Three developments have captured the headlines in Singapore newspapers and the online media over the past few days. First, the Attorney-General Chambers (AGC) began formal prosecution in court of more than fifty men who patronized an under-aged prostitute from an online “social escort” website. Second, an Nanyang Technological University (NTU)economist proposed a “wage shock” policy to narrow the income gap in the country. Third, Singaporeans’ blood pressures raised significantly, after the repetition of train delays over five days.
In the first mass prosecution of its kind in Singapore’s short history, over fifty men are charged or due to be charged in court for patronizing a 17-year-old prostitute they hired from a pimp who made arrangements via an online “social escort” website. The most remarkable part of this episode is that many of the fifty men are senior public civil servants or high-flying businessmen. One was a principal of a popular primary school. Another was a head of department at a junior college. Many are military officers. There was also a Swiss private banker and, most notably, Howard Shaw, grandson of famed tycoon Runme Shaw, among them.
Beyond the immediate signal that the Singaporean authorities is sending out to the wider public that it is getting tough on crime regardless of social background, this scandal also exposes the soft underbelly of vice and sin that has been an obscured part of Singaporean society for far too long. Ostensibly “high-moral” upper-middle-class Singaporeans love their fair share of sin too. With burgeoning incomes from the business sector and winnings from the casino, men with pockets full of cash need to spend. Blowing US$500 for a 3-hour rendezvous is small money.
Although Singapore’s overall boom has benefitted many, it has generally escaped the clutches of the lower income earners in the country. In a bid to engender a second “wage revolution”, prominent NTU economist Lim Chong Yah has proposed that the government intervene to increase the income of low wage workers by 50% over three years, and freeze the incomes of top earners. Predictably, Singapore’s cabinet ministers came tumbling out of the blocks to denounce such a proposal, citing “negative consequences” such as a decrease in competitiveness via rise in business costs, possible losses of jobs, and business closures.
Professor Lim has enough credibility to teach the government a lesson or two: he is a prominent academic and former chairman of the quasi-government National Wages Council who instituted “wage revolution one” in 1979-1981. Yet, his proposal is likely to be denounced and allowed to fade away with contemptuous glances by the PAP ministers because of their neo-liberal leanings and their historically strong aversion to any intellectual material that is not generated within the elitist civil service and People’s Action Party hierarchy.
Finally, in a country where everything is supposed to just “work”, train delays over the past five days have left Singaporeans frustrated and antagonized. These delays are running parallel to the hearings of a Committee of Inquiry (COI) set up to investigate massive train delays in the train network in December 2011. Whether there is a COI or not, it seems that Singapore Mass Rapid Transport’s top engineers and executives just cannot get their act together. Why bother, when they drive to work themselves? No need to climb down from their high horse.
For our friends from the rest of Southeast Asia and beyond who wish to visit our wonderful island state, please continue to do so. But it might bring a grin to your face when you walk along the streets to know that this hitherto “Switzerland of Southeast Asia” somtimes finds itself edging back towards the pack.
Elvin Ong is a candidate for the Masters of Philosophy in Politics (Comparative Government) at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford.