Rebutting “Singapore has never been winner takes all”

I refer to the 3 July 2014 Straits Times letter “S’pore has never been winner-take-all society” by Mr Cheng Shoong Tat.

Mr Cheng took issue with the “winner takes all” description of Singapore society. The Oxford Reference website http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803124206571 explains a winner-takes-all market as:

an occupational labour market in which there are widely differing rates of pay for those performing ostensibly the same kind of work. Those at the top of their profession will earn very high, and arguably disproportionate, salaries for the work that they perform. The emergence of winner-takes-all labour markets has been identified widely in higher skilled occupations (managers and professionals) in developed economies and is one of the factors associated with rising income inequality; inequality is increasing, that is, within as well as between occupational groups in the labour market.

So a winner-takes-all society is simply a society where the successful takes more than his fair share of the spoils of society while the less successful takes less than his fair share. It is not an unfair description of Singapore society given our high GINI coefficient and our high PISA score which suggests high inequality despite high level of ability from the average person.

Mr Cheng insisted that Singapore capitalism has always been far more benign than United States’ or Hong Kong’s. However, United Nations University data (http://www.wider.unu.edu/research/WIID-3a/en_GB/wiid/) shows quite the opposite instead. US capitalism has always been far more benign than Singapore’s while Hong Kong’s capitalism has been no worse than ours.

gini

Mr Cheng pointed to HDB providing a roof over most Singaporeans’ heads with sustainable mortgage payments. If HDB mortgage payments have been sustainable, how come so many Singaporeans retiring today don’t have the minimum sum in their CPF?

Mr Cheng pointed to our virtually free education. But all First World nations give virtually free and most give absolutely free education. Does Mr Cheng not realize that the few ablest who went on to study at Oxbridge on the state’s account is an example of winner-takes-all?

Mr Cheng pointed to no one dying in the street and no hospital operation being delayed due to cost or doubt of patient’s ability to pay. But even in Indonesia you don’t find people dying in the street so what relevance is dying in the street? No hospital operation being delayed is because people like the 95 year old Samsui woman distinguished in the 2007 National Day celebrations opted to commit suicide instead.

According to Mr Cheng, if Singapore is winner takes all,

• Newly married couples wouldn’t be able to sell their HDB flats after 5 years to make a profit
• Winners would be able to buy their children a place in a choice secondary school
• Winners would be treated in private hospitals where the best doctors and equipment are while losers get treated in public hospitals where third rate doctors and equipment are.

Mr Cheng:

• Where will couples stay after selling their flats? Must they emigrate from Singapore to become winners?
• Being able to afford a better learning environment, better learning materials or private tuition doesn’t count towards winning?
• Don’t the best doctors move on to private practice after some time? Doesn’t that lead to the best doctors being in private hospitals?

Mr Cheng pointed to government transfers from the more successful to the less successful. But what is the point of making the less successful so terribly unsuccessful first then transferring some success to them? Why not just make sure they have some minimum standard of success to begin with?

Mr Cheng warned of the danger of comparing with the successful rather than with some reasonable benchmark. Mr Cheng’s reasonable benchmarks are:

• No one dying in the street – Indonesia
• No hospital operation delayed due to cost – Malaysia
• Nearly free education – Indonesia or Malaysia
• Treatment in government hospitals – Indonesia or Malaysia

From the Swiss standard of living in the 1990s, we have now moved on to the very reasonable Southeast Asian standard of living.

Mr Cheng explained that the bell curve naturally separates the successful from the rest, so the only way to give similar rewards to both the successful and less successful is to level down the former, but this will not help the latter. But bell curves can be very broad or very narrow. How does Mr Cheng know that the Singapore bell curve is by nature very broad and not narrow like those of Europe? So instead of leveling down the successful, giving similar rewards to both successful and less successful can be achieved by narrowing the bell curve.

Mr Cheng said never mind the GINI as long as people live healthy, productive and dignified lives according to some reasonable benchmark. Going by Mr Cheng’s reasonable benchmark, Singaporeans should be content with Malaysian or Indonesian standard of living. But is it not unfair that Singaporeans pay Singapore cost of living but only enjoy Malaysian or Indonesian standard of living?

Mr Cheng reminded us that a fair and just society should never prevent one from living better than one’s neighbour. In the same token, a fair and just society should never allow one to live far better than one deserves or another to live far worse than he deserves.

Rebut healthy dose of realism

I refer too to the 12 Mar 2014 Straits Times letter “Healthy dose of realism” by Dr Yik Keng Yeong.

While aiming for a lower Gini, Dr Yik wanted us to note that supposedly egalitarian communist and socialist countries have dismantled their unworkable political systems. Dr Yik was mistaken; communist countries like China and Vietnam have dismantled their economic systems, not their political systems. Dr Yik forgot that “in capitalism, man exploits man while in communism the opposite is true”. The bastion of egalitarianism is not communism but European social democracy.

Dr Yik shared how amongst his cohort from the same school, some ended up driving Ferraris, some ended up taking the bus. To Dr Tik, that is an example of the normal distribution of a bell curve at work with everyone getting no more and no less than what they deserved according to their sweat and tears. If Dr Yik had come from an elite school, it is unlikely that his cohort differed greatly in drive or ability. Does it not occur to Dr Yik that the bell curve of his school cohort was probably not the standard normal distribution but a compressed one like the shape of a tall bell? How can such a tall, narrow bell curve of students end up producing such a broad bell curve of career outcomes later in life? Simply put, Singapore is a winner takes all society.

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