Comments to Wanbao about Singapore’s social welfare system

The local Chinese evening daily, Lianhe Wanbao (联合晚报), emailed me earlier this week to ask for my comments on Singapore’s social welfare system. This was with reference to the article in The Economist (“The stingy nanny”), which I blogged about on 15 February. The Wanbao article appeared this evening.

The following are my responses to the reporter’s questions:

> Do you think our welfare system is doing enough to help the needy?
No, I do not think our welfare system is doing enough to help the needy. Our current welfare system is designed to help only those who are in extremely dire straits and have no where else to turn to except death. However it misses out on helping many needy people who have some assets, and a few relatives, but are completely cash-strapped and are in an equally desperate situation.
> Also, do you think it is an often heard criticism that our welfare system is stingy to the poor?
Our welfare system IS stingy to the poor. The numbers speak for themselves. In FY2009, MCYS was allocated only $183.6 million (or 0.4%) out of an entire government budget of $43.4 billion to “assist vulnerable groups”, much of which went to fund self-help groups, and run programmes like active ageing projects, rather than placing cash in the hands of the needy. (See here.) There are only 3,000 who qualify for Public Assistance of $360 a month. Is it really possible that there are only 3,000 people in Singapore with no sources of income?
This sort of budget allocation is suitable for a poor, developing country with an empty Treasury, but we are long past that stage. We are now an extremely wealthy, developed nation with enormous reserves and huge annual budget surpluses–and also very high income inequality. For example, the Net Investment Returns (from investing our reserves) were $7.7 billion in FY2009. This is many times more than all the direct social welfare provided by the government. The government can definitely afford to be much more generous, even without raising income taxes.
> if so, what do you think is the reason?
It is because of the blindly anti-welfare ideology of the PAP government. They have convinced themselves that welfare will lead to laziness. However this not necessarily so. A well-designed welfare system will provide citizens with peace of mind and an assurance of a decent safety net if they fall (e.g., lose their job), while still focusing on getting those who are able to work back into the workforce.

Do you think our welfare system is doing enough to help the needy?

No, I do not think our welfare system is doing enough to help the needy. Our current welfare system is designed to help only those who are in extremely dire straits and have no where else to turn to except death. However it misses out on helping many needy people who have some assets, and a few relatives, but are completely cash-strapped and are in an equally desperate situation.

Also, do you think it is an often heard criticism that our welfare system is stingy to the poor?

Our welfare system is stingy to the poor. The numbers speak for themselves. In FY2009, MCYS was allocated only $183.6 million (or 0.4%) out of an entire government budget of $43.4 billion to “assist vulnerable groups”, much of which went to fund self-help groups, and run programmes like active ageing projects, rather than placing cash in the hands of the needy. (Correction: The FY2009 projected government expenditure was $43.6 billion.) There are only 3,000 who qualify for Public Assistance of $360 a month. Is it really possible that there are only 3,000 people in Singapore with no sources of income?

This sort of budget allocation is suitable for a poor, developing country with an empty Treasury, but we are long past that stage. We are now an extremely wealthy, developed nation with enormous reserves and huge annual budget surpluses–and also very high income inequality. For example, the projected Net Investment Returns (from investing our reserves) were $7.7 billion in FY2009. This is many times more than all the direct social welfare provided by the government. The government can definitely afford to be much more generous, even without raising income taxes.

If so, what do you think is the reason?

It is because of the blindly anti-welfare ideology of the PAP government. They have convinced themselves that welfare will lead to laziness. However this not necessarily so. A well-designed welfare system will provide citizens with peace of mind and an assurance of a decent safety net if they fall (e.g., lose their job), while still focusing on getting those who are able to work back into the workforce.

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Here is the article (click to enlarge):

Wanbao

Author: Gerald Giam

Gerald Giam is the Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC. He is a member of the Workers' Party of Singapore. The opinions expressed on this page are his alone.

7 thoughts on “Comments to Wanbao about Singapore’s social welfare system”

  1. Dear Mr G,

    A humble opinion from me:

    Please note the difference of reader enthusiasm to leave a comment between this article and your previous article. This is a good lesson to roughly gauge how differently public response to certain topics, certain way of writing, and certain assumptions formed by public from the reading your writing. All this lesson will be very useful for your coming endeavor.

  2. ObserverOne – Yes there is a slight difference in number of comments and number of views (this article has slightly more). What do you think accounts for the difference?

  3. Hi Mr G,

    It is for you to figure it out, as I am not an expert in this field. Also, please for other readers to comment.

    However, I would like to contribute some possible points that I think is logical:

    Point 1:
    When you declare that you joined opposition, people put hope in you as a potential good candidate that eventually may bring some benefit to them. When you wrote about your comments to wanbao, people may not be able to answer “What benefit are for me/us from that event?”

    In this aspect, it is important to learn how to package your writing, speech, thought in a way that may answer this very basic question in people heart: “Any benefit for me/us?”.

    To be continued…. please comment.

  4. Hi Gerald,

    Unfortunately, I just came across your blog a month after the article was out in the Economist.

    I’ve gone through the threads, and sad to say, am more confused than ever about the issue. What confuses me even more are the responses to it.

    I have categorised those who have responded to this article into 4 main categories:

    1. Foreigner, who loathes his/her own life back home and sees the benefits of a system that celebrates those at the pinnacle of their careers.

    2. Foreigner, who dislikes the rest of the quirks of our system, such as the lack of freedom bestowed upon us, and wishes we were more like wherever they came from.

    3. Singaporean who truly feels for being part of the aspirational class. Works hard all day to make a decent wage, and celebrates bonuses through alcohol consumption and splurging 40% of his/her income on a car that barely goes above 130km/h.

    4. Singaporean who feels that the grass is greener on the other side cos it really really truly sucks here. Period.

    All of these broad categories of people responded with either the welfare system (or sometimes the system in general) is good as it altogether prevents the situation of someone needing a handout, or it’s bad because the government should place more emphasis on the plight of its citizens.

    A little confused at first, it dawned on me that very few actually realised that a system is just that. It’s something that has been conjured up through discussions in parliamentary meetings, of bills passed, or sometimes arises simply from a revolution on some scale.

    The saddest part is that people didn’t realise that these systems were put there, sometimes modified a little, at other times left to fester, but inherently it is something that is impermanent.

    Should we not be looking at our system and evaluating it for ourselves, and looking for ways to improve it rather than sticking to the mindset that it’s our way, or theirs?

    There is no perfect system, and the sooner we realise that the better.

    I hope that one day Singaporeans will be mature enough to realise that it’s ultimately our life in the balance. Stating that you support or do not support the ruling party makes no huge difference at the end of the day. If nothing constructive is done to point out the flaws, and to suggest an alternative, we will never improve.

    That being said, I do of course recognise that we have a long way to go, especially considering the factors we have to work with. However, I do believe that the desire to improve things comes from the self, and in order to do that, one has to recognise that there is no perfect system, and seek to change that instead of just accepting it.

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