March 8, 2008
Welfare hikes in fine tune
THE public assistance increases and enhancements announced in Parliament this week strike a fair balance between compassion and calculation, between idealism of the heart and realism of the mind. Some may find the hikes - ranging from 14 to 24 per cent - ungenerous, considering the low base and rising living costs. But others will ask what these might do to the Government's ideological distaste for welfarism. Nevertheless, they underscore rather than detract from the three points that Community Development Minister Vivian Balakrishnan made: Life is tough, unfair and unpredictable; family support is paramount; and discipline, hard work and self-reliance are needed to assure success. Singaporeans, especially the older ones, have absorbed these values from government leaders since independence, even if not everyone had lived by them through the Occupation and colonial years.
Indeed, they may have learnt the lesson too well. On hospital means testing, some Singaporeans seem less generous than Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan was prepared to be. Limit subsidy to 20 per cent of the population, they urged him. This sounds typically kiasu: Why should I, through my tax dollars, foot the bills of others if I don't stand to benefit by as much because of my income level? But however self-centred the calculus, it reflects the belief that there is no free lunch. It is reassuring to see such an instance of grassroots resistance to expansion of state largesse. If widespread, such reluctance may undercut politicians' attempts to overbid on handouts to win votes in an election. Ironically, the underlying conservatism also means the Government may have more room than it previously thought it had in avoiding erosion of the work ethic and the spirit of self-reliance, while building a more compassionate society.
Similar and even more commonsensical sentiments would likely arise against bureaucratic bloat to disburse benefits. Welfare schemes elsewhere have been discredited for this as well as the dependency reason. Reliance as well on voluntary welfare organisations - the 'Many Helping Hands' component - is sound in both delivery and deliverables. The increases are needed, justified and straightforward to give. Public assistance beneficiaries are indigent cases, not idle freeloaders. With affluence naturally comes generosity towards the less fortunate, but the will to share usually lags the ability to do so. The Government has appealed to the better instinct of Singaporeans in augmenting welfare benefits for those who need them badly. They can be more supportive.