According to the CIA World Factbook, Singapore is at 30th position in terms of the Gini Index. Calculated based on the Gini Coefficient, the list shows that the higher the ranking, the more unequal a society is. With a Gini Coefficient of 48.10 based on 2008 statistics, Singapore’s income inequality shockingly belongs to the some of the most undeveloped states. Based on this ranking, it is in fact more unequal in this aspect as compared to other developing neighbouring countries including but not limited to China (at number 36); Malaysia (at number 38) and Philippines (at number 40).
The case for wealth or income inequality may seem inconsequential to some given the Singapore government has often stressed that it is overall economic growth that people should be concerned about.
Not so according to the Equality Trust, a London-based organisation which promotes the concept of equality. Based on research findings and academic papers, it argues that the detrimental effects of such inequality spills over to other areas and impact on the health and well-being of society in general.
On physical health for example,
“… The most consistent interpretation of all the evidence is that the main route hinges on the way inequality makes life more stressful. Chronic stress is known to affect the cardiovascular and immune systems and to lead to more rapid aging. Inequality makes social relations more stressful (see section on Trust and Community Life), by increasing status differences and status competition…”
Concurrently, on trust and community life,
“… Inequality divides people by increasing the social distances between us and widening differences in living standards and lifestyles. By increasing residential segregation of rich and poor, it also increases physical distances…”
Interestingly, on the same organisation’s website, Singapore which has a high ranking of income inequality also has the lowest level of trust amongst people (see chart below).
‘… we have found strong links between imprisonment and income inequality…’
Again, Singapore has one of the highest per capita imprisonment rate (see chart below)
The organisation has linked the effects of income inequality to 12 undesirable societal trends ranging from mental health to drug abuse and violence. It even claims that inequality influences a country’s foreign policies on important global issues such as climate change and international relations amongst the richer and poorer states. For example, rich and more equal countries tend to spend more on foreign aid and shoulder more international responsibilities than those less equal and richer countries since ‘greater equality suggests a degree of common interests and mutual interdependence’.
In that aspect, it could even be questioned if such inequalities in Singapore is a factor allowing the government room to craft foreign policies that overlooks and violate human rights such as its trade and diplomatic support for the Burmese military junta or the opposition to worldwide banning of the death penalty, cluster munitions and landmines. The Equality Trust website suggests that people in such unequal societies tend to assume that human nature is competitive and that they are left to fend for themselves, which is then replicated in their world-view. This may partly explain why there is a fetish for economic growth and rampant consumerism while human rights appear to be little concern to some Singaporeans.
Whatever one’s opinions on income inequality and however inconclusive inequality research is, there is certainly a need for more study in this area.
Nevertheless, in the Singapore context, it can be argued that some of the income inequality societal impacts can be discerned ranging from high obesity to poor mental health. For example, according to the Singhealth website, a mental health community survey ‘showed that one in six adults was found to have a mental health disorder at some time in their life’ while ‘a GP who sees 40 patients a day can expect that 8 to 10 (20 to 25%) of these patients will require support or treatment for anxiety or depression – and that’s not counting those whose disorders go unrecognised’. Concurrently, there are about 25,000 seriously mentally ill patients in Singapore with at least 10 percent being institutionalised. Suicide rates for middle aged people have also increased according to a 2007 report where there are 419 cases in 2006. In another AFP article, ‘Singapore warns of health risks as obesity grows’, ‘Singaporeans risk suffering stroke, diabetes and other diseases as obesity levels rise’.
There are certainly impetuses to look beyond as well as abandon the ruling party’s fixation with GDP and economic growth that is often driven at the expense of sacrificing other aspects on the health of the Singapore society.