Sunday 25 August 2013

We too must be responsible for ourselves

Saying the Government needs to do more for its people does not mean each of us needs to do less
By Jeremy Au Yong, The Straits Times, 24 Aug 2013

A DAY after the National Day Rally, a friend railed to me about the inadequacy of the additional housing grants Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had announced.

On Sunday, PM Lee declared "let me be your housing agent" and ran through a bunch of numbers to show that Singaporeans could buy a flat with cash payments as low as $2 a day.

The retort I was listening to on Monday went like this: "You give all these grants, cash outlay can be zero, but what if you have a bigger family and need to buy a bigger place? You get a three-room flat but you need to store a family of five, then how?"

She explained that it was the Government's responsibility to ensure Singaporeans could afford flats large enough to contain their family. After all, citizens of a developed nation should not have to go through the pain of having to squeeze two children and one grandparent into the same room.

"But in that case, what is your responsibility?" I asked.

"If you want to be a nanny state, you have got to nanny all the way," came the snappy reply.

The precise content of the conversation might be on the extreme side, but there is cause for concern if it is reflective of the general sentiment of Singaporeans.

The fear is that many might be taking the wrong message away from PM Lee's pledge to shift away from the long-held "tough love" approach.

At the rally, PM Lee had said: "If we rely too heavily on the individual, their efforts alone will not be enough, especially among the vulnerable, like the lower-income families, like the elderly.

"And there are some things which individuals cannot do on their own, and there are other things which we can do much better together. So we must shift the balance, the community and the Government will have to do more to support individuals."

He is right that the Government and the community need to look after the weakest in society where need is the greatest. And so its responsibilities will grow.

But responsibility is not a zero-sum game. By saying the Government needs to do more, it is not saying that the individual needs to do less. Yet, I fear that might be where we are heading, going by some reactions.

For instance, the announcement of the expansion of MediShield has curiously met with mixed responses.

It is not that people are opposed to health insurance with better benefits that covers all for life, even those with pre-existing illnesses, but rather that PM Lee announced that it will lead to higher premiums.

The accusations of MediShield Life being used as a method for the Government to take funds from the Central Provident Fund - as suggested by numerous online - can be read in several ways.

One is that the relationship between the Government and some online factions is so fractious that no policy can go uncriticised. The other more worrying one is that people want the Government to bear as much responsibility as possible for their health care.

Anyone who has private universal health care will tell you that such plans do not come cheap and one hopes the premium increases will not be too severe. If the increases ultimately end up being unreasonable, then complaints are in order, but surely we should not baulk at just the idea of paying more for better coverage.

In housing, I wonder if the Government may have over-reached in signalling its willingness to give grants to the middle-income. The Special Housing Grant - previously available only to those buying two- and three-room flats - will now be available to those buying four-room flats.

Since then, some have asked if the grant might be extended to those buying resale or five-room flats. Others wondered if those buying private housing might get help as well.

Indeed, property experts warned the new grant needs to come with a carefully calibrated income ceiling lest it causes a sudden rush to buy four-room flats.

And there were also organisations, including NGOs and opposition parties, that reacted to the Rally in the same format: "This is a step in the right direction but the Government needs to do more. Here are some suggestions."

Taking part in this new way forward must involve more than that. If we want a participatory democracy, we need to participate outside the elections.

Participating must go beyond giving suggestions and then playing supervisor to whoever it is you have palmed off the implementation to.

I worry that in the country's attempt to build an inclusive, equitable society, we might not be in this together.

Some will no doubt point out that if there is a lack of personal responsibility among individuals, it stems from the policies of an overbearing government.

And indeed there is some merit to this argument. When the Government removes decisions like what health insurance to get or how to save for retirement from people, it can be disempowering.

The challenge for the Government - and everyone else - is to find the right balance between state, community and individual.

As both PM Lee and Education Minister Heng Swee Keat noted, Singapore is at a turning point. The challenges that lie ahead for the country are complex ones without clear-cut technical solutions.

Mr Heng referred to the new challenges as adaptive problems, which are not solved by a moment of inspiration or a leader coming up with some brilliant scheme no one has thought of before. Society as a whole has to do the work of facing and making adjustments to new harsh realities.

The new way forward must not play down the role of the individual. Present too many solutions from the Government's end and the individual might be comforted into thinking that everything is under control and the leaders will take care of it all. It may well be that taxes have to go up even as the number of problems leaders can solve goes down.

The shock of that change might be too great if we do not start preparing for it now.

For Singapore to thrive in future, everyone needs to take responsibility for themselves and the community.

To achieve that, we might need more tough love, not less.

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