By Kevin Lim
SINGAPORE, Dec 23 (Reuters) - Every day, through eyes
clouded by glaucoma, Peter witnesses the spending power
generated by Singapore's economic success, knowing he can only
afford to look.
The 54-year-old shopping mall security guard is part of
Singapore's hidden problem - a growing number of poor living on
the margins in one of the world's most expensive cities.
The party that has run the city state since independence in
1965 has always preached the virtues of self-reliance, but for
some the cost of looking after themselves has moved beyond their
Peter fears that he can not afford to treat his glaucoma, a
condition that could threaten his sight, despite being eligible
for subsidised surgery and other state benefits.
He was told treatment would cost over S$4,000 ($3,200), but
the ailment only qualifies him to take up to S$1,700 from his
state-administered healthcare savings.
Peter, who wanted his surname to be withheld as he did not
have his employer's permission to speak to media, earns around
S$1,600 ($1,300) a month working in the glitzy Orchard Road
Half of his salary goes paying off S$20,000 of debts run up
when his wife broke her ankle two years ago, and they are also
still paying off their small flat in a public housing block.
"We have no savings," he mumbled, recounting how he had
borrowed from 18 moneylenders after his wife's accident.
Singapore operates a system of compulsory savings,
supplemented by employer contributions, for retirement and
healthcare through its Central Provident Fund (CPF). Private
insurance schemes are also available.
Yet, Mindshare, a global media and marketing services firm,
found in a survey last year that 72 percent of Singaporeans felt
they "cannot afford to get sick due to high medical costs".
Data for 2002 to 2011 shows the government paid for less
than one third of all healthcare costs, whereas the average for
developed countries in the Organisation of Economic Cooperation
and Development was between 60-70 percent.
Mounting unease over the number of voters who feel excluded
from the comforts of living in Singapore has persuaded the
People's Action Party (PAP) to re-set its goals.
At a convention this month, the ruling party issued its
first new resolution in 25 years, promising to improve living
standards for all, create quality jobs, and provide affordable
Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing
said the government is ready to help citizens struggling to meet
medical costs, but some were unaware of the support available.
"Very often, the people who are most in need may not read
the newspapers, access the Internet or even understand English,"
he told parliament last month. "They need people who can talk to
them in their language, people who will knock on their doors,
check on them to see whether they are okay, and explain some of
these assistance schemes to them."
MORE MILLIONAIRES, BIGGER GAP
The city-state has seen a huge rise in wealth over the past
decade as it positioned itself as a luxury low-tax base for
ultra-wealthy people from across the world.
Per-capita GDP of S$65,048 exceeds that of the United States
and Germany. And surveys highlight how Singapore, with a
population of 5.4 million people, has more millionaires per
capita than any other country. The Economist Intelligence Unit
ranks it as the world's sixth most expensive city.
But data published by the CPF shows the proportion of
Singaporeans earning less than half the median income - an
international yardstick for measuring the proportion of poor
people -- rose to 26 percent in 2011 from 16 percent in 2002.
"As one of the world's richest nations, we can afford to do
better," Caritas Singapore, the Catholic Church's social
outreach arm, said at the launch of an advertising and social
media campaign to highlight the plight of the poor.
About 12 percent of the 2 million Singaporeans at work earn
less than S$1,000 a month. Whereas, Hui Weng Tat, an associate
professor in economics at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public
Policy, reckons a typical worker needs a minimum S$1,400-S$1,500
a month to cope with living costs.
The city-state's Gini co-efficient, a measure of income
inequality, hit 0.478 in 2012, according to government figures,
higher than every other advanced economy aside from Hong Kong.
Unlike Hong Kong, Singapore has not set an official poverty
line, and the government has rejected calls to introduce a
What PAP has done is to make it harder for firms to recruit
low-cost foreigners, tighten requirements to boost wages at the
low-end, and amend labour laws to give more job security.
There are also plans to expand social protection and
increase spending on healthcare. And while Singapore isn't going
to raise income tax anytime soon, it has raised taxes on bigger
cars and luxury homes.
"There's more to be done," Finance Minister Tharman
Shanmugaratnam said during a recent dialogue with diplomats and
university students. "I'm not satisfied with the situation in
the way it is."
($1 = 1.2587 Singapore dollars)
(Reporting by Kevin Lim; Additional reporting by Laura
Philomin; Editing by Rachel Armstrong and Simon Cameron-Moore)