppies often eat every night because they can afford to and have a house full of the latest electronics. On the upper middle class in Singapore, Seah Chiang Nee wrote in The Star, Generally, they include professionals, businessmen, managers, executives and, of course, high-earning senior civil servants and politicians. The upper middle class (UMC) is defined not only by its earnings or wealth but also by education, social influence and lifestyles. To me, the extent this group has advanced economically in the past decade or so has been phenomenal. I had realised it only in general terms, but too substantially. [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, November 28, 2009]

The upper middle class person has a car and a maid — possibly even two of each — and his family takes annual overseas trips every year. His growing emergence is the result of years of rapid economic expansion and an education system that pushed out tens of thousands of graduates ever year, particularly women. The economic power of the female professionals is one of the major factors for the phenomenon. The lifestyles of many of the residents are far more lavish than I had realised.

Staggering to me is the number of owners who spent S$150,000 to S$600,000 (RM366,000 to RM1.4mil) refurbishing or rebuilding their homes, adding one or two storeys. It has changed the landscape. This sort of money could buy a bungalow even in suburban America, let alone in most parts of Asia. Not many UMC folk have swimming pools or spas or are chauffeur-driven but they are not short of other luxuries. For lack of a better phrase, I’d call them Singapore’s “poorer class of millionaires”.

In a two-storey home, I saw various family members watching cable television on five 37-inch LCD sets in their own rooms. One was attached next to the dining table so that none needed to miss any programme while eating. In front of the house were parked two cars. When I mentioned it, a cable TV technician laughed: “You’re behind time. It’s quite common now. I just installed a set in a bathroom.” They send their children to study abroad, own several mobile phones, one for each family member (except possibly grandmum), and invest heavily in the latest high-tech gimmickry.

At one restaurant, a friend of mine saw a family of four eating a meal that included premium New Zealand beef and prime ribs for the children that cost about S$25 (RM61) each.

Some of the kids eat their school lunch at Japanese restaurants, update their mobile and table-top technology regularly — and go on European trips with classmates. Finance professor Francis Koh of the Singapore Management University was quoted by a newspaper as saying: “The profile of the wealthy is changing; the wealth is filtering to younger people. “Today’s rich Singaporeans are not only more willing to spend, but want to be seen doing so.” The really wealthy, estimated at 8-10 percent, are described as having at least S$1mil (RM2.4mil) in financial assets. In the past few years, Singapore has recorded more new millionaires than any other country in the world.

Next in line is the UMC; some economists estimate some 19-20 percent of Singaporeans belong to this group, with the broad middle class making another 37-40 percent. Estimates differ, sometimes widely, until a proper, detailed survey is carried out. On average, these high-earning individuals earn S$7000 (RM17,000) a month, possibly much more. The third part of today’s Singapore is the lower middle class and the poor, the republic’s biggest potential for social friction. They make up the bottom 30 percent of society.

Singapore’s Middle Class Under Pressure

Seah Chiang Nee wrote in The Star,“Singapore’s P-MET (pronounced Pee-met) – the acronym for Professionals, Managers, Executives and Technicians, a flourishing group of people who make up 51 percent of the workforce – is under stress. The first blow was struck by the demise of the industrial era here as well as the emergence of competitive giants like China and India that pushed down wages everywhere. Factories were closed or moved overseas and mass retrenchments followed, including executives and managers. A series of downturns and recessions added to the toll. In 2008, for example, 43.3 percent of retrenched Singaporeans were from this group. [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, May 5, 2012]

A new shadow now looms. This is the arrival of a small army of hungrier foreign P-METs who are always ready to accept lower wages. The influx of one million workers in the past 10 years included many poorer paid P-METs from India and the Philippines. Many ended up in finance, computer and multinational corporations, some of them easing out locals. The arrivals are a mixed bag. The majority comprises lower-paid workers, but also includes many extremely rich settlers.

The demographic infusion is continuing but the government, responding to public pressure, has recently reduced the number of approvals given out. It has eroded bit by bit the Singapore middle-class, already hit by economic changes. Another effect of globalisation is the monthly departure of 1000 Singaporeans to settle abroad for better opportunities and a more relaxed lifestyle. In the past 10 years, 97,990 Singaporeans (excluding small children), had left, the government said. Many are young and well-educated professionals.

