Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Old Post from ST Forum

An old post from ST Forum. Is the Swede quality of life really that good??

Swede quality of life

I REFER to Ms Heng Siew Cheng's letter, 'Why one couple is resettling in Sweden'', (July 17) and the replies by Singapore Senior Minister of State for Finance and Transport, Mrs Lim Hwee Hua (July 22), and 'Where else can you buy your home in 5 years?'' by Mr Peter Wadeley (July 24) My Singaporean wife moved to Sweden in 2001. She gave birth to our first child, a boy, last November. We are now on holiday, extending our first flush of joy of parenting in Singapore with my wife's family.

My wife, a teacher, is on a year's maternity leave. I am on paternity leave for 45 days here. When I return home, I shall still be on paternity leave for three more months. The generous duration of our parental leave is mandated by the state. Mr Wadeley implies that Singaporeans can buy a home in five years. I disagree. Last year, the median household income was $4,870. Even with grants, an average family cannot pay off a flat that quickly. It is also unachievable for Ms Heng and her Swedish husband, even if their collective income barely breaches the HDB's $8,000 bar.

Mrs Lim's comparison is incomplete. Nine in 10 Singaporeans merely lease their homes (HDB flats are typically 99-year leaseholds). Freehold ownership is higher in Sweden: Forty per cent live in landed property, 20 per cent in freehold condos and 40 per cent in rental flats. Swedish rental flats are akin to HDB flats. The main differences are that there is no downpayment, and the rental contract does not expire.

It is true, as Mrs Lim says, that Swedes spend 13 per cent of their income on housing. But for the money, half of us have our own garden - and precious time - to play with our children.

She suggests it is less expensive to raise children here. It is true that consumer goods are cheaper here and Singapore ranks third globally in per capita GDP (purchasing power adjusted) and Sweden 12th, according to the World Bank. But as more of Singapore's GDP comprises imports and exports, the statistic does not reveal the extent of benefit to its citizens.

The World Bank uses Household Final Consumption Expenditure (HFCE) as an affordability benchmark. Including goods and services provided by the government, it tells how much one has for useful spending, either directly or through tax. Sweden's HFCE per capita, in 2005 figures, is US$30,000, (S$42,000) double Singapore's US$14,000.

Ms Heng is concerned about raising children here. Having lived in both countries, I agree. The United Nations' Human Development Index, based on 350 indicators, tracks 'a long and healthy life, knowledge and a decent standard of living'. Sweden ranks sixth worldwide, while Singapore trails at 25th.

I am not advocating the adoption of Sweden's welfare system wholesale. But, if Singapore adopts a tiny part, giving parents flexibility and cheaper childcare, it probably means a tax hike of just a few per cent.

I would like to extend a warm welcome to Ms Heng to Sweden.

Jan Sundström

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