The following essay was published in Vol 18 Issue 1 of the Journal of Inter-Asia Cultural Studies.The photographs were originally published by Platform in 'Singapore +50'
In 2018 the work was exhibited in the Platform produced group show 'Singapore Unseen' at the Pera Museum in Instanbul.
Singapore is often held up as a model of the postindustrial capitalist age, with economic growth and wealth generation as indicators of its success as a nation. Admiration for the leap ‘from third world to first’ is widespread. While it is true that the standard of living in Singapore has risen almost universally, can this extraordinary growth continue for all?
A report by the Boston Consulting Group cited in the Wall Street Journal in 2012 claims nearly one in six Singaporeans have a private wealth of over US$1 million, excluding property and non-financial assets. At 17%, Singapore tops the table of highest proportion of millionaire households. In fact, this high level of wealth among the population helps to highlight the inequality that exists in Singaporean society and as such acts as an example of a wider disparity in income across the globe.
While talk of Singapore’s economy invariably refers to an enduring success story, often glossed over is the huge income gap in the country. Despite continued growth in household income, household debt has increased in recent years; according to The Monetary Authority of Singapore’s Financial Stability Review household debt reached 74.9% percent of GDP in 2016.
This would indicate that Singapore is not immune to the debt fueled recovery from the global financial crisis of 2008-2009. A recovery - if it can be called that - which has also seen the richest 1% grow their wealth at a greater rate relative to everyone else.
In Singapore, as in many other places around the world, there continues an active encouragement of the aspiration to strive for wealth coupled with the somewhat contradictory but growing acknowledgement that wealth inequality is at the very least a cause for concern.
Even the IMF has criticised neoliberalism as containing policies that have increased inequality, stating :
'The costs in terms of increased inequality are prominent. Such costs epitomize the trade-off between the growth and equity effects of some aspects of the neoliberal agenda.
Increased inequality in turn hurts the level and sustainability of growth. Even if growth is the sole or main purpose of the neoliberal agenda, advocates of that agenda still need to pay attention to the distributional effects.'[i]
However, despite some moves toward wealth redistribution in some countries, including Singapore, many analysts claim it is not enough. Increasingly there are calls for solutions; more progressive tax rates, a globally applicable wealth tax, schemes such as a universal basic income, even whole new economic models that could bring us to a post capitalist world.
Yet the gap between rich and poor continues to widen, with those at the very top – the oft cited 1%, and furthermore the 0.1% - growing their wealth at an astonishing rate. Singapore is surely no exception here. Despite this, governments continue to pursue the neoliberal agenda of acquiescence to market dominance, less public spending, more privatisation and lower tax.
Economic Socialist Wolfgang Streeck points to the problems of rising debt, income inequality and declining growth as inextricably linked:
‘Over the years the three seem to have become mutually reinforcing: low growth contributes to inequality by intensifying distributional conflict; inequality dampens growth by restricting effective demand; high levels of existing debt clog credit markets and raise the prospect of financial crises; an overgrown financial sector both results from and adds to economic inequality etc., etc. Already the last growth cycle before 2008 was more imagined than real, and post-2008 recovery remains anaemic at best, also because Keynesian stimulus, monetary or fiscal, fails to work in the face of unprecedented amounts of accumulated debt.’[ii]
Geographically small, with a high urban density, rich and poor live and work in close proximity. Abject poverty may not be easily visible on Singapore’s notoriously clean streets and Singaporeans in the lower percentiles may be better off than their counterparts in poorer countries, but many of the trappings of wealth enjoyed by the upper classes are still out of reach for many. Added to this is a workforce of around 600, 000 foreign domestic and construction workers, often working for meagre wages with many servicing debt themselves through repayments and financially bound by remittance payments to families in the source countries.
I can envision a future Singaporean society in which wealthy Singaporeans and their foreign counterparts from around the globe who have taken up residence in the city-state enjoy the comfort and privilege provided for them by an army of low paid workers and wage slaves, the majority of whom being migrants from neighbouring South East Asian countries. And what of the ordinary Singaporean, who is neither rich nor poor – the so-called middle class? In a society in which social mobility and growing wealth rapidly became an expected fact of life what will happen as class divisions based on socio-economic factors become more entrenched. For an insecure middle class and a working class lagging far behind their millionaire compatriots, when there is no more room at the top, how many will sink below the undeclared poverty line or become economic migrants themselves, moving away from Singapore to continue their struggle in other countries?
Today, many aspects of this future are already present. With these photographs, I aim to present a vision of a future Singapore that may already be here.
Tom White, January 2017.
[i] Jonathan D. Ostry, Prakash Loungani, and Davide Furceri,Neoliberalism: Oversold?Finance & Development, June 2016, Vol. 53, No. 2
[ii] Wolfgang Streeck, How Will Capitalism End?: Essays on a Failing System, Verso, London 2016. https://www.versobooks.com/books/2094-how-will-capitalism-end