Poor in Singapore?
October 31, 2001
By Jacqueline Wong

Opposition makes foreign workers election issue

POOR in Singapore? You have to look hard in a nation with a reputation for being affluent and tech-savvy.

But the opposition Workers' Party has labelled the city state's middle class 'the New Poor' and hopes this will win them votes in Saturday's election.

Elections are often bombastic affairs but the slogan rings a bell with the unemployed and disenfranchised as Singapore suffers its worst recession since 1964.

"No point shouting down the concept of New Poor," said Sinapan Samydorai, executive director of the non-partisan Think Centre. "This is a new reality that is coming up. No point saying we will only deal with the financially very poor."

Per capita income of about US$24,000 puts the city state on a par with Belgium and Britain but does not necessarily reflect the pay packet of the average Singaporean.

A monthly salary of S$5000 (US$2750) is considered high and many workers make do with a third or a quarter of that. For the 25,000 people expected to lose their jobs this year, there is little welfare or unemployment benefits to fall back on.

Singapore has few destitute people sleeping on the streets but rising costs and competition are making many feel they are the middle "sandwiched" class.

Philip Ang, a 40-year-old buyer of mechanical equipment for a multinational company, has been worried about losing his job since early this year and knows the prospects for new positions are getting dimmer.

"Ever since September 11, there has not been much work in this region," he said.

"The chances of being called up for an interview are much less now. There are no positions to fill, companies are freezing employment. The only way for people my age is to upgrade."


The image of Singapore is one of expensive cars, shopping malls, mobile phones and consumers cruising fancy boutiques but this is not the reality for thousands without education or skills.

After 9.9 percent growth last year, Singapore slumped into recession even before the September 11 attacks on the United States and is expected to stay in negative terrain until at least the middle of next year.

Unemployment is likely to hit 4.5 percent by the end of this year and the country of four million people has been told to brace for a deep, long recession.

The long-ruling People's Action Party (PAP) effectively won another term last week as the splintered opposition contested only 29 of 84 seats for the November 3 poll.

But the opposition is making jobs, healthcare and the cost of living into an issue as hard times encroach on all segments of society through corporate layoffs, restructuring and mergers.

The gap between the haves and have-nots is getting wider, underscored by the fact that some 70 percent of Singaporeans do not pay income tax because they earn less than the minimum taxable income or else come in for other benefits.

Poverty is relative and can mean a loss of security -- like the white collar worker who has lost a steady job and is having difficulty meeting basic expenses.

"It is a relativistic definition which relates poverty not only to physical needs but also to the norms and expectations of society," said James Gomez of the Workers' Party.

He said some economists argue that the island nation, while having attained a first world per capita income, has an income structure closer to that of a third world country.

Strapped for cash, thousands lined up for hours last week to get some relief from the S$2.7 billion in New Singapore Shares handed out by the government as part of a S$11.3 billion stimulus package to help