I can almost hear a sarcastic wit shooting back at the Minister with a riposte involving faecal matter and super sleuth Sherlock.
The problem is hardly novel, it's been plaguing Singapore for decades. Researchers, business analysts, civil society groups, and the opposition have highlighted – repeatedly – the deteriorating rich-poor divide over the decades.
Mr Vincent Cheng et al of the "Marxist conspiracy" fame were even imprisoned for championing economic justice for the working poor and helping the underclass to gain a foothold on the economic ladder.
Ironically, Mr Shanmugam acknowledged that Dr Goh Keng Swee had warned of the deleterious effects of wealth disparity six decades ago.
If the PAP was aware of the dangers such a divide posed 60 years ago – and if it really cared about the ramifications – how did the situation get so bad in the intervening decades?
The truth is that the PAP has been singularly responsible for the elitist nature in our society, one that has exacerbated the chasm been the haves and have-nots. The rich-come-first-inequality-be-damned mentality is in the party's genes.
In 1967, Mr Lee Kuan Yew famously said that every society has approximately 5 percent of the population
“who are more than ordinarily endowed physically and mentally and in whom we must extend our limited and slender resources in order that they will provide that yeast, that ferment, that catalyst in our society which alone will ensure that Singapore shall maintain its preeminent place in the societies that exist in South and Southeast Asia.”
Mr Lee repeated his ideas in 1969, this time even more forcefully:
“Free education and subsidised housing lead to a situation where the less economically productive people in the community are reproducing themselves at rates higher than the rest. This will increase the total population of less productive people. Our problem is how to devise a system of disincentives, so that the irresponsible, the social delinquents, do not believe that all they have to do is to produce their children and the government then owes them and their children sufficient food, medicine, housing, education and jobs...We must encourage those who earn less than $200 per month and cannot afford to nurture and educate many children never to have more than two. We will regret the time lost if we do not now take the first tentative steps towards correcting a trend which can leave our society with a large number of the physically, intellectually and culturally anaemic.”
He rammed home point again in 1993:
“Singaporeans will not become successful and prosperous by talking and concentrating on dividing the pie. Our journalists write about who are the poor. Give them some money. If he can't study because he's too busy helping his father, we must look after his father and him. We are concentrating on our navels!”
Any lingering doubts about Mr Lee's eugenically inspired prejudice was quashed with finality in 2008 when he told the audience at the Human Capital Summit: “You marry a non-graduate, then you are going to worry if your son or daughter is going to make it to the university.”
It shouldn't surprise anyone then that one of his offsprings, the current prime minister, would speak these words: “If you don’t have a certain natural aristocracy...then I think society will lose out.”
Catch them while they're young
Through the decades, these sentiments were diligently translated into policy.
Educated mums (defined as those with university degrees) were incentivised to have more babies whereas the non-degreed ones were indelicately told to stop procreating.
When the children go to school, they are loaded with maximum curriculum in minimum time so that parents, anxious for their charges to attain Lee Kuan Yew's idea of an educated human being, had to resort to engaging expensive private tuition.
And if children of the rich couldn't go to the top schools, then the top schools would come to them. Whitley Secondary School and Swiss Cottage Secondary School were eased out of prime real estate along Dunearn Road to make way for St Joseph's Institution and the Singapore Chinese Girls' School.
This adds to a district already congested with the list of who's who of Singapore schools: The reknowned Raffles Girls' School is Shangri-la Hotel's next-door neighbour; the Nanyang Primary School which Mr Lee Hsien Loong attended is nestled among designer villas and Good Class Bungalows; the National Junior College which Lee Kuan Yew designated an Eton-style “super secondary boarding school” and where his daughter-in-law, Ms Ho Ching, went to, is in the zip code where Crazy Rich Asians live; Methodist Girls' School, the late Mdm Kwa Geok Choo's alma mater, moved to the pristine premises of Old Holland Road (and even had the road Blackmore Drive leading to the school renamed after its founder, Sophia Blackmore); the Hwa Chong Institution whose “Notable Alumni” include several of PAP ministers and MPs, sits on 72 acres of prized Bukit Timah land (reportedly the largest campus in Southeast Asia); and on and on.
Of course, Mr Lee Hsien Loong had to offer the perfunctory comment that “popular”schools should remain open to children of all social and racial backgrounds. It was one of those throwaway lines that was met with resigned amusement by the public.
Tone-deaf PAP ministers even insisted that all schools in Singapore are all of the same goodness. It took a vice-principle from a neighbourhood school, Pushparani Nadarajah, to call out the hypocrisy: “How many of our leaders and top officers who say that every school is a good school put their children in ordinary schools near their home? [Only] until they actually do so are parents going to buy it.”
Bring in the billionaires!
And when one leaves school, it is helpful to be on the good side of the taxation spectrum. The ones who benefit most from Singapore's tax structure are also the ones who earn, profit or inherit the most money.
But when it comes to the regressive Goods and Services Tax, the government insists that the billionaire pays the same flat rate (soon to be 9 percent) for his medication as the cash-strapped retiree who just sold his flat to fund his own survival.
So why can't the government have a tiered GST rate to attenuate the wealth divide? Because, as Minister Indranee Rajah explains, Singapore wants to maintain its status as a premier wealth management centre (aka tax haven). Besides, the PM's goal is to attract more billionaires to our shores – even if, by his own admission, it means widening the wealth gap in this country.
Income inequality in Singapore is alive and enjoying rude health, thank you very much. The Gini coefficient has hovered above the 0.4 mark over the past few decades, a level some economists consider dangerous.
In fact, according to a OECD 2015 report, the wealth gap in Singapore is increasing.
But the PAP stubbornly refuses to introduce a national minimum wage law, and financial support for the poor remains paltry. In the words of PAP minister (the late) S Rajaratnam: “We want to teach people the government is not a rich uncle. You get what you pay for. We are moving in the direction of making people pay for everything.” Ebenezer Scrooge would have been proud.
As I said at the outset, many have raised this issue through the years. The most recent is Head of Sociology at NTU, Associate Professor Teo You Yenn. In her book This is what inequality looks like, she ascribes many of the today's problems regarding poverty to this government's policies. NUS don, Ishita Dhamani, wrote also in 2008 that the PAP “further intensified the problem in recent years”. I, too, have addressed the matter, both in the written and spoken word, over the last two-and-a-half decades.
So when Mr Shanmugam decided to talk about the issue at a Red Cross event last week but strained to avoid any mea culpa on his party's part, Singaporeans can be forgiven if we don't take him seriously.
Like an alcoholic who denies that he is the cause of his own disease, it's hard to see how the PAP is able and/or genuinely willing to overcome this “one of the most serious issues” that Singapore faces today.