Debate policies, not whether this is best or worst of times

Are we living in the best of times, or the worst of times?

Judging from some speakers at opposition rallies, Singaporeans are living in the worst of times. Our standard of living is stagnant or in decline, costs of living are out of control, and the Singaporean worker is facing unprecedented competition in his own homeland.

Yet key statistics show just the opposite.

Since the 2011 General Election, strong wage growth has outpaced inflation every year.

Resident unemployment has hovered under 3 per cent - the lowest rate in a decade. Labour force participation is at all-time highs.

If the other political parties want to advocate for meaningful policy changes, they need to take the debate to the public and show why adopting different social and labour policies will improve the lives of Singaporeans.

Housing prices have significantly moderated in the past few years, with the Housing Board resale price index falling 10 per cent from the peak reached in 2013.

While the nominal cost of living has undeniably risen in Singapore, wages and incomes have risen faster.

Singapore's remarkable economic record stands out, considering that the incomes of middle-class citizens of many high-income developed countries have stagnated over the same period.

Economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty estimate that in the United States, the vast majority of the population achieved only a cumulative 10 per cent increase in real incomes over two decades.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that annual real wage growth in developed countries has hovered close to 0 per cent for the past decade.

According to the ILO's estimates, citizens of Japan, Italy and Britain are worse off today than they were a decade ago, while workers in the US, France and Germany are only slightly better off.

Singapore did not experience such a "lost decade".

Our median gross monthly income in nominal terms rose from $2,326 in 2004 to $3,770 last year.

The consumer price index, measuring the average level of prices, rose by 30 per cent during that same period.

While prices are indeed 30 per cent higher today than in the early 2000s, the median Singaporean wage earner has 60 per cent more income to spend.

One could certainly ask whether our economic progress is sufficient to meet our rising aspirations.

The prices of private property and motor vehicles have risen faster than general prices have during the past decade.

And while most Singaporeans have done better, income inequality remains a challenge, with low-income Singaporeans relying on substantial state support.

But the facts are that real incomes have risen and material standards of living have improved for the vast majority of Singaporeans, even in recent years.

But there are other important differences between Singapore and many of the high-income developed countries.

Most high-income developed countries possess extensive social safety nets, including comprehensive unemployment insurance systems, state-funded pensions, state-funded nationalised healthcare, and well-funded state-directed social welfare programmes.

Labour markets are highly protected, favouring seniority and labour rights over employers and younger workers.

I expect most voters are already familiar with the incumbent Government's policy stance on these issues, and the reasons behind that stance.

If the other political parties want to advocate for meaningful policy changes, they need to take the debate to the public and show why adopting different social and labour policies will improve the lives of Singaporeans.

As an academic economist, I note that there is no settled truth or optimal solution - there is no set of policies guaranteeing complete social protection while preserving economic competitiveness.

It is a choice with trade-offs that the people, or rather the government voted into power by the people, must make.

But it is precisely this debate that Singaporeans deserve to have on the cusp of a historic general election.

It is natural that the incumbent Government wants the public to believe that these are the best of times, and for the opposition to argue otherwise.

It is better for both to convince us that their policy and leadership represent the best prospect for leading Singapore into the future.

• The writer is a Senior Lecturer, UniSIM College, SIM University.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 08, 2015, with the headline 'Debate policies, not whether this is best or worst of times'. Print Edition | Subscribe