I received an email from Hri last night -- he mentioned that he had been trying to respond to my last post the past couple of days, but for some reason had not been able to post the comment. He then asked for my help to publish it.
Given the length of his response, and also the attention that our exchange seems to have garnered, we decided that it would be appropriate to publish his response as a standalone blog post. I've not really had time to digest it fully, but will aim to respond over the weekend -- since this is my blog, it's my chance to have the last word! :)
Hri's response is reproduced below in full, without edits.
We agree on a number of things. You have met my “extreme” example of an able-bodied person who does not want to work (I have met some, by the way) with another “extreme” - “the single mother supporting two children and an elderly mother, who has to go home after work to take care of her children and mother”. We both agree that the latter is more deserving of help.
But where we disagree is this: you feel that no help exists currently, and the children of the single mother will be trapped in the poverty cycle. The truth is that she will be helped, by both the Government as well as private parties. Let me give you some concrete examples. One of things we try our best to ensure is that no child is deprived of a good education, or even a meal in school, because of the lack of funds. So we help poor families with a combination of Government subsidies, COMCARE support, The School Pocket Money Fund and other sources. In Bishan Toa-Payoh GRC, we raised over $3 million last year from private donors to fund community scholarships for children of poor families for the next 10 years. We even visit the homes of those who do not enroll their children in kindergarten (although enrolment is not compulsory) to make sure that this not because of the lack of funds; and if it is, we help them with the fees. The number of children who do not go to kindergarten has now fallen to 1% of their cohort - most of these children are home-schooled.
So, it is easy to berate the current system as “punish(ing) the children for the sins of their parents”. But that is simplistic and inaccurate.
I prefer our current system which directs help to those who need it, rather than one which purports to give universal and unconditional aid. It actually means much more work for the Government, as it involves examining each case and determining the most effective form of help to give. But I think that is a worthwhile exercise as different families have different challenges and circumstances. What is wrong is for us to simply give public money to everyone who holds his hand out, without proper scrutiny and assurance that it will be effective and reaches the right people. Many taxpayers will object to using public money to support people who can help themselves. Their views are also relevant.
I am not suggesting that we have a perfect system. We do not. Where we can, and should never stop trying to, improve is to develop a system which ensures that every Singaporean who needs help is not missed. That is a real challenge. The only way to meet it is to involve everyone, from the Government, grassroots organizations, VWOs and the immediate community. Every Singaporean should feel that he has a part to play in looking out for those less fortunate than him. I think that is how it should be.
There will also be challenging cases – like your example of an able-bodied father who refuses to work, to the detriment of his children. I know of a real life example in my constituency. The way we helped was to find work for his wife, and to calibrate our aid so that the children have their needs met and are able to continue their education. We did not “turn our heads away”.
So I think we can agree on one more thing – real life does not lend itself to simple solutions like the one you have posed. But I am happy that this debate has gained interest, because it shows that Singaporeans feel strongly about this issue.