Higher aspirations, higher cost of living?

The 11 May 2014 article from Today newspaper
The 11 May 2014 article from Today newspaper

In recent years, I’ve been hearing this line “Control what you can control” more and more often. I think it’s a very useful line for time management and job prioritization but it is increasingly used when people are handed a lousy situation not of their own doing, and asked to “just deal with it”.

That thought came to mind when I read this news story in Today where our Defence Minister insists our cost of living here has become more expensive because of our personal aspirations in life:

SINGAPORE — Having higher aspirations in life is a reason why Singaporeans find the cost of living here expensive, despite real wages having gone up, said Defence Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen yesterday (May 10).

But Singapore has to ensure that opportunities to get out of poverty must not be priced out and remain abundant to fulfil the dreams of younger Singaporeans, said Dr Ng.

The Defence Minister was speaking at a Singapore Medical Association dinner and responding to a question from the audience concerned over the rising cost of living in Singapore.“If you look at household goods, per household, what people have – handphone, TV – has actually gone up,” said Dr Ng. Unlike the past, mobile phones are almost an essential item for children, he added.

That Singaporeans find costs of living expensive due to higher aspirations is a reason that will not please people, including himself, said Dr Ng, as the reason is “objective” and does not address “issues of the heart.”

Dr Ng added that while the Government makes sure that nobody should have their potential stunted just because their family cannot afford it, this is “difficult argument” to sell as some parents pay large sums of money to provide tuition for their children.

Before writing this post, I’ve actually spent the past three days mulling frequently on the story and on my personal situation.

I’ve asked myself – so is this true? Have my aspirations led to the increasing costs that we’re all experiencing around us? I’ve always respected Minister Ng (hey, he’s an old ACS boy, so he can’t be that clueless right?) so I kept asking myself if it was me and not him.

I felt especially grim today when my family visited the Bugis Junction food court for lunch. It was packed to the gills, and to my dismay, the prices for food seem to have gone up since the recent renovation of the premises. My bowl of ban mian (a very simple meal of noodles, minced pork, vegetables and soup) cost S$4.80. My daughter’s “economy rice” cost about $6.70 for fried rice, some fish and vegetables.

We have already stopped buying beverages from the food courts for a long time, as explained in this earlier blog post, because they are pure profit and unnecessary calories. My family is always armed with big water bottles whenever we step out of the house.

Today I discussed with my wife and we decided that we’ll stop eating at food courts unless absolutely necessary. She’ll either cook at home or I will purchase food from the hawker center during weekends (if the weather is too hot to eat in non-airconditioned places).

So, obvious or simplistic as my line of reasoning may seem to you, dear reader (and maybe not the Minister or his colleagues), here are the conclusions of my mulling below:

1. Gadgets or appliances do not significantly add to the cost of living

Most handphones are bought under telco subsidy in Singapore and are relatively affordable. You choose your data plan according to your needs, and I don’t think most people will pay above S$60 a month. Funny enough, while their capabilities have vastly leaped from simple SMS to full-fledged computing, the average selling price of phones will only keep going down.

The ASP of smartphones declined 12% last year according to IDC data to about $337 (forecast). Today, without signing a telco contract, you can get a full fledged Xiaomi Android smartphone for $169, or a cheap Nokia Lumia 525 Windows Phone for $185  which is pretty amazing in my opinion.

Both my kids have a handphone each, but we’ve made sure we bought $60 “dumbphones” (cutting edge tech in 2002, mind you) and use pre-paid cards that they never seem to utilize fully. Are handphones essential for children? Yes, of course, for keeping in touch, but we do not let them play games that’s why they don’t have an iPhone. Other parents do, but that’s not the issue here.

My household uses a 40″ Samsung LCD television which is about 5 years old I think, and still going very strong (these guys last forever, compared to CRT TVs of the past). I bought it for about $2000 in 2009, and I remember that the old 24-27″ CRT TVs of the past also cost about $2000 (in 1990s dollar terms).

I do my financials every year and our essential “gadget” costs like using handphones, appliances and other machines are never a big component of costs. Again, we’re not the type to change handphones frequently or to exceed our data plans and incurring big charges.

2. Cost of living is going up and it’s out of my control

Back to my example of the bowl of ban mian – I have absolutely no control over the price of this simple meal that has ingredients that do not cost more than $1, yet costs $4.80.

These are the things out of my control before I fork over the money to the ban mian stallholder:

  • Rent of the food stall
  • Labor and operating costs
  • Ingredient costs
  • Marketing costs

And I’ve not included the cost of transport (be it car, bus or MRT) to get to Bugis Junction so I can enjoy the privilege of having a simple meal in air-conditioned comfort and jostle with hundreds of other hassled parents looking for a seat.

What’s in my control here? It’s the desire to even want to eat at the food court, and I’ve decided that it’s no longer worth the artificially cooled air to do so (much to the dismay of my kids). Already, we only eat at restaurants maybe twice a month to keep our food expenses down and now food courts will get the same treatment.

Recently, an NTUC Foodfare food court opened near my office at Clifford Center. The place is packed at lunch, but the food is even more expensive than Bugis Junction and none of the dishes we’ve tried tasted good or are value-for-money. My colleagues and I have sworn off the place. I don’t mind paying money for good food, but we’re getting low quality food (and sometimes terrible service) for more money.

I’m not an economics expert and I will not pretend to write like one. I don’t know how we can bring down rental or labor costs (or how we can stop landlords from jacking rental prices up), and I also want workers to be paid decently to deal with their living expenses. The price of food goes up naturally over time, but in Singapore, it’s shooting up too rapidly for the average person to stomach.

