Monday 18 November 2013

Debunking the welfare myth

Editorial, The Straits Times, 16 Nov 2013

IT WOULD have jolted its citizens to hear from a minister this week that possibly no nation is more "welfarist" than Singapore, familiar as they are with official discourse over the years refuting the Western welfare model. The rhetorical assertion by Foreign and Law Minister K. Shanmugam at a civil society forum was to underscore the extent to which "every aspect of a citizen's life" is currently subsidised by the Government. From the poorest, help has progressively been extended to the elderly, the young, low-income job holders and even middle-income earners. Singapore's social assistance model now covers housing, health care, early childhood care, education and training, among others.

Yet, for all the government handouts and subsidies given, two ironies persist. The first is a lingering perception that policy positions on social welfare programmes are still "either hands-off or parsimonious", as labelled by a US-based academic. Second, despite the wealth of social schemes (which called for the distribution of an 18-layer bar chart in Parliament this week by Social and Family Development Minister Chan Chun Sing), some are not fully utilised. For example, only half of the 200,000 vouchers to help needy families with the 2011 transport fare increase were taken up.

No doubt, years of framing Western welfare societies as cautionary tales not to be emulated have had a profound impact on how social safety nets have come to be perceived. Yet, as the country progressed, and disparities widened, the recognition has seeped in that society will legitimately have to do more to help its least well-off keep pace if social harmony and inclusiveness are to be maintained. The longstanding myth of a niggardly state would have to be set aside as social safety nets are reinforced. Having done so, much effort will be needed to help people to harness the programmes available. Explaining and promoting schemes are a must. Certain people might even need guidance to submit applications.

Yet, while red tape should be minimised, there is a good reason to retain essential layers of management and checks to ensure resources are used efficiently and subsidies go to the right people. Because public money is involved, it is prudent to routinely indicate the cost borne by taxpayers so all benefits are not taken for granted. Overly generous and loosely administered welfare schemes could corrode the work ethic, give rise to a culture of dependency, lead to the over-consumption of subsidised services, and even spawn abuse. Even as Singapore makes a shift leftwards politically, as some have said, it is worth keeping these bedrock values firmly in mind.

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