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Politics

Asian inaction on inequality draws Oxfam criticism

Report ranks Singapore, land of 'Crazy Rich Asians,' in bottom 10

Skyscrapers tower over a Jakarta slum. Southeast Asia's run of brisk economic growth has left wide gaps between rich and poor. (Getty Images)

SINGAPORE -- Asian governments need to show a stronger commitment to easing inequality, in part by raising minimum wages, argues a new report by Oxfam and Development Finance International.

The region did not fare well in the report's Commitment to Reducing Inequality Index, which ranks 157 countries by governments' efforts to narrow the rich-poor divide. The index takes into account social welfare spending, along with tax and labor policies.

One of Asia's wealthiest countries, Singapore, was among the worst performers, placing 149th due to "harmful tax practices." This includes a move to increase personal income tax by 2% while the maximum tax rate for the highest earners remains "very low at 22%."

The report also criticizes Singapore's "relatively low level of social spending," with only 39% of its budget going to education, health care and a safety net. "On labor, it has no equal pay or nondiscrimination laws for women ... and there is no minimum wage, except for cleaners and security guards."

Singapore issued a strong objection to the findings. "We set out to achieve real outcomes for our people -- good health, education, jobs and housing -- rather than satisfy a collection of ideologically driven indicators," Social and Family Development Minister Desmond Lee said in response to the report on Tuesday.

India, too, is performing "very badly" according to Oxfam and DFI, which describes the country's inequality as "a very worrying situation" given its population of 1.3 billion. India was ranked 147th out of 157 countries.

"Government spending on health, education and social protection is woefully low and often subsidizes the private sector," the report says. It also notes that if India were to increase its commitment, more than 170 million people "would no longer be poor."

The report says that while commitment levels are higher elsewhere in Asia, governments still need to do more.

In Indonesia's case, despite efforts to increase the minimum wage and boost health care spending in pursuit of universal coverage, the country "still needs to increase this substantially in the coming years to deliver health for all."

The picture is brighter in North Asia, with Japan, South Korea and China ranking 11th, 56th and 81st, respectively. South Korea was seen showing a "real commitment to reduce inequality." It notes that President Moon Jae-in has "dramatically" raised the minimum wage by 16.4%, increased taxation on the country's largest corporations and expanded welfare outlays.

The report suggests a number of steps governments can take to close the gap: delivering universal, public and free health care and education, as well as universal social protection floors. "They should be funded by increasing progressive taxation and clamping down on exemptions and tax dodging."

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