And talking about tuition, does Minister Ng really think that parents want to spend thousands on tuition so that their kids can get ahead in life? I’ve written in this blog many times – kids need tuition because the education system broke down and they need tutors to help them just to pass. I struggle to teach my son primary school Maths, because they are tested with unnecessarily tough questions and methods that no adults actually use. Changes are afoot, but it wasn’t until we parents kicked up a big fuss post-2011 elections that the MOE decided to act.

As a solo-income guy, I can pay the bills for my family but only because I still have a good job and I consciously keep our spending to just the most practical things: We don’t take frequent family holidays, we don’t own a fancy luxury car (our humble Altis was purchased at S$49K in 2009 when the COE was $4,000 instead of $60,000), we don’t go shopping for condos as a second property, we don’t use the air-con unless the heat gets really bad, and I don’t even like to send my kids for tuition because we want them to have a proper childhood.

And only bald guys know the hundreds of dollars we save every year by shaving our own heads in the toilet with our hair trimmers.

(Yes, I own a Ducati motorcycle, but it’s not part of my family expenses and I save over $700 a month in CBD parking and ERP fees each month thanks to commuting by motorcycle).

If I look back at my life aspirations in 2004 versus 2014, I honestly don’t think that they have changed very much. My only unchanging goal is to provide for my family and have a contented life.  I have been fortunate to be able to survive the really tough early years of being solo-income, being able to advance in my career and I could pay the big bills when they needed to be paid. I haven’t aspired to have a country club membership, more credit cards, or stuff like that.

Today, versus 2004, I find that it is no longer prudent to buy a new car or a new property, so I don’t hanker after them. I don’t read the local papers very much on weekends, because they are filled with articles telling me how I should spend more money to achieve a higher standard of living. Even motorcycles are more expensive now, as the COE has gone up to $4,000 when it used to be under $1,500.

Everywhere I go, food is more expensive. I don’t bring my kids to the cinema often because a trip is over $50 – I just stream Netflix or iTunes movies. We’ve also reduced our StarHub cable subscription to the most basic channels to save costs. I’m also happy that Uniqlo is here in Singapore so I only need to pay $29.90 for a damned good work shirt instead of being price-gouged by the likes of stalwarts G2000 or other brands.

I also stopped going to the car wash because it’s now $8 for a quick and hurried wash. I wash the car myself (I have no maid) with 40 cents worth of tap water and not very frequently too.

Like I said, this is just me and my family’s situation. Your mileage will vary. I’m not a miser, I just don’t believe in paying for things that are not worth the money.

There are different sources of information that show that Singapore is now one of the most expensive, if not the most expensive city in the world to live in. To deny that fact is to be completely disconnected from reality. (Sometimes I take some time out to just marvel at that fact!)

Expensive living is one thing. Being surrounded by banality is another.

I despair at all the faceless malls that keep popping up with the same boring big brands selling all the same pricey goods (so like everyone else, I wait for a good sale offer). I am never happy to step into a conventional food court, because I am about to pay money for bland food, or food cooked without an iota of passion. I look for hawker centers when I can, then I find that stallkeepers are moving out (a Whampoa prawn noodle stallholder lamented to me last month she has to stop work because she can’t find good labor and this isn’t worth the effort).

On the other hand, I do appreciate great public efforts like the landscaping of Bishan Park that gives me much pleasure during my morning jogs. And the public sports facilities that are still available at low entry fees. Kudos to the civil servants who made that happen.

At the end of the day, I remind myself not to blame others and just accept things as they are, maybe it’s my expectations that are too high. Maybe my nostalgia for the past is clouding my perspectives. Maybe a minister who is earning millions is privy to more information than I have about the economics of things. Maybe he doesn’t wear affordable Uniqlo clothes to work because it’s not polished enough for Cabinet meetings.

But one thing is for sure, Minister sir, my aspirations have not changed and I know the cost of living is going up. Not because I’m adding to my cost of living, but because I’m doing everything I can to fight it.

5 Replies to “Higher aspirations, higher cost of living?”

  1. A very interesting read. Though from a more objective perspective, all that I’m reading here is about the said person’s life, the said person’s experience and the said person’s effort.

    Extrapolating a single experience that you have as the sole evidence against what the minister feels may not be that accurate; you may fall into the minority who are able to make sound decisions following your principal of “paying only for what you feel is worth your money”.

    A simple example. You bought your kids feature phones(or as you would call it “dumb phones”). On the other hand, everyday after work I do chance by primary school kids with an iphone on their hands. Your experience cannot be extrapolated as the general practice of the population. At the very first point you’re making about how gadgets don’t add up to a significant cost to you, it may be to others.

    That’s just for starters. But overall, good and perceptive read.

    1. Like I wrote, your mileage will vary. I’m not speaking on the behalf of other people, and of course, I’m well aware that other parents allow their primary school kids to bring iPhones to school. Remember, this is a personal blog and that’s all that it is.

  2. “But one thing is for sure, Minister sir, my aspirations have not changed and I know the cost of living is going up. Not because I’m adding to my cost of living, but because I’m doing everything I can to fight it.”

    Ha!

    Fastforward to 2015, motorbike COE breaks $6500, while public transport was hiked in response to a ~50% decrease in oil prices.

    Small wonder our cost of living is so staggering high, we are paying top dollar for clowns at the helm, and even more so on their jestering. Here’s hoping the electorate will decide smartly to make our dear Mr Lui political career a short-lived one.

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