Thursday 12 March 2015

The ethics of collective responsibility

By Sanjay Perera, Published The Straits Times, 10 Mar 2015

THERE is consensus that certain aspects of Singapore's Budget indicate a leftward shift politically.

This hinges on the announcement of several things such as a SkillsFuture plan that facilitates workers upgrading their skills, and a Silver Support Scheme which provides cash payouts to Singapore's poorest elderly.

Another key announcement is a plan to reduce income inequality further by increasing taxes on the richest people from 20 per cent to 22 per cent from 2017. (This falls short of what could be the case, for such taxes on the wealthy could almost reach 50 per cent as it is elsewhere. But that's just a personal view, and may be asking for too much, too soon.)

The Budget announcements are much needed, but they do not make Singapore a centre-left state. If anything, it brings the country from centre-right closer towards the centre.

But we should take note of the emphasis by Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam that the Budget not only tempers social inequality and also tries to lessen the rich-poor gap, but focuses on social mobility in providing assistance for people to further their potential and earning power. Thus, to frame the Budget as one that should be noted primarily for which political direction it is leaning, is to miss the significance of the announcements.

The introduction of a social safety net which comes in the form of a basic income for some of the poorest in our society marks a morphing from state pragmatism to one that embraces a more ethical dimension into economic planning. Similarly, the SkillsFuture initiative signifies a much needed development from an academic results-oriented meritocracy to the recognition of skills and actual abilities and the need to nurture these.

The Budget announcements should be correctly seen as they have been framed by the Finance Minister: as a shift towards a collective national responsibility for each and every citizen. A change towards a responsible collective mindset for Singapore is crucial. It is not a shift away from self-reliance, but is an acknowledgement that some of us need more help than others and that we should be accountable to one another through socio-economic responsibility. It is in this context that Nominated MP Chia Yong Yong's remarks on Central Provident Fund withdrawals should be understood. Her courageous viewpoint against growing calls for greater flexibility in the withdrawal of the CPF is hardly populist and it has earned her online vilification and misunderstanding. But the point she raised is germane as to how much state intervention is desired by citizens and what personal and overall societal responsibility means.

Strong state intervention in social matters is unlikely in the near future as post-Independence Singapore does not have a far-left tradition. While some may want spending to approximate that of free-spending socialist governments elsewhere, the reality is that Singapore has a constitutional requirement to maintain a balanced budget over a five-year term of government.

It is heartening to see that within the constraints set by prudent fiscal rules, the need for more social spending is increasingly framed as the "right" thing to do, and not as an expedient or economically productive thing to do. For example, appeals to the rich to give more to charity and to allow themselves to be taxed more, are made from an ethical viewpoint where each of us is encouraged to take collective responsibility for the whole. The focus is less on what each person can get out of the system, and more on what each can contribute for the betterment of the commonweal.

Collective responsibility cuts both ways. It may entail higher taxes on the wealthy. But it would also put the onus on the rest of us to be responsible in spending, and to ensure that enhanced social spending should be complemented by ensuring, for instance, that CPF withdrawals are used for what they are intended for: retirement funding, not a cash bonus for discretionary expenses.

If we expect a heightened sense of responsibility from the wealthy in being willing to pay higher taxes in future, we must be willing to balance this by maintaining a sense of self-reliance and responsible consumption for ourselves. If this can be realised, then we do not need to wonder how far left we have traversed but look to strengthening as much as possible shared social responsibility as a national vision. This would be the right path for Singapore as it continues its journey into the 21st century.

The writer worked in the Singapore navy and media, taught at tertiary institutions and is the editor of Philosophers for Change, an online journal dealing with alternative socioeconomic paradigms.

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