The erosion of the middle class was first noticed three years ago in Japan, and to a lesser extent in Hong Kong and Taiwan before arriving here. It was enunciated as the M-shaped society by Japanese strategist Kenichi Ohmae, who noticed that among middle-class workers in Japan only a “very few” made it to the rich, while a greater number actually sank to the lower classes. For some middle-class Singaporeans, this sounds uncomfortably familiar.

Former Director of Internal Security Department (1971-74) Yoong Siew Wah wrote that “Singapore has 30,000 P-METs who have been unemployed for quite a long time, and we now have Chinese and Indian immigrants competing ... for the limited employment opportunities”. What do the unemployed P-METs do? Many work as taxi drivers, property agents, insurance agents, financial advisers, remisiers, or tuition teachers, said a surfer.

In recent years, the Lee Hsien Loong government responded to the furore by cutting down the number of foreign PRs and raising the pay ceiling for foreign professionals. Commentator Patrick Loh said: “If you look around, Singaporeans have lost many middle management and higher management jobs to foreigners for the past decade. “They are still losing these to them. The painful part is losing these jobs to lesser qualified candidates, just because they appear to fit the role better with a cheaper pay package,” he added.

Poverty in Singapore

The Singapore government does not release poverty statistics. Some estimate that about eight percent of Singapore's population live in poverty. According to the Manpower Ministry, the earnings of the poorest 20 percent had stagnated in the past 10 years, with real income rising only S$200 or 0.3 percent. The bottom 10 percent of households had an average annual income of S$3600 per member in 2006, up 6.6 percent from the previous year. The lowest 25 percent of the nation’s poor, who earned less than S$1200 (RM2900) a month in 2007. Half of them made no more than S$900 (RM2180).

A total of 339 homeless individuals and 15 homeless families (totalling 50 people) were found in 2009 — compared with 217 individuals and 17 families (comprising 82 people) in 2008. [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, March 20, 2010]

In its short history Singapore has made great progress reducing poverty. Authoritarian government such as South Korea, China, Indonesia, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia have done a better job at alleviating poverty than democracies such as India and the Philippines. Poverty defined by earning less than $230 a month jumped by 40 percent after the Asian economic crisis in 1997 and the number of workers earning less than that numbered 180,650, or about nine percent of the work force. In the early 2000s, a permanent underclass began to emerge. Members included the chronic unemployed, people who worked for low wages, and women with children who had been abandoned by their husbands.

The lowest income levels were those of single-person households, representing the elderly, the disabled, and those without kin in Singapore. Apart from the childless elderly and the disabled, those in moderate poverty in the 1980s were overwhelmingly working poor, holding unskilled jobs with no prospects for advancement. Such households typically had only one wage-earner with either primary education or no education and lived in rented housing and often a one-room or two-room Housing and Development Board apartment. Households with two or more members working, even at relatively low-paying jobs, were able to contemplate purchasing a Housing and Development Board apartment, save money for emergencies, and devote more resources to the education of children. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Much of the alleviation of poverty and decrease in income inequality that took place in the 1970s and 1980s resulted from the increased participation of women in the work force. In 1985, 46 percent of all women above the age of fifteen held paid employment; 68 percent of single women and 33 percent of married women worked outside the home. This trend was associated with women marrying later and having fewer children. One reason that more households attained an adequate standard of living in the 1980s was that there were more wives and unmarried daughters at work and fewer young children to be supported and looked after. *

Singapore’s globalisation strategy is creating significant inequalities and relative poverty. Thus, the ratio of the disposable income of the highest 20 percent to that of the lowest 20 percent has increased from 11.4 in 1990 to 20.9 in 2000. Singapore does not publish an official poverty line. The Workfare Income Supplement (WIS) scheme introduced in the 2007 budget for assisting low wage earners has the potential coverage equivalent of about a quarter of the resident labour force. There are many non-workers, particularly the ageing poor. So between a fifth and a quarter of the population may be classified as suffering from relative poverty. Moreover, the tax burden on capital income has been systematically reduced. [Source: HDS Greenway, Daily News and Analysis, Mumbai, India, February 21, 2007]

Poor Singaporeans and Slums for Foreign Workers

Sara Webb of Reuters wrote: “On Singapore streets it is increasingly common to see elderly people trying to make some money by selling small packets of tissues or cleaning tables in cheap eateries. The Straits Times newspaper reported that some Singaporeans were so poor they could not even afford public housing and were therefore homeless. "It's definitely a problem that the bottom half of the population where the income growth has been very very weak, these people are extremely vulnerable to economic restructuring and these are the people who really do need help," said Manu Bhaskaran, an economist at Centennial Group. [Source: Sara Webb, Reuters, February 15, 2007]

