Friday 15 December 2023

Cost of living means different things to different folks in Singapore

The Economist’s Worldwide Cost of Living index does not shed light on the bills that ordinary Singaporeans pay.
By Lin Suling, Opinion Editor, The Straits Times, 13 Dec 2023

As a sign of the lengths Singapore will go to in a bid to up its wow factor and entice more travellers here, consider the dramatic four-storey waterfall display unveiled at the recently refurbished Changi Airport Terminal 2 in November.

Just about everyone I know has already visited the attraction, now the centrepiece of the T2 departure hall, and told me the four-minute musical extravaganza is not to be missed.

Now, you may be forgiven for confusing this 14m by 17m digital display with the man-made, HSBC-sponsored rain vortex at Changi Airport’s Jewel, which was opened a mere four years ago. That spectacular sight remains the world’s tallest indoor waterfall.

If two waterfalls – one digital, one physical – sound like overkill, that is probably precisely the intent. Singapore is already home to the world’s largest air-conditioned glass greenhouse, Gardens by the Bay, and hosted the first Formula One night race globally.

We must keep filling this carousel of new shiny things so we can remain vibrant and attractive to visitors, investors and corporate leaders.

Singapore thus far seems to be doing this well. Why else would expats keep coming back to Singapore despite it being billed the most expensive city nine times in the last 11 years by The Economist?

News of Singapore – along with Zurich – topping the 2023 Worldwide Cost of Living index on Nov 30, nonetheless, raised many eyebrows.

Many Singaporeans have suggested that it confirms their longstanding concerns that making ends meet in Singapore is becoming an uphill climb for the man in the street.

Online, netizens cite anecdotal experiences corroborating this jump in prices, from the doubling of the cost of a bowl of fish soup at their local coffee shop to complaints about certificates of entitlement (COEs).

Another pointed to news of thwarted attempts to smuggle 120kg of beef and pork as an unequivocal sign that more Singaporeans are turning to the black market to fill their stomachs. Never mind that meat smuggling is possibly the most creative strategy to beat inflation nobody has ever heard of.

And most discussions eventually reached the same conclusion: that the Singapore Government has slipped, in letting in foreigners who push up prices while leaving Singaporeans behind.

The most expensive city in the world for whom?

What to make of all this? Some information about how the Worldwide Cost of Living is put together offers perspective.

The full index of how cost of living stacks up across 173 countries is available only with a US$1,195 (S$1,602) fee. Its website suggests this full report is useful for human resources, corporates, financial institutions, and legal and insurance firms, as “this purpose-built Internet tool quickly calculates cost-of-living allowances and (aids in) building compensation packages for expatriates and business travellers”.

A closer look at the items used in this benchmark of relative cost of living, which is meant to be a comprehensive dataset of over 400 individual price points across 200 goods and services, throws up things such as international school tuition fees, public golf course fees and three-course dinners.

These may just be a few outliers that stick out. Even so, not only are they hardly stuff the average Singaporean spends on, they are also more accurately the make-up of what the typical expat around the world splurges on.

Here in Singapore, I would also add to this list the doubling of Additional Buyer’s Stamp Duty for purchases of homes by foreigners, and higher personal income taxes for top earners beginning from the 2024 year of assessment.

Curiously, despite these higher projected expenses, the foreigners just keep coming.

Sunday 10 December 2023

Henry Kissinger, Lee Kuan Yew and a friendship that influenced the world

Both men were realists who spoke frankly, and global leaders listened to them. They also shared a close bond.
By Shashi Jayakumar, Published The Straits Times, 8 Dec 2023

There is a delicious anecdote about a meeting in November 1968 at Harvard University, at what later became the Kennedy School of Government. Some professors were railing against the war in Vietnam and then US President Lyndon Johnson.

Singapore’s then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, in Harvard for a sabbatical of five weeks, on being invited to give a response, said tersely, “You make me sick”, before proceeding to give a clear and concise summary of why America had to stay the course and provide security against the communists bent on undermining South-east Asian nations.

Mr Lee remembered the incident in his memoirs as a respectful difference of views and omitted the pungent words.

But Dr Henry Kissinger, then a professor at the faculty encountering the Singaporean for the first time, related the entire incident in his own study of Mr Lee’s leadership, and in his last book before his death last week at the age of 100.

On arrival at Harvard, Mr Lee had said that he was there “to rest, to rethink, to reformulate policies, to get fresh ideas, to meet stimulating minds, to go back enriched with a fresh burst of enthusiasm for what I do”.

And what minds they were: political scientist Samuel Huntington, Graham Allison (the young postgraduate student at Harvard assigned to accompany Mr Lee to seminars, later a famous professor who co-authored a book on him), and the economists John Kenneth Galbraith and Paul Samuelson.

Some, like Ray Vernon of the Harvard Business School, and Michael Porter (whom Mr Lee met later) were to subsequently give advice to our leaders on Singapore’s development and economic policy.

Mr Lee maintained friendly contact or correspondence with some of these men for years.

From 1967 (his first trip to the United States as prime minister), impressed with the spirit, talent and innovatory zeal he found, the Singapore leader would make annual or biannual visits to the US to understand and engage US policymakers, and to seek out and engage with other bright minds in and out of government.

November 1968 marked the beginning of a seminal friendship between Mr Lee and Dr Kissinger.