Saturday, 9 June 2012

Singapore millionaires who don’t feel rich

Singapore, the third richest country in the world on a per capita basis, may be good at accumulating wealth but it fares less well when it comes to distributing it.WHEN I read last week that one in six households in Singapore is a millionaire in investable wealth, it stirred mixed emotions of pride and worry.

Bloomberg had earlier reported that the city state had become the third richest country in the world on a per capita basis.



Many Singaporeans probably share these mixed feelings, if they could take time away from work to think about it. (More on that later.)

The pride, of course, stems from our transformation from a squatter colony to this present level of affluence in only 47 years, and the concern comes from the high cost of living that such wealth brings.

Singapore is the 10th most expensive city in the world. The two factors – wealth and high cost – are related; if cost of living is taken into account Singapore’s wealth ranking drops to 11th in the world.

Inflation clouds everyone’s lives, unless he is among the 188,000 millionaire households, to which it probably matters much less..

A school-teacher commented: “Being told that I am living in one of the world’s richest cities doesn’t profit my life and the resultant high cost is a blow.”

Last year, the number of millionaires (in US dollars) increased by 14%, one of the world’s fastest growth rates. In the previous year – from 2009 to 2010 – it went up by a record one-third.

Their wealth does not include the value of their properties or other fixed assets. If it does, Singaporeans would be even richer.

The question is: how many of the new rich are foreigners who took up permanent residency here? If the number is high, it could distort the picture a little.

Over the past five years, the number of rich mainland Chinese, Indians and Indonesians who took up PR here has risen, pushing up the price of properties.

Two of Facebook billionaire co-founders, Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin, have made Singapore their home.

I also noticed that the pro-government media has been playing up stories of rising wealth and the capacity of Singaporeans to spend it. It is understandable because it paints a rosy picture.

Recent tales included the following:

> Singapore’s (resale) public flats are worth more than some expensive villas and islands in Portugal, Greece and Spain, as well as luxurious properties in the United States, reported Business Times.

> Rising property prices – nearly 7,000 “shoe box” condos of 300 sq ft to 500 sq ft have been built. A 463 sq ft condo was sold for S$702,000 (RM1.7mil).

> For sale: a bottle of special edition whisky in Singapore for S$250,000 (RM620,165).

> Singapore girl from a promi­­nent family splurging S$200,000 (RM496,252) on a photo shoot.

> Launch of the Singapore’s most expensive car, priced at S$3.6mil (RM9mil).

> A 23,920 sq ft bungalow at the prestigious Nassim Road was sold for a record S$47.8mil (RM118.6mil).

Such stories will likely continue to happen but so will tales relating to the new poor.

Singapore may be good at accumulating wealth but it fares less well when it comes to distributing it.

In fact, what is rubbing off some of the “wealth” shine is the widening inequality between the rich and the poor, an imbalance that ranks a notorious second in the world next to Hong Kong.

According to the Manpower Ministry, the earnings of the poorest 20% had stagnated in the past 10 years, with real income rising only S$200 (RM496) to S$1,400 (RM3,471), or 0.3%.

Robert Kiyosaki, author of Rich Dad, Poor Dad wrote: “Singapore is rich and happy at the moment, and that’s not good. America was like that at one point in time.”

I know what he means.

A blogger recalled this was what former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said years ago. He said he feared affluence was making Singaporeans complacent.

He said the young generation compared badly with the poorer, hard-striving migrants from China and needed “spurs on its side” to drive it on.

Are wealthy Singaporeans happy? Happiness is subjective, but a Twitter reported that only one quarter of the people are happy.

A newspaper for Indians in Singapore, Tabla, wrote: “They are among the world’s wealthiest, ranking sixth highest in net wealth with a mean value of US$284,692 (RM908,737) per adult. But Singaporeans aren’t necessarily a happy lot.”

Most attribute it to the pressure cooker living, the high cost of living and the education system. Despite what Lee said, Singaporeans work the longest hours in a worldwide comparison, beating the Japanese.

But the country has the second lowest job satisfaction in the world, according to an Accenture survey, with some 76% saying they are dissatisfied with their jobs.

Long-time visitor Brian Nelsen wrote last month: “Where are the friendly Singaporeans I used to know?”

He expressed shock and dismay at the abrupt change in the attitude of Singaporeans towards tourists in the last few years. They appear unfriendly and rude nowadays.

“Nobody smiles or returns a greeting any more. Many are now a surly lot,” he said. He probably had not met our richer folks.

Joyce Hooi of The Business Times wrote: “If Singapore had been a person, it would have stood above the unwashed tableau of Occupy Wall Street, watching from its penthouse and laughing into its Cognac.”

The really wealthy are busy buying up luxuries.

Every single day, she added, 25 people had bought a Mercedes-Benz or a BMW, and a Ferrari every four days over the past 11 months.

INSIGHT DOWN SOUTH BY SEAH CHIANG NEE  cnseah@thestar.com.my

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Bridging the rich-poor gap in Singapore 
Foreign worker flow choked in Singapore 
Singapore 'warns' US on China bashing 
Singapore warns US on anti-China rhetoric!