Wednesday 5 December 2012

Singapore can become that Greater Society

by Tan Wu Meng, Published TODAY, 4 Dec 2012

There have been many recent discussions on Singapore's social compact. How much meritocracy is too much? How do we address inequality arising from the free market? Some advocate more Government action; others worry about economic competitiveness. 

In the midst of this debate, we must not lose sight of deeper questions of what we are as a nation, and what we hope to be as a people.

Modern market economies, by rewarding the most able and productive, have created many opportunities in the era of globalisation. A local artisan can sell his craft to customers half a world away. Workers across the globe can create something more than the sum of individual efforts. New roles and new jobs arise.

Yet for those whose jobs have become commoditised, there is intense wage pressure downwards. Assembly-line workers do not merely need to match their countrymen in the factory next door; the competition now includes counterparts in India, China and elsewhere. Hence the problem of widening income gaps in open economies like Singapore.

Capitalism and free markets also have intrinsic limitations. Market failures occur for various reasons, such as information asymmetry, positions of advantage or price externalities. For example, automobile prices do not automatically factor in the environmental cost of greenhouse gases, nor the geopolitical implications of petroleum dependency.

The market provides information on supply, demand and prices. However, we should not let market economics determine our social norms and values. When all is reduced to price, we lose track of the priceless. When a mentality of winner-takes-all takes root, it takes away something from our society.


We need progressive taxation and redistribution in any modern market economy, as part of a progressive fiscal system. But is it enough?

While many nations have narrowed their income gaps, none have completely abolished inequality and social differences. Even in economies where income taxes are high and redistributive transfers are large, it remains too easy for the savvy investor to structure his wealth against taxation, or to park it overseas in any number of tax shelters. Great Britain after World War II saw the founding of a welfare state, yet class divides remain not far from the surface.

The captains of capitalism have differing reputations. Why is it that Mr Warren Buffett is celebrated even by those less enamoured of the free market, whereas some other businessmen are seen even by the 1 per cent as parasites extracting yet more wealth to augment existing riches?

Inequality becomes particularly corrosive to society when people no longer see a path upwards; when those on top do not give a helping hand - or worse, having climbed to the next level, pull the ladder up after themselves and pretend the ladder was never needed in the first place. 

The meritocratic system begins to fray when great success breeds a sense of great entitlement, rather than the calling of great responsibility to others.

This is not just a question of personal values. When social cohesion is brittle, it weakens a people's resilience. A country divided cannot easily navigate out of danger. A nation's defence is incomplete unless each citizen feels he has a stake in the future, that he is part of something greater, that he is fighting for more than just another person's possessions.

Social mobility and a rebalancing of meritocracy, while crucial, are but part of the answer. Something more is needed.


How can we build a society that has less taking and more giving? Legislation and progressive fiscal policies are necessary but not sufficient. Something of our humanity is lost when all redistribution is reduced to bureaucratic transaction, in the same way that an automated birthday greeting lacks the personal touch of a handwritten message.

We must remake our social norms. Imagine a society where the wealthy Singaporean leading a gilded life is seen by peers and people as less than successful, unless he contributes back and makes a voluntary difference above and beyond his tax obligations - be it in time, energy or donations.

That society is within our reach today, for one need not be a Rockefeller or a Carnegie to touch others' lives.

Nearly a decade ago, I witnessed this while caring for a young man who had lost his leg in a road accident. He was deeply discouraged and in despair. Another amputee, who had lost a leg to cancer but gone on to a successful career, came forward to provide encouragement. That human touch made the difference: By giving a younger man hope in overcoming present tragedy, the will to live was restored.

More broadly in the healthcare sector, we see patients, relatives and well-wishers coming together: Some donate money to assist the needy sick, others give of their time to organise fundraisers and encourage those newly diagnosed.

Employers who understand the illness journey have gone the extra mile to hire fellow Singaporeans on their own road to recovery. 

Such ground-up efforts can complement the progressive redistribution that is the hallmark of a responsible government.


So long as our legs have strength, we have it within ourselves to stand up for pregnant women and elderly folk by offering an MRT seat.

Each pair of two good hands can build a cleaner Singapore, simply by returning our own trays to help the cleaners at hawker centres and food courts - no matter how few join the endeavour at first.

A small act may seem inconsequential, but it speaks kindness to the people we reach out to. And when we hear of such good deeds, we too must speak of them, to show our support for a better Singapore.

All it takes is for each of us to decide, together, that the Singapore dream is not just about how far we can go, how fast we can achieve, or how high we can soar. It is also about whether as citizens we have lived for causes larger than our individual selves, and made a difference to our fellow men and women.

By joining taxation and redistribution with constructive social norms, we can be a great people, building a happy, prosperous and progressively inclusive Greater Society.

Tan Wu Meng, a Singaporean, is a medical doctor working in a public sector hospital.

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