PROFESSOR Lim Chong Yah's radical proposal on Monday - for a wage revolution not unlike the 1979 one he was central to - drew criticism from disbelieving economists and businesses who saw it as impractical - 'economic suicide'.
It is not hard to see why. His bold three-year plan includes a wage freeze for top earners while incomes for the poorest are raised by huge quantums - 15 per cent in each of the first two years and 20 per cent in the last year.
Those earning the most are the very same globally sought talent Singapore cannot afford to drive away with such a move, critics said. And small and medium enterprises (SMEs) unable to bear wage cost hikes could put low-wage workers out of work, or channel costs to their prices, driving inflation up, others added.
Prof Lim, replying to questions post-lecture, said that he has indeed given thought to these matters. But different priorities - he sees income inequality as a potential 'Achilles' heel' for Singapore which must be swiftly addressed - lead him to different conclusions.
For instance, he thinks foreign talent will still be drawn to a country with 'peace, security, harmony and reward'. 'Foreign talent know, and should know, that Singapore is not an El Dorado. It is a country and a nation. We will have to treat each other with respect,' he told BT. He also acknowledges that SMEs dependent on low-cost labour will have a hard time, but thinks they 'will have to design their manpower utilisation to make better use of their workers'.
But beyond the criticism it has drawn, the more crucial fact may be that Prof Lim's proposal has reignited debate over Singapore's income gap and how it is unlikely to narrow if things are left as they are.
Singapore's Gini coefficient has risen over the last decade, from 0.454 in 2001 to 0.473 in 2011. Another common measure of income inequality, a ratio of household income from work per household member at the 90th and 10th percentiles, also worsened, from 8.58 in 2001 to 9.19 in 2011.
Incomes of those at the lower rungs have also been stickier. The latest labour market report released last month showed that from 2006 to 2010, Singaporean workers' real median incomes rose 13 per cent, while that for the bottom 20 per cent of workers rose a slower 11 per cent.
Globally, income inequality is disconcerting because of the threat it poses to social stability and hence growth - something Singapore's leaders have recognised.
The Prime Minister, for instance, said at the start of a new term of Parliament last October that 'income inequality is starker than before' and that 'at the lower end, incomes have risen too slowly, far too slowly'.
Moves to strengthen the social safety net may have helped. For instance, the Gini coefficient, when adjusted for cash transfers to the poor and taxes on the rich, actually narrowed slightly from 0.455 in 2010 to 0.452 last year.
But the government's broader push lies in ongoing measures to curb foreign workforce growth with tighter quotas and higher levies, and the nationwide campaign to boost productivity. The hope is that this economic restructuring will address the downward pull on the lowest wages. Its success, however, will rely on workers and companies acting as they should.
And there are similar risks, albeit on a different scale, to those critics say will assail Prof Lim's radical plan: the costs of restructuring may include companies folding if they fail to lift productivity quickly enough to stomach higher wage costs, and inflationary pressures.
Also, as median incomes rise, there is no stopping wage growth at the top from accelerating, hence keeping the income gap wide. It is even likely, since Singapore needs to remain a hub for global talent and will keep its tax regime attractive to top earners, in order to stay competitive.
Interestingly, Prof Lim's proposal comes two years after the Economic Strategies Committee's recommendations in 2010, and also after stronger measures to address Singapore's unhealthy reliance on low-cost foreign labour were unveiled this past Budget.
To him then, these moves are not enough. As he put it, 'shock therapy' is needed for Singapore to halt or alter the trend of rising income inequality.
Inequality, after all, is what this 80-year-old who has devoted most of his life to Singapore economics as both academic and public servant - he was chairman of the National Wages Council for close to 30 years - wants to address.
It is with reference to the first radical wage correction policy of 1979 to 1981, which he helped craft as NWC chairman, that he proposed his 'bold and iconoclastic' second restructuring programme.
And if the proposal highlights the need for more than the current policy framework can do to address income inequality, or sparks discussion on whether inclusive growth necessarily means narrowing the income gap, then, criticisms notwithstanding, it has served its purpose.