Sunday 30 November 2014

Middle class in Singapore 'feeling more insecure'

They fear rising costs, loss of jobs amid widening income gap: Forum
By Tham Yuen-C, The Straits Times, 29 Nov 2014

THE sense of security typically associated with being middle-class has given way to anxiety among such Singaporeans, as technology and globalisation widen income gaps and take away jobs, academics said at a forum yesterday.

"When we think about the middle class, we think of security, comfort and social mobility. But all these are sort of in decline," said National University of Singapore (NUS) sociologist Tan Ern Ser at the forum, which focused on the state of Singapore's middle class.

Exacerbating the anxiety is the rise in living costs, which has led to many middle-income Singaporeans - broadly defined as the middle 60 per cent of income earners here - no longer being able to afford what they think they deserve.

While the Government has stepped up social support measures, these are mainly targeted at the lower-income groups and the middle class may feel squeezed with nowhere to turn to for help, said Dr Tan.

The problems they face could have broader implications on society's stability and structure, said Dr Lionel Wee, the vice-dean of NUS' Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

In his opening address at the forum, organised by his faculty's Social Sciences and Policy Cluster and the Institute of Policy Studies' Social Lab, Dr Wee noted that the middle class has always been seen as an aspirational category for the poorer class.

"If the middle class itself is facing threats of long-term unemployment and socio-economic insecurity, then its value as an aspirational category becomes open to question," he said.

It could lead to the lower income becoming less inclined to work hard to move up to middle-class status.

The forum, with academics, a social worker and a journalist, covered issues such as how health-care policies affect middle-income earners and their attitudes on income inequality.

Singapore Management University economics professor Ho Kong Weng suggested that middle-class Singaporeans also feel less proud about their national identity, compared with the richer or poorer groups.

Drawing on data in the 2012 World Values Survey Singapore, Prof Ho said they felt a weaker sense of belonging to the country, and were less supportive of the Government's efforts to redistribute income.

The reason, he added, could be that the burden of income redistribution - through taxation and government welfare programmes - could be heavier on them, since they would not receive much aid.

Also, unlike the more mobile rich, they may not have the option to leave the country.

Middle-class Singaporeans need help, too: Experts
By Valerie Koh, TODAY, 29 Nov 2014

While social assistance has often been channelled towards low-income groups, more attention needs to be paid to the middle class now, said several experts at a workshop on the state of the middle class yesterday.

Associate Professor Tan Ern Ser, a sociologist at the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Institute of Policy Studies, noted that the middle class in Singapore is seeing a decline in security and social mobility.

“The middle class does experience income and employment insecurity, and given the cost of living and labour market, it’s harder to get the good jobs people used to have after they graduated,” he told reporters after the workshop titled Middle Class in Singapore: Security or Anxiety? held at the NUS Kent Ridge Campus.

Speaking at the workshop, Dr Ho Kong Weng, Associate Professor of Economics (Education) at the Singapore Management University, noted that this group is experiencing a phenomenon known as the “middle-class squeeze”, where it has to bear a disproportionate burden of financing the lower-income segment of society.

Another speaker, social worker Petrine Lim, said an increasing number of middle-income families have been seeking help for marital, parenting and sometimes, financial woes, in recent years. “Some of them may temporarily lose employment or have credit card bills that can’t be managed. So, they need extra help to pull through,” added Ms Lim, who works at Fei Yue Family Service Centre (Yew Tee).

“For those seeking financial assistance, many subsidies have strict criteria, so they might not necessarily meet the criteria to qualify. What we do is refer them to various agencies that can help them,” she added.

Health economist Phua Kai Hong pointed out several gaps in the healthcare policy that could affect the middle class in society.

One key area that he felt should be looked at — after the implementation of MediSheld Life, a universal insurance scheme, next year — is intermediate and long-term care. While the focus has always been on hospital-based care, Dr Phua said alternatives to hospital care require attention as well.

“Most middle-income families in Singapore would have a maid, but I think the question is whether the maid is trained to look after the old folks at home,” said Dr Phua, Associate Professor of Health Policy and Management at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. To help raise healthcare standards at home and at the community level, Dr Phua suggested that this could be achieved through legislation, training or offering incentives for people to hire professional help.

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