Tak boleh tahan in the climate crisis
“The rich will just do fine when things happen to them because they have a lot of wealth and power, but what about the rest of us in the majority…do you feel secure and safe when crisis hits?” - Cik Erah
Cik Erah’s words at the 2nd Tak Boleh Tahan! town hall gave a voice to the many people struggling to make ends meet in Singapore, at the same time that wealth inequality has visibly increased. She was not just speaking for herself, but also for the hundreds of people in the rental flat community where she has lived and volunteered for the past 10 years. And judging by the enthusiastic shouts in the audience, many others also felt the same way.
This sentiment is not just limited to Singapore’s borders. In the wake of multiple crises including the pandemic, cost of living increases and extreme weather events around the world, it is increasingly clear that those with access to more money and resources are better equipped to make it through, while those in the middle and working class have to make many sacrifices just to survive. We are already starting to feel the effects of the climate crisis, and we need to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen again.
A common slogan among climate movements is that “transition is inevitable, but justice is not.” While the Singapore government has its SG Green Plan with well-intentioned targets, installing solar panels and greening buildings is only one part of the picture. The cost of electricity and housing should be within everyone’s reach too, for them to benefit from it. Otherwise, we could very well live in a future where only those who can afford it are protected from the heat waves and flash floods that are sure to become more frequent.
Tak Boleh Tahan, which loosely translates to “I can’t take it anymore” in Malay, was the name of a campaign by the Singapore Democratic Party in 2008 which protested the raising of GST from 5% to 7% and the rising cost of living then. The 20 people who demonstrated at Parliament House were charged with holding an illegal assembly, a reminder of the many restrictions that civil society continues to face today. The Tak Boleh Tahan! 2023 town hall series draws inspiration from this earlier campaign to continue the struggle and talk about the Singapore we deserve — one where Singaporeans and migrants alike have access to affordable housing, healthcare, decent jobs and a secure, stable life. (For transparency, some SG Climate Rally members are part of the organising team, as the town halls are aligned with our goal of pushing for a just transition away from the climate crisis.)
The first town hall on 29 Jan, titled “GST hike and rising cost of living: Are the ruling elite stealing our rice bowls?”, focused on how the cost of living is rising faster than wages. Indeed, in the same month, it was reported that Singapore’s core inflation rose by 5.5%, the fastest in 14 years. The rising prices are made worse by the GST hike from 7% to 8% this year, and subsequently 9% next year. In contrast, corporate and income taxes have generally decreased over the past few decades, and many in the audience rightly questioned why the tax burden could not be shifted to wealthy individuals and companies instead.
Shabir, a father of two young daughters who has worked as a crane operator for the last 12 years, spoke emotionally about how the pressure to support his family and put food on the table has pushed him to work non-stop. He could only afford to take two hours off to attend to his mother’s passing, let alone tend to his physical and mental health. Yet in the 19 years that he has worked, he has only received a pay increment of $50 once. In the past 5 years from 2018 to 2023, food prices have increased by 16% , while incomes for plant and machine operators and assemblers, which Shabir’s job would fall under, only increased by 6% from 2018 to 2022 . Though there is currently no data for the past year, it is safe to assume that it has not increased at anywhere near the same rate.
“All these 19 years it’s been tough living life in Singapore, because every single day I worry about putting food on the table for my parents, for my family, for my kids, not so for myself. It’s quite tiring living this type of life, living in fear, trying to follow orders, trying to be the best worker…thinking whether I can retire, seeing my father at 62…his eyes — he can’t see, he has a heart condition, he’s still working at 62 years old. I wonder if he can retire.” — Shabir
But even these figures don’t do justice to the pain and despair many like Shabir feel at not being able to provide enough for their families, despite their hard work. Marlina, a mother of five who runs a home-based snacks business, shared how many people in the rental flat community where she lives can only afford cheap food like instant noodles, despite knowing they do not provide sufficient nutrition. She questioned the need to increase the GST and said that the cash from the GST voucher was only able to support her family of seven for a week, while the moderator Kumarr pointed out that under the ComCare fund, the amount disbursed to each recipient is not enough to make a living wage, despite 2.4 billion dollars being allocated in the fund and only 10% of it having been used. We note that the 2023 budget has since increased the GST voucher amount, but agree with many at the town hall that wealth taxes are a better way to pay for social services while combating inequality.
