#GE2020 A brief sketch of social welfare policies and discourse between GE2015 and GE2020

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The Nine Days is a socialservice.sg podcast covering the 2020 general election in Singapore (#GE2020), through daily five-minute news summaries, conversations with young voters, and interviews with academics and experts.

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Singapore’s social welfare principles

The provision of social welfare and social security in Singapore has been guided by three principles. First, self-reliance and social responsibility. Second, family as the first line of support. And third, the “Many Helping Hands” approach. Through “Many Helping Hands”, the government works with different groups on the ground, such as social service agencies and civic organisations, to provide social and community interventions.

This election, Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan of the People’s Action Party summarised his party’s position on social welfare at the televised English debate:

Dr. Balakrishnan: “But the other point about social security, I hope you agree with me. The best form of welfare is a job. And in fact there is nothing more demoralising, more corrosive to the soul, than long-term unemployment. No amount of generous unemployment benefits can compensate for that. So our efforts are focused on jobs, jobs, jobs.” (28:01 to 28:29)

This narrative is not unfamiliar. In 2015, then Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam explained how the government sought to promote social mobility without undermining personal and family responsibility. It was, he described, a paradox of, quote, “active government support for personal responsibility, rather than active government support to take over personal responsibility or community responsibility”, end-quote.

He added, that it transforms culture:

Senior Minister Shanmugaratnam: “If you provide help for someone who’s willing to study in education, to study hard, if you provide help for someone who’s willing to take up a job and work at it and make life not so easy if you stay out of work.” (25:23 to 25:35)

With those principles in mind, two segments follow. In the first segment, I trace the shift of social welfare policies between GE2015 and GE2020. I highlight key government policies as well as some important academic research in the past five years. In the second segment, I briefly focus on the party manifestoes and positions in the current election.

From GE2015 to GE2020

Between GE2015 and GE2020, in terms of key government policies, the launch of MediShield Life in 2015 and the upcoming replacement of ElderShield by CareShield Life at the end of 2020 are very significant, with the context of a rapidly ageing population. From a social mobility perspective, there’s been greater emphasis on early interventions, especially education-based ones. They include the use of subject-based banding, instead of streaming.

In addition, the Early Childhood Development Centres Act was passed in 2017, which has meant higher standards in childcare centres and kindergartens. Since then, the Ministry of Education has promised more pre-school places and more kindergartens. A National Institute of Early Childhood Development will increase the professional standards of preschool teachers. And the income ceiling for preschool subsidies will be raised. In addition, there’s now a KidSTART programme for children from low-income families. Within MOE, there’s also a new UPLIFT Programme Office which coordinates initiatives for students from disadvantaged families.

Collectively, all these initiatives are informed by established research that early childhood development has an impact on an individual’s long-term outcomes. In this vein, the intent is to prevent socio-economic gaps from widening, from a young age.

But the effects of these interventions will take some time to manifest. While these government policies were launched, academic research also highlighted important social phenomena and gaps in the country.

First, Prof. Teo You Yenn’s “This is What Inequality Looks Like” elevated inequality in the national discourse. It needs no further introduction. However, I think it’s important to remember that the book prompted responses from Senior Minister of State Dr. Maliki Osman and Dr. Sudha Nair, executive director of a centre which works on issues of family violence, child protection, and disadvantaged persons. These replies, in turn, drew a response letter in “The Straits Times” signed by 40 social workers.

Why is this exchange important? Because it illustrates two different social work approaches: “Bleeding hearts” or “tough love”. The “bleeding hearts” discourse focuses on the structural conditions within which the impoverished are trapped, while the “tough love” discourse works to get individuals to overcome personal failings and to become independent. Or, as per Singapore’s social welfare principles, be self-reliant.

This is often linked to the perspective that the low-income cannot make wise and informed life choices.

The dichotomy is a simplification, yet it is also a starting point to examine how social workers – and by extension, the state – interact with the disadvantaged and the marginalised. Dr. Ong Qiyan and Dr. Neo Yu Wei of the Social Service Research Centre have been writing on this.

A second piece of research was led by Dr. Ng Kok Hoe. His nationwide study of homelessness revealed that there are between 921 and 1,050 homeless people in Singapore. Additional research could compare these figures with countries around the world, but its significance is the attention it brought to the realities of poverty in the country.