In 2012, Andrew Loh wrote in Yahoo News, “It was a bright afternoon. The innocent-looking, pastel-coloured façade of the row of buildings was deceiving. The passageway was as dark as night. You could hardly see the steps on the stairs. On the second floor lies the narrow doorway to the dormitory. Step inside and you are met with a room packed with 20 double-decker beds, stacked so tightly together there is hardly room to even walk or move around. The absence of storage space, such as cupboards or shelves, means possessions are strewn anywhere and everywhere. Laundry is aired or dried inside the dormitory as well, given that there is also a lack of space outdoors for drying. Windows line one side of the wall but they hardly provide adequate ventilation. The room reeks of stale air. There are 40 migrant workers in this one room. [Source: Andrew Loh, Yahoo News, SingaporeScene, December 29, 2012 */]

“This writer visited 4 dormitories in the same area and they all average 30 to 40 beds in each dormitory. This is not uncommon, nor surprising, to those who work with migrant workers. The SMRT drivers who recently went on strike and complained about having to share their rooms with 7 other workers, by comparison, had it good! Their complaints sparked a flurry of reaction from relevant authorities suddenly keen to look into the living conditions of migrant workers, despite many years of non-governmental organisations and activists raising these same concerns. */

“Admittedly, as far as the living conditions of foreign workers are concerned, there have been some improvement – there are now more purpose-built dormitories, more serious enforcement of the rules, and employers have been taken to task by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) for failing to provide adequate housing for their workers. Nonetheless, one wonders if these employers are only doing what any employer would do when faced with the rising costs of doing business. */

“In 2009, the MOM said that “acceptable accommodation is now readily available in purpose-built dormitories and there is no excuse for employers to house their workers in unapproved housing.” But just earlier this month, concerns have been raised about the rising rents of dormitories, and how all 39 purpose-built dormitories are already fully occupied. The squeeze is exacerbated by the influx of more such migrant workers the last couple of years, putting a strain on infrastructure. The government allows factory space in industrial estates to be converted to dormitories but they should meet certain requirements or benchmarks. Just take a walk around any of these industrial estates and visit these dormitories.” */

Families in Singapore Have Live on $133 a Month

In May 2000, The Straits Times reported: “Believe it or not, some families at the bottom of the pay scale lived on an average household income of $133 a month last year. The income of this group of workers who included cleaners, housekeeping and catering service workers and market stall workers dropped by 48 percent from 1998. The reasons for this fall could be pinned on the effects of the recession. But even in the non-recession year of 1990, the figure was an abysmal low at $370. [Source: The Straits Times, May 31, 2000 |=|]

“So how does a family survive on such an income? Chief statistician Paul Cheung explained that the snapshot figures for 1999 would have been obtained when the person was not working during the survey period. For the bottom 10 percent, many of the households have no income, he said. So the median income for this group would be zero. "When we take an average, the household income becomes very small,'' he said. |=|

“The $133 figure not only fell by nearly half from 1998, but is also well below subsistence level — DOS deems four-person households with a total income of less than $1000 to be poor. Even more startling, this figure is significantly lower than that in 1990, when it was $370. It means that in almost 10 years, those at the bottom have not made a single stride up the prosperity ladder. In fact, if you took inflation into account, they would be significantly worse off, in real terms. |=|

“Should there be alarm at these findings? Dr Paul Cheung of DOS thinks not, arguing that the vast majority of Singaporeans have benefited from economic growth. Only a fairly small proportion — unchanged at around 4 percent of households — has remained on or near the poverty line. In addition, government measures to help households tide over the recession had cushioned the severity of wage depression and income inequality. The Gini coefficient, which is an indicator of income inequality on a scale of zero to one, showed that government measures such as tax, housing, and utility rebates, brought the index down from 0.467 to 0.437 in 1999.” |=|

Charity and Hard Times in Singapore

During the global financial crisis in 2008-2009, Seah Chiang Nee wrote in The Star, “Public donations to charity last year hit a record S$820mil (RM1.9bil), 50 percent more than in 2006. The bigger stories come from those who contribute efforts to help the poor, the sickly and the aged, the dysfunctional families and abused children. With retrenchments increasing, more people in wealthy Singapore are queuing up for free food. [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, December 20, 2008 //\ ]