“With the cost of living right now, I worry because all of us [in my household] are malnutritioned, we can only afford instant noodles, eggs. We don’t get to eat healthy food. They always say ‘Eat Healthy’, but [they] make it unaffordable. I always want to have three healthy, hot meals [on the table], but seems like it’s only hot.” — Marlina
As SGCR has mentioned before in our campaign against the petrol duty hike and comments on the carbon tax bill, taxes are needed to fund decarbonisation, but they should largely fall on high-income individuals who are responsible for most greenhouse gas emissions and have carbon footprints 96 times of those in the bottom 50%. Similarly, the 2023 Climate Inequality Report has argued that “a ‘1.5% for 1.5°C’ progressive tax on extreme wealth individuals owning over US$100 million would raise about US$295 billion per year, more than enough to fill the current adaptation gap as reported by the United Nations Environmental Programme.” Though Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong has said that a wealth tax would be difficult to implement as the rich would find ways to circumvent it, the 2022 World Inequality Report offers suggestions on how to overcome them such as better cross-border information exchange, a high exemption threshold to target the truly wealthy, and using technology to accurately estimate wealth. It also argues that a higher corporate tax would prevent people from using their personal companies as a shield from income tax.
The second town hall, titled “Do we have to work till we drop dead?”, looked at the limits of our existing healthcare and social support systems, which do not adequately protect those who fall through the cracks due to reasons such as disability, unemployment, caregiving responsibilities or other challenges.
Shabir at the first town hall had already mentioned his 62-year-old father who still has to work despite being blind, while Yi Hung and Uncle Peter, both delivery riders, talked about the increased CPF contribution rate for platform workers which would reduce their take home pay. The government has since introduced a transition scheme to pay part of the additional CPF contributions over four years, but the fact remains that platform workers do not have an independent union to advocate on their behalf if they face more problems in the future. Also, Yi Hung and Uncle Peter expressed concerns that the paternalistic restrictions on CPF withdrawal would make it useless in emergencies that do not meet its strict criteria.
“I was recently involved in an accident where I was given 36 days of hospitalisation leave. And when I tried to claim from Chubb, Grab’s insurer, they refuted the claim because of the tiering system…for certain tiers, they are not entitled to the claim. I don’t want to rely on Grab — I hope the government will enforce that free insurance is given to every rider regardless of tier, like what the MOM minister said: ‘every worker should be treated equally’”. — Uncle Peter
We go back to Cik Erah’s quote at the start of this article, which she said after sharing stories of her neighbours and herself who each faced emergency situations where it was difficult to find help. This was because of various eligibility conditions that they could not meet, even though their needs were real. For households who live from paycheck to paycheck, any slight disruption can have devastating consequences. These disruptions will only become more frequent in the future, when more extreme heat waves and floods caused by increasingly heavy rain affect those who work outdoors. Higher temperatures also mean that heat injuries and insect-borne diseases will become more common. Thus, a stronger social safety net has to be part of our climate adaptation strategy, to protect those who will be less able to adapt to the effects of climate change.
The cost of raising children, particularly milk powder prices, was a key topic raised at both town halls by the speakers and the audience. Marlina talked about how milk powder still used to be affordable ten years ago but has more than doubled in price now, while Cik Erah spoke about her recent work advocating for affordable milk after seeing that it is a common issue that many people in her community needed help with.
After listening to the three rousing speeches, many in the audience were driven to share too. There was a spirited discussion on what needs to change and how to do it, with ideas such as unemployment insurance, a minimum fare guarantee for riders, independent unions and capital gains tax being raised, all of which have been done in other countries. More importantly, the audience agreed that collective action is needed to make such change possible. More people speaking up reduces any fear people might have, and makes it easier for others to join. And in order to garner more support, the concerns need to be bridged to the middle classes too, who might not feel as strongly about them but are also exploited by the wealthy, albeit to a smaller extent. To achieve a just transition away from the climate crisis also requires us to form a broad coalition like this, and build the people power that can push for real change.
The third and final Tak Boleh Tahan! town hall, titled “Is this home, truly?”, will be held on 9 April 2-4pm and feature speakers talking about how to ensure that everyone has access to safe, affordable housing in the context of the recent steep rise in housing and rental prices, the uncertainty of lease decay, and HDB rules are not truly inclusive. Sign up at www.tinyurl.com/TakBolehTahan
Workers Make Possible will be holding a Labour Day Rally at Hong Lim Park to demand a better, fairer Singapore. Come, let’s stand up for each other, and be counted. RSVP at www.tinyurl.com/labourday23