Cherry-picking among the basket of 160 goods and services used in the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) 2014 survey, finance minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam argues that the survey, which ranks Singapore as the world’s most expensive city, does not measure cost of living for an “ordinary local.”
Ahhh I see, Minister. Thank you for enlightening us “ordinary” Singaporeans, who not only have plebeian tastes and neither consume imported cheese, filet mignon nor don “Burberry-type raincoats,” but also lack the intelligence to understand that Singapore’s rocketing cost of living as measured by EIU does not affect us commoners.
The government spin reminds me of the infamous episode in which a Minister was questioned in parliament about the adequacy of social handouts and his idea of “subsistence living.” He snapped at his fellow PAP member of parliament: “How much do you want? Do you want three meals in a hawker centre, food court or restaurant?”
To the credit of this otherwise woefully ineffectual Minister, who is an expert on the ceiling cleanliness of hawker centres, he might not mean to be condescending.
For all we know, he might actually be championing Singapore’s hawker fare and urging welfare recipients to be content with three meals at a hawker centre.
Now why on earth would Singaporeans want to go for a three-course dinner in high-end restaurants, when we can feast on a three-course meal of kopi, eggs and toast in kopitiams? Besides, a plate of nasi padang here costs only SGD$2.50! That is truly out of this world, isn’t it?
It is a wonder that our world’s highest paid government fails to see the irony of its spin on the EIU survey. By proposing that ordinary Singaporeans generally consume a “different,” i.e., cheaper set of goods of services in contrast to the city’s well-heeled, it is confirming that many middle-class aspirations have become increasingly out of reach for us Singaporeans.
The propaganda does not just stop there. Besides addressing the domestic audience, the PAP government has also fired up its spin machine for a foreign audience.
In the International New York Times on 6 March 2014, there is a curious commentary titled “Global cost-of-living survey is flawed” published under “Reuters Breakingviews” (page 18). You can read the full article here, under a more explicit headline “Singapore is not the world’s most expensive city.”
The writer launches a multipronged attack on why Singapore is NOT the costliest city to live:
1. “The first problem is the U.S. currency. Singapore, which has seen its nominal exchange rate appreciate by 40 percent over the past decade, will obviously have higher U.S. dollar prices. But that only matters to the shrinking group of expatriates who are paid in greenbacks. Most consumers care about costs in the currency in which they earn their living.”
2. “Besides, people care more about experiences than things. Take cars, which are expensive to own in Singapore because of high taxes. In a tiny city, personal vehicles have little utility beyond the dating scene.”
3. “A more realistic study would imagine a hypothetical family. If this family had a desire for safe drinking water and international school diplomas for two children, maximising utility in Mumbai – the city ranked cheapest by the EIU – might actually prove quite expensive.”
4. “Even this approach wouldn’t be wholly satisfactory, though. Single people will have very different utility functions from couples with children. Assigning a nationality to the imaginary family is also problematic. The EIU survey ignores the spending patterns of different nationalities. But even expatriate Koreans have kimchi refrigerators, while Pakistanis search for cheap cricket channels wherever they are.”
Underlying all the above points is just a trite premise: that each city, each nation etc. is unique and there is absolutely no comparability across cities/nations. You can easily see how this notion of “exceptionalism” can be conveniently applied to invalidate all global surveys and rankings.
This being a leisurely Saturday, I could not be bothered to rebut the writer’s points one by one and shall leave it to you readers. Fire away!
As I puzzled over why Reuters would publish a poorly argued article as this, I googled the writer’s bio and this is what I found: the writer is a former Straits Times reporter.
That explains it.