The respected British weekly, The Economist, has published a cutting criticism of Singapore’s social safety net (or lack thereof) in its latest edition dated 13 February 2010, titled “Welfare in Singapore: The stingy nanny”. Here are some excerpts:
Citizens are obliged to save for the future, rely on their families and not expect any handouts from the government unless they hit rock bottom.
In government circles “welfare” remains a dirty word, cousin to sloth and waste.
The most destitute citizens’ families may apply for public assistance; only 3,000 currently qualify.
Applicants complain that the process of seeking help is made tiresome and humiliating. Indeed that could be the point, supposing it deters free-riders.
But the thinness of the safety net also reflects a widespread article of faith, recited and reinforced over the years. Even among the social workers who work in hard-hit communities there is surprisingly little frustration at the meagreness of the handouts on offer or at the lengthy application process.
In 2008 the World Bank rated it the third richest country in the world, in terms of GDP per head at purchasing-power parity. And the idea that its Big-Brotherly government might be outfoxed by conniving welfare queens seems odd.
Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father and still its “minister mentor” has maintained that ambitious migrants help to keep citizens on their toes. In an interview given to National Geographic last July he said that if native Singaporeans lag behind “hungry” foreigners because “the spurs are not stuck on [their] hinds”, that is not the state’s problem to solve.
The Economic Society of Singapore (ESS)—not exactly a radical cell—recently proposed to a government committee that it should build a more robust safety net, starting with unemployment insurance. This would promote social stability and help muster public support for Singapore’s open-door migration policies, it argues. Properly designed, such measures would not create disincentives to work and thrift. “While self-reliance is a good principle in general, it may be neither efficient nor just if taken to extremes,” noted the ESS.
I think this was quite a fair and well-researched article (as one would expect from The Economist). The only mistake I think they made was to say that 35 per cent of our work force is foreign. That is the percentage of foreigners in our entire population. I think the percentage of foreigners in our work force is higher than that.
I’m looking forward to the government’s ‘robust’ response to this article. They always respond to The Economist because of the newspaper’s influence both locally and internationally. But I can just imagine the press secretary belting out the standard Singapore government rhetoric of permanent vulnerability and slippery slope arguments. These will only serve as red herrings to stymie debate on the issue.
No one is advocating a free for all welfare system in Singapore. But we first have to admit that the current system is not taking care of all the people that are truly in need, and look for ways to improve it. A properly designed social safety net will provide peace of mind and a higher tolerance for risk-taking and entrepreneurship, without taking away any incentive to work hard for one’s keep.