“The phenomenon will make social work (shunned by many youths because of its low pay) grow in importance in the years ahead. Some of the cases: 1) The Singapore Buddhist Lodge serves up to 5000 free meals to the needy each weekend, a 30 percent rise this year. They include foreigners; all are fed as long as the food lasts, no questions asked. Once a donor drove up with 900 bottles of cooking oil. 2) The Central Sikh Temple serves free vegetarian Indian meals to 600 daily; the rising food cost is affecting handouts. 3) Some 1200 single and poor families are getting food rations from a joint effort by a Taoist and a Hindu temple. Another smaller monastery gives free meals to 200 people every day. //\

“There are many others – too numerous to mention – including a host of contributing Muslims and mosques. This decline in reliance on the government shows society’s maturity. In the past, people relied too much on official help.” //\

Free Meals Heaven Sent for Singapore’s Poor in Times of High Inflation

In May 2008, AFP reported: “Singapore may be one of Asia's wealthiest nations but soaring food prices have hit its poor hard, as can be seen by the queues at the Singapore Buddhist Lodge, which serves daily free vegetarian meals. For Tay Soon Kin, a cleaner, the meals dished up by temple volunteers have been a much-needed helping hand as soaring food prices hit Singapore's poor. Singapore's per capita is US$28,730, but Tay earns far less than that, just S$700 (US$515) a month.He says it is barely enough to feed his family of five. [Source: Agence France Presse, May 4, 2008 ]

“For the last few months Tay has been walking to the temple at least three times a week, he says, from the nearby office building where he works. Eating the temple's free food helps him save whatever he can for his family, which includes three children. "I earn only $700 and it is not enough. Every cent that I can save from my lunch helps a lot," he told AFP after finishing a simple meal of rice, stir-fried vegetables and watermelon for dessert. "Prices have gone up, including food. How to survive on my salary alone?" he said with a rueful smile.

“With inflation at a 26-year high, charities say more people are joining queues for free meals. Latest government figures showed inflation in March rose by an annual 6.7 percent, pushed in part by higher food prices which increased 7.6 percent during the month. Singapore's inflation averaged 0.7 percent over the past decade but it has soared since the first half of last year when it was 0.8 percent. The Singapore Buddhist Lodge says it has seen an increase of more than 30 percent in the number of people turning up for free breakfast, lunch and dinner. "Wages have gone up but so has the cost of living so they are not earning enough," said lodge president Lee Bock Guan. "They try to save as much as they can so where there are free meals, they will go, as every bit of savings means a lot to them," he said.

“The temple now cooks about 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of rice daily but on weekends the figure rises to 300-400 kilograms when the lodge caters to about 5000 people. That compares with 3000 people three months ago, Lee said, adding that they are cooking 40 percent more food, on average. "There are more people, and also regular people who are coming back more frequently to ask for help," said Baey. "The recent increase in food prices is adding pressure on their living expenses," he said. Apart from vouchers, Baey's constituency also gives out 100 bags of food rations, including rice and oil, to needy residents every month.

“Political analyst Seah Chiang Nee says the poor are hardest-hit partly because the city-state has virtually no social safety net. "'Subsidy' is a dirty word in Singapore. So when food prices go up, their budgets get affected," said Seah. Ng Soo Gek, a 94-year-old widow, says she gets a free daily lunch and keeps some of it for later so she does not spend extra on food. "I eat a little and I split the meal into lunch and dinner," she said at the Care Corner Seniors Activity Centre, which serves breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea without charge.

“A worker at the centre said rising inflation has led to a 10 percent increase in the number of elderly citizens turning up for the free meals in just two months. Ng receives 180 Singapore dollars a month in financial aid from religious groups, and said the rising cost of food has had a significant impact. "If I didn't come here to eat, I would have starved to death," she said.”

Singapore’s Growing Underclass

Hamish MacDonald wrote in Al Jazeera, “Modern Singapore has never really had a problem with poverty, but globalisation and an aging population are changing that. A growing number of Singaporeans are now struggling to make ends meet - forcing radical changes to social and fiscal policy in a country where welfare remains a dirty word. Tan Ching Hoo is 62 years old. He used to work as a waiter, but now he collects cardboard for a living. For every kilogram, he earns the equivalent of 65 cents. "Whether I like or not, I have no choice," he says. "I have to earn money." His son pays the rent of $50 a month for a one room apartment. [Source: Hamish MacDonald, Al Jazeera, May 5, 2007 ^]

