Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Realities about living and working in Singapore 

Several letters in The Straits Times today illustrate some of the harsher realities about living and working in Singapore.

Two readers wrote about the inability of mature workers to get scholarships or places in courses in health care. Both remarked that priority is given to fresh “O” and “A” level holders.

This priority reflects the idea that education is an investment, and one that pays the best return when invested in the young. Whether this is true, I am not so certain, since many people actually don’t practise what they learn in school, or practise it only for a short while anyway. As one of the readers point out: “[F]resh school-leavers after their O and A levels...might not know what they want or like.”

Unfortunately, age discrimination is alive and well in Singapore.

Another reader, in responding to another reader, writes that in Singapore, high property prices are the norm, with no exceptions. He compares this with Australia, where similarly-expensive places like Sydney are exceptions, not the norm.

Property prices in Singapore have, in the past, been boosted by the government’s pro-property policies. The government has recognised that this is not sustainable, as Singaporeans lack cash assets for their old age. Since the mid-1990s, measures have been put in place to discourage excessive investment in properties. Partly because of this, property prices have been on a downtrend in Singapore. I doubt that that is making many Singaporeans happy, though.

Having said that, obviously, it should also be said that one should not compare apples with oranges. Singapore is a city, and property prices in cities tend to be more expensive than rural areas, especially when the city itself lacks a natural hinterland. Johor may seem like a hinterland to Singapore, but don’t forget that there is a national border in between, and a border is more than just a line on a map.

The reality is that Singapore is not Australia, and can never be. One has to accept that low property prices, as seen in large countries, are simply not realistic in Singapore.

Incidentally, this particular reader also wrote that, contrary to what the previous reader had written, anti-discrimination laws can be effective, pointing out that organisations in Australia “take their anti-discrimination laws and policies seriously”.

Anti-discrimination laws would probably help mature workers get jobs. However, the problem with anti-discrimination and affirmative-action laws, apart from compliance and enforcement, is the cost of implementing them.

There is the obvious cost of administration. But there is also the cost of having to employ workers just to meet quotas that were set without sufficient regard to the specific needs of an industry or company, and thus the opportunity cost of not employing someone who more closely fits the job requirement.

Having said that, with an ageing population and an economy that no longer promotes life-long employment, the Singapore government may soon have to consider whether the benefits of affirmative action to boost mature worker employment outweigh the costs. Otherwise, the reality of living and working in Singapore may become exceedingly harsh for these people.


"The reality is that Singapore is not Australia, and can never be. One has to accept that low property prices, as seen in large countries, are simply not realistic in Singapore."

Amen! Though it should come across as common sense, no?

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