By Nicole Seah
Inequality hurts not just the poor, but ALL segments of society. Research in the field of social science has shown that social indicators such as life expectancy, rates of imprisonment, social mobility show poorer performance across the board when there is greater inequality.
Inequality has many practical implications, the most important one being dissatisfaction and discontentment across different classes.
Economic progress accounts for more than just pure output or growth. Other indicators of well-being include consumption, health and longevity, leisure time and income distribution.
Even though our per capita GDP was 83% of the US, the well-being of Singaporeans was disproportionately a mere 44% in comparison.
With regards to the issue of inequality, we cannot continue to look outward to other countries and assume that there is less for us to do because we are in a much better off situation on the whole.
Singapore is well-poised to take on the challenges of the global economy with the strong growth policies that have been put in place. I believe that now is the time for us to look inward and draw our focus back to the core of good governance . . . and the core of good governance is the ability of a state to take care of its people.
So a National Conversation is good. It is important. But if we do dig deep into what makes this country tick, what makes people stay or go, then we will only be left with just that – Conversation. Singapore is in a good position to transform its social policies.
For too long there have been several arguments AGAINST giving more to the poor. We do not want to create a welfare state, we do not have the finances to sustain a greater amount of assistance. Our policies have benefitted the population at large, there will always be poor people in society no matter what you do, so the fact that our numbers are less than other countries means that we are in a good position.
There are so many of these arguments.
And this is where I think, the Singapore government needs to re-engineer the way it thinks about the poor.
Think of them, not just in terms of statistics, but as people. People who could be our neighbours. The uncle next door who might have to take up 3 jobs to provide for his family. The karang guni lady, who makes a pittance sourcing for my broken fan and making her rounds every morning and night.
I know these people, because I live right next to them where I stay in Tampines. And that is why it always breaks my heart, when I meet people who have had a much more privileged upbringing, who have all the creature comforts that they could possibly ask for, say that the government has done enough and that there will always be poor people in this society.
It is easier said than done, when these people will never understand what it feels like to live below media wage. They will never understand what it feels like to get paid by the hour, or to spend their last dollar note in their wallet and not know where the next one is going to come from.
And that is why it is time for us to build a new social compact.
Sceptics may argue that we will not be able to get the money, it is not fiscally feasible. To that I say, if the government sees value in closing up this inequality gap, if they start to place emphasis on doing so, it will be important enough to have a budget. We could have used the same argument against F1, the Youth Olympics or the Integrated Resorts. But the government felt that the benefits would be important to Singaporeans, and so, money was put aside for these projects.
In that same vein, as we reconsider what it takes to close up the income gap, I’d like to remind all of us that we need to be mindful in the way we render assistance to the poor. Drawing back to the old cliché of teaching a person how to fish versus giving him a fish, we need to relook at our social infrastructure rather than merely increasing assistance or doling out more money, which is important and it is good, but it is not sustainable in the longer term. We need to start looking at things with a new approach and perhaps make unorthodox suggestions to orthodox policies.
One area we can consider is that Singapore needs to create more hands and feet for the people who are down and out, and aren’t able to get up on their own two feet. This can extend to employment agencies, childcare centres, the social work sector. Make the pay packages more attractive. Acknowledge social work as a legit profession. Streamline the job scope so that existing social workers do not wade through a mountain of bureaucracy which may further aggravate an emotionally demanding job. Jobs creation of this nature needs to stem from a willingness to change the system. We can’t just rely on creating ad campaigns without changing what is unattractive about the job. It’s not going to solve the problem of expanding the social work talent pool in the long run.
With that, I’d like to end off on one point about our social spending, and a couple of other possible solutions in brief . . .
Singapore spends 16% of its GDP on social programmes. Other developed economies average out at 25%-30%. While we do not need to go as high as 40%, compared to some other developed countries such as Sweden or France, I believe that alot more can and should be done to push for more social spending in Singapore.
With that in line, the increment in social spending can then be considered for some of the following areas:
(1) Worker retraining and income support – Allow the poorer in society to search for better opportunities
(2) Healthcare – Universal Healthcare insurance models in places like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have seen out of pocket expenses for locals fall significantly. Singapore currently has the highest risk of extremely high personal spending in healthcare compared to other developed Asian economies, which really gave rise to the heartland idea of “Better to die than to fall sick in Singapore.” Currently, the system limits claiming for chronic long term care, which is actually the area that tends to affect low to medium income families the hardest.
(3) More subsidised infrastructure – Void deck or government-owned spaces can be converted into eldercare centres or childcare centres. With subsidies in rent, cost savings can be passed on to Singaporeans who might not be able to afford private facilities.
This article is based on the opening remarks given by Nicole Seah at a panel discussion on “Reducing the Income Gap: Finding Practical Solutions” organised on 12 September 2012 by ONE (SINGAPORE) and the Wee Kim Wee Centre.