Finally, both Prof. Teo and Dr. Ng are also part of a team, which sought to study the amount of money older Singaporeans needed to achieve a basic standard of living. Through focus group discussions with ordinary Singaporeans, they concluded that the budgets needed were:

  • $1,379 per month for single elderly households, aged 65 and above;
  • $2,351 per month for coupled elderly households; and
  • $1,721 per month for single persons aged 55 to 64.

In this context, it is important to note that the main cash assistance schemes for older Singaporeans – the ComCare Long Term Assistance, the Silver Support Scheme, and the GST Cash Voucher – are all means-tested.

Low-wage labour and a living wage

Before we jump into mentions of Workfare, ComCare, the Progressive Wage Model, and Silver Support in the manifestoes, one more note on low-wage labour. Prof. Irene Ng wrote in a recent publication, and I quote: “Poor wages is a root problem that needs to be addressed … The high rate of low-pay incidence and low-wage share of national income reflect a development model that has been based on keeping costs low to attract business, motivated by the concern that Singapore’s economic survival depends on such a model as a small economy without natural resources”. End-quote.

In my interview with Dr. Ong and Prof. Walter Theseira on the design of social welfare policies, they made similar points about the importance of a living wage. Prof. Walter said:

“There is a difference in dignity between people being paid a living wage and you as the government or the society making up for that living wage by giving people transfers. But finding that right balance is difficult.” (52:03 to 52:22)

Dr. Ong added:

“We are too preoccupied with [those may not be hardworking enough or those who may want to take advantage of the system].

But we seldom pay attention to the reverse. People who are very hardworking all their lives. They try not to tap on assistance, because they are afraid that they take away public monies for other people in need. And after being hardworking all their lives, they are still unable to finance their own retirement.” (53:28 to 54:06)

It is important to stress, on this note, that the coronavirus pandemic has only exposed many of the pre-existing socio-economic challenges faced by the disadvantaged and the marginalised in Singapore.

Party manifestoes and positions in GE2020

So, with all that background, we wind up where we started: What do we know about the party manifestoes and positions in GE2020?

The PAP’s position remains consistent, and on wage policies it promises to extend the Progressive Wage Model to more industries. Right now, it only applies to the cleaning, security, and landscape sectors. And in the televised debate Dr. Balakrishnan said that he had wanted to do extend the wage model previously. Yet, the manifesto is light on the details. Which industries will be included now? And will the amounts be increased?

A focus on the minimum wage seems logical, given our brief exposition on low-wage labour and the importance of a living wage. The Workers’ Party said all working Singaporeans should receive a minimum take-home wage of $1,300 per month. The Reform Party wants a minimum wage of $10 per hour. Three other parties want to introduce a minimum wage or living wage. However, they either did not specify the amount or called for a study to be commissioned.

Justifying the minimum or living wage amount is tricky. For instance, if it was found that $1,379 per month is needed for single elderly households to achieve a basic standard of living, then WP’s proposed amount might seem inadequate.

Next, proposed policies to alleviate poverty or inequality were unsurprising across the board. Most parties were fairly generic, relied on traditional handouts, or operated within pre-existing initiatives already defined by the state. There is little to differentiate between the parties, besides WP’s call for research on conditional cash payments to parents – which could already be happening – and the Singapore Democratic Party’s call to specifically cut ministerial salaries to fund assistance schemes for the poor as well as to raise the income tax for the top one per cent of earners.

Finally, on unemployment insurance. The WP has an elaborate redundancy insurance for retrenched workers, which will provide a pay-out for up to six months. The SDP, the Singapore People’s Party, and the Reform Party are also promising and proposing unemployment benefits of varying amounts. Along this tangent, the WP is also looking to recognise unpaid labour, which will be published as a supplement to national GDP data.

For the PAP, most of its labour policy proposals appear designed in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Among the four main parties, the manifestoes of the PAP and the Progress Singapore Party are less detailed than that of the SDP and WP, yet the complexity of living in poverty also means policies cannot be studied in isolation. Research can start to fill some of these gaps, but we are just at the starting blocks.

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