“But Tan is not alone.Eight percent of Singapore's population is said to live in poverty and increasing numbers are joining that new class of urban poor. Sinapan Samydorai of the Think Centre, an independent political research group, says for years Singapore was built around a concept of affluence, and was simply not prepared for the idea of poverty. "Welfare was a dirty word in Singapore, even now. They don't encourage welfare." ^

“Globalisation created Singapore's economic miracle, reinforcing the self-styled image of the 'lion city'. But it also brought cheaper migrant labour, and that has made it hard for an ageing population to compete. While most countries have their disadvantaged, what makes Singapore different is that a country now known as one of the most affluent in Asia is developing what is being described as an underclass. ^

“Singapore's government has now acknowledged there is a problem and in this year's budget it introduced what it calls "bold" new welfare payments. Sylvia Lim, a member of parliament for the opposition Workers Party, says this represents something of a sea change in Singapore's policy towards welfare. "This is quite radical for Singapore," she says. "We have always lived under this system where you have to earn every cent that you get basically and now the government recognises that there are some people who just can't earn enough now." ^

“Singapore's emerging underclass may be relatively small now, but its growth could threaten the political dynamic in what is effectively a one-party state. Chua Hak Bin, a Singapore-based economist with Citigroup, says this is the first time the government has acknowledged the issue. "There will be some social pressures, there will be a group that will be marginalised, " he says. "I guess what is important though is that it is being recognised and the government is trying to do something to help those people." ^

“Back at his small one room flat Mr Tan has yet to sign up for any of the government's new assistance programs. The paperwork he says is just too complicated. Even in pragmatic Singapore old habits die hard, and welfare, both giving and receiving, might take some getting used to.” ^

End to Promise of a Secure Life in Singapore?

In 2004, Seah Chiang Nee wrote in The Star, “For three decades, the City Fathers had installed a highly regulated control system for their citizens on jobs, rising assets and almost every social aspect of their lives from cradle to grave. With the unpredictable “twin” of a changing economy and technology, this is no longer possible. During the golden era, a job was tantamount to being an unwritten right of being born Singaporean. Also diminishing is a host of other things such as pay rise, bonus, strong property values – in fact, the promise of a secure predictable life. [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, February 22, 2004 =]

“It’s not just jobs but life in general. Take this newspaper report warning parents about the dangers of the Internet. Nearly one in five Singaporean children aged 12 to 17 (according to a varsity research) met a stranger face-to-face after a chat-room encounter, compared to 16 percent in Nordic countries. And one in 10 actually believed they were meeting another teenager, not an adult. Almost two out of three youngsters are visiting pornographic sites. =

“Senior citizens, too, have their own problems. More elderly women, illiterate and vulnerable, are conned by smooth-talking “magic stones” and “snake oil” salesmen, most of them from abroad. Among lonely elderly men in the heartland, the threat comes from another direction. An increasing number is falling prey to younger women from China who offer companionship, gain their trust, then cheat them of their savings. =

“The chat-sites have their share of such tales. I encountered one during a recent blood test at the Singapore General Hospital. I saw a weeping 60-plus gentleman being consoled by two nurses and learned that his “China mistress” of eight months had taken S$60,000 of his money and left him. “He kept saying his life was over and that he had nothing left,” one nurse said.

“From the young to the very old, Singaporeans are finding this new high-tech world a distinctly less friendlier place where no government laws can protect them. Last November, a family man was reported to be selling his home after being cheated of S$330,000 in a Nigerian e-mail scam. At the same time, 32 Singaporeans who paid a company several thousand dollars to help them resell their time-share investments were chasing around to recover their money. Many of them – well-educated professionals – had made two bad decisions. The first was being pressured into buying time-share programmes without proper study and, second, paying someone they didn’t know to help them out of the first. =

“Having lived under a safety net for so long, many Singaporeans are finding it hard to fend for themselves against some of these modern excesses. This prompted one Singaporean (who returned after being away for two and a half years) to write: “I visited 63 places in Europe. None of them was like Singapore. Not London, not Paris, not Amsterdam! “We have lifts that serve every floor of some HDB blocks. Walkways shelter us from our flats to the MRT stations. There are television sets on buses. Bangladeshis clear the plates at hawker centres and many of us have parents to do the cooking and washing up. “Singaporeans are very lucky and things come to us too easily, without having to work for them. “People complain when they need to climb a flight of stairs. Life in Singapore is too comfortable.” He urged the government to stop spoon-feeding Singaporeans. “Give us the space to grow up to make our own decisions.”

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Singapore Tourism Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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