a migration of poor standards

I’m getting a little bit tired of Indians saying how much they like my country, Singapore.

The gushing never stops. Towering buildings; glitzy shopping malls; roads without potholes; clean, drinking water; spotless streets; safe neighbourhoods; efficient administration; incorruptible government; gateway to the world; ….they could go on forever.

(Every now and then, one of them questions the lack of genuine democracy here, while yearning for the chaos of Indian coffeeshop chatter and multiparty elections. But only for a moment.)

So, Indians love Singapore. Accountants, bankers, engineers, IT guys—no matter. They all love Singapore so much.

But what’s wrong with that? Well, I was particularly irked by a comment from a very senior Indian banker (so much so that I decided to write all this).

He said, “I don’t understand why you Singaporeans keep complaining about your Ministers’ salaries. After all, they deserve it—they do such a fantastic job! Look how well your country is run! You have no idea what corrupt government is. You have no experience of a fat, inefficient, bureaucratic administration, like we do in India. If you knew what that was like, you’d have no problems paying these guys their multi-million dollar salaries. What’s an extra million or two, after all?”

Indians love Singapore so much because they keep comparing our country to theirs. Many of them feel that we Singaporeans are ungrateful and spoilt—we’ve had it so good for so long, we know not what real hardship is.

There may be some truth to that, but I’m actually fed up with this general line of reasoning, because

1) Why are we comparing ourselves to India?

There are several different groups of people who enjoy comparing Singapore to countries clearly worse off than us. Our politicians; our neutered media channels; well-off Singaporeans who have succeeded here; and foreigners (like the Indians).

Perhaps sometimes there is reason to compare and reflect on our successes, but there’s a bit too much of that going on. In order to progress, we should be engaging in upward comparison, not downward comparison.

In other words, we should not be asking
“How did Singapore succeed economically where so many other poor countries have failed?”

But instead, we should be asking
“How come there are other countries that are more developed politically, socially and economically than Singapore? What did they do right? How do we get there?”

2) Do expatriates really know what’s going on?

My Indian banker friend may not think an extra million or two is much. But not everybody is in his shoes. There are plenty of Singaporeans who are finding it tough to keep up. The bottom 30% of households has actually seen their real income drop over the past 7 years, even as Singapore continues to grow millionaires at a faster rate than anywhere else in the world. Income inequality is rising fast.

In this climate, raising the salaries of Ministers to stratospheric levels does, for many, appear like ‘legitimised corruption’ (a term bandied around on an online discussion group, Singapore Review).

I think a premium must be paid, because that is one way to lure the best. However, the current salaries seem a bit much (average salary of government minister–US$1.25m)

Sometimes it is good to get an external perspective on things. Other times, it is misleading. When a jet-setting Indian banker makes big proclamations about Singapore, its politics and its economy, after having lived only in a bubble of expense-account French wine and company-paid luxury apartments, it smacks of bias.
(For sure, I too don’t fully understand the challenges that many of my less well-off countrymen face.)

The irony? The well-heeled, sharp-tongued banker, having lived here for 6 months, will probably get much more air time from our government and its press than the fourth-generation Singaporean single mother in a 1-room HDB flat, her everyday a struggle.

Of course, it’s not just Indians from India who say these things. People from all over the world come here and say similar things. They’re just comparing life here as they see it with life as it was from where they came…only natural.

But that shouldn’t stop us from understanding the realities of life in Singapore, and trying our best to match up (and beat) the world’s best.

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2 responses

  1. bread without freedom turns to stone – depends on the individual’s priority. pramoedya ananta toer made a choice and the indian banker made his. well written. spk

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