Tuesday 17 December 2019

The best policies are those with empathy

By Tee Zhuo,The Sunday Times, 15 Dec 2019

Cold, hard logic has a certain appeal, and many public policies in Singapore are successfully guided by it.

Take the principle behind home ownership: Give people a stake in the nation and they will feel invested in it.

The soundness of this principle is demonstrated by the fact that more than 80 per cent of Singaporeans live in public housing.

An August 2015 Business Times piece looking at 50 years of housing policy described Housing Board flats as "the people's equity stake in Singapore".

But Singaporeans are not holding equity in a company. They are citizens of a country, and the notion of co-paying cannot be used as a proxy for pride and loyalty.

Let me use two government responses from last month to illustrate what I mean.

The first response was to a letter on the TODAY news website asking why Singaporeans have to pay $10 to replace their National Registration Identity Card (NRIC) when they turn 55.

The Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) said the cost of replacing an NRIC is about $60 and the Government subsidises $50.

The remaining $10 is "very manageable for most people" and these fees have been "charged and unchanged" since 2000, it said.

"We believe that a system where the applicant pays a small sum is better: It brings a stronger sense of pride and ownership of the card," the ICA added.

This reasoning seems to have a similar transactional logic as the housing policy: money, for a stake.

But a sense of pride in being Singaporean - which an identity card symbolises - is something intangible.

Linking this pride with a payment, however small, is unnecessary, I feel. In fact, it also has the unfortunate effect of cheapening it.

The second response was to a Facebook post that highlighted how a pupil's original Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) results slip was withheld because her family had not paid school fees of $156 for two years.

Among other things, the Ministry of Education (MOE) explained that this was "a longstanding practice" that was "not about recovering the money", but instead a "teachable moment" for children.

It added that the ministry's funding for each primary school pupil comes up to $12,000 a year, and each pupil pays only $13 in miscellaneous fees a month.

"MOE's consideration stems from the underlying principle that notwithstanding the fact that the cost of education is almost entirely publicly funded, we should still play our part in paying a small fee, and it is not right to ignore that obligation, however small it is."

Most Singaporeans would say it is fair to pay school fees. But I doubt many would think it right to withhold the PSLE results slip of an innocent 12-year-old to achieve this.

And how does doing so create a "teachable moment" for the child?

The more likely lesson the child will pick up is that it is shameful to be poor - which would be ironic, given how schools are supposed to be one of society's great levellers.

On the face of it, though, both responses were reasoned, principled defences of the Government's position.

But the problem may be exactly that: The responses came across as being too much about reasoning and appeared defensive.

They followed a familiar formula: Cite longstanding practice, note that most of the fees are subsidised, and highlight financial aid or case-by-case waivers that are available.

But just because something has been done for a long time doesn't mean it has been right all along.

For example, on the PSLE issue, one could say that while comprehensive, aid options for needy families are not always easily accessible.

My point isn't whether the Government had good reasons for its actions - it almost always does - but how, when and where these reasons are used.

Addressing these questions requires something more than the standard answers.

It requires empathy - the ability to understand and share someone else's feelings.

This means recognising that citizenship has an emotional dimension that money can't buy.

It means that even if agencies have the right to claim a debt owed, children should not be used as leverage.

It also means that while personal responsibility might form the cornerstone of many policies, there is a time and place to teach it.

The need for the Government to consider the emotional dimension of issues is not new.

Nee Soon MP Louis Ng said during the 2017 Budget debate that while there was no doubt that Singapore's public service is efficient and corruption-free, he was concerned that "in the pursuit of efficiency, we have compromised a key value - compassion".

To be fair, the Government has shown itself to be empathetic.

Despite the group's angrily worded and at times confusing accusations, MOE was patient in explaining that texts of literary value "often deal with complex human conditions and reflect the imperfections in societies".

And on the ground, agencies like the Social Service Offices and the Municipal Services Office are trying to make interactions with citizens more human by providing "one-stop" services.

I hope the same empathy can be exercised when government agencies next think about using fees and payments to make a point.

That is of course not to say that payments and funds can never be linked with values.

Let us reconsider the home ownership policy, where money (subsidies) has been used to promote values (a sense of belonging).

It is true that home ownership gives Singaporeans a vested interest in Singapore's success because the value of flats rises with the country's fortunes - much like buying stocks makes one vested in whether a company succeeds.

But it is not the money that has created a sense of belonging.

It is the policy that has done so by giving space for families to grow, and opportunities for community and attachment to take root.

The policy succeeded because it supported emotional, human elements - something that cannot be achieved by cold, hard logic.

If we can extend this philosophy to situations like the PSLE results slip issue and even NRIC fees, we can create more than a well-run society.

We will also infuse this country with a bigger heart and soul.

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