Sunday, 13 March 2011

Response to questions from Hri Kumar

It seems that MP Hri Kumar posted a comment in response to my piece "Room for fresh ideas on income gap". I missed it earlier but was just told about it.

Here is his comment in full:

Kum Hong,

How does this idea work? If an able-bodied person decides that he does not want to work, do we all have to ensure that he has a "minimal standard of living"?

If he is earning a living, but refuses to upgrade himself, do we pay him the difference between what he earns and the "minimum" sum he needs? Where is the money from the endowment fund going to come from - all of us I presume?

How much will such a fund require as a start and how much do we need to replenish it annually? What programs or other expenditure are we dropping to fund it? Unless these questions (and many others) are answered, I am afraid you have wasted a Saturday."


I guess Hri and I must have very starting points and different philosophies on how (and to what extent) to help those less fortunate than us. Prof Kishore Mahbubani has suggested that the Government has, through its own surveys, ascertained that it costs S$1700 pre month for a 4-person household to maintain a "reasonable standard of living" -- as defined by the Government itself. The question then is whether we, as a society, have a duty to ensure that everyone has that reasonable standard of living (and corresponding standards for households with different configurations), and if so how.

I will take each of Hri's questions in turn:

How does this idea work? If an able-bodied person decides that he does not want to work, do we all have to ensure that he has a "minimal standard of living"?

In an earlier piece "Beefing Up Workfare" (published in TODAY on 24 Jan 2011), I had advocated using Workfare (but essentially pumped up on steroids) as the basic mechanism to get working families up to $1700 per month. So I do not subscribe to the idea of giving an able-bodied person, who deliberately chooses not to work, $1700 per month.

But as we will see below, this question oversimplifies the difficulties of real life.

If he is earning a living, but refuses to upgrade himself, do we pay him the difference between what he earns and the "minimum" sum he needs?

What does "refusal" mean? Perhaps we need to define that. I can anticipate the theoretical construct of an able-bodied person who is the sole breadwinner who works and earns a living (short of $1700), who can find the time to go for upgrading but deliberately chooses not to, because he/she prefers to sit in a coffeeshop drinking beer and smoking with friends.

But again, that may be an extreme. What about 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? Does she have time to upgrade? If she declines to go for upgrading for this reason, is that "refusing to upgrade"?

What if the person works two jobs, both of which still come up to less than $1700, and going for upgrading might mean losing this precious second job? What if the person works just one job, but the job is not a fixed 9-5 job (as most jobs are wont to be nowadays), and the employer is not sympathetic and does not encourage the person to go for upgrading courses outside of working hours?

Do we penalise these workers as well, because of the possible existence of the theoretical construct?

In the Budget speeches, during the National Day Parade and at the National Day Rally, we frequently see celebrations of those workers who have managed to upgrade themselves and get better jobs. Kudos to them. But it would be a mistake to conclude from their shining examples, that all of the others who have not had those successes, had deliberately chosen not to take that path of upgrading.

Where is the money from the endowment fund going to come from - all of us I presume?

Yes, from all of us. If I were Carlos Slim, then I would fund all of this by myself. But if we, as a country, purport to subscribe to the principles of the Universal Declaration, then we have to fulfill those obligations applicable to us as a country.

In a Straits Times article "Thumbs-up for 'many helping hands'" (March 9, 2011), social welfare policy expert Prof Lester M. Salamon noted that "countries around the world have learnt that the problems of poverty, maintaining health, improving the environment, even fostering culture, cannot be handled by private philanthropy alone. 'They require as well the active involvement of government and the resources that government alone can command.'"

He went on: "No country that I am aware of has made the many helping hands philosophy work well yet without the government taking a significant leadership role. Perhaps Singapore will be the first one to do it. But since we don't have much data on non-profits here, we won't know whether it is working or not."

So yes, I think the money has to come from all of us, and I do not see an issue with that.

How much will such a fund require as a start and how much do we need to replenish it annually? What programs or other expenditure are we dropping to fund it? Unless these questions (and many others) are answered, I am afraid you have wasted a Saturday."

I'm not in a position to answer these questions -- the piece is meant (or rather hoped) to start a conversation, a debate, ideally a process. But the answers to these questions can be developed along the way.

I also don't understand why it is necessary to have all (or even most of) the answers in place before something can be considered; after all, even the Government conducts public consultations on proposed policies, presumably because the Government doesn't already have all the answers (otherwise it would be a wayang, would it not?). When MPs make speeches and propose policies, they also do not purport to offer complete solutions with all questions before making these suggestions.

So no, I don't feel like I had wasted that Saturday.

Since Hri has posed some questions, I have some of my own.

I agree that an able-bodied person may deliberately choose not to work, and we can then validly decide not to support him/her -- people have the right to choose, but they should also be prepared to live with the consequences of their choices.

But what about the others who are also impacted by those choices, but have no influence over it? If the able-bodied father of two children deliberately chooses not to work, and the mother is for some reason unable to work, then do we simply turn our heads away and ignore the children's and the mother's suffering? If the mother is able to work, but is not able to make enough to meet that $1700 per month standard, then do we nevertheless punish her and her children for the father's choices?

Do we ignore our duty to give the next generation the chance to succeed, and thereby punish them to a vicious cycle of poverty? Do we punish the children for the sins of their parents? Because punishment is exactly what it would be, if we have the power to help but decide not to -- because the father made the wrong decision. For all of the Government's rhetoric on personal responsibility and self-sufficiency, we hardly hear anything said about ensuring that the parents' sins are not visited on the children.

Yes, simple questions have clear, easy answers. But real life usually does not lend itself to simple questions like the ones posed to me above.

12 comments:

sgcynic said...

Great retort. Members of the PAP generally like to ask simple questions to deflect blame and responsbility and avoid hard truths.

Chee Wai Lee said...

Simple but loaded questions based on over-simplified mindsets. Hri's question carried an emotive trojan horse which serves to distract people from the problems associated with the poverty trap. The latter appears to be well-understood by Lily Neo.

This is my extreme description of the poverty trap. Most situations people experience are probably not so severe: If I'm stuck in the gutter with no home, no healthcare and little food, how do people expect me to go beyond trying to survive a day at a time? Refuse work? I'm not sure employers would want to hire me if I stank to high hell from not having showered for ages, whatever my qualifications (and heaven forbid I have none). The discussion and focus in Singapore NEEDS to move away from "How can we feed them?" as evidenced by Balakrishnan's insensitive reply to Lily Neo's request that more be done. It needs to move toward "How can we lift them from poverty so they can have that precious second chance at a decent life?".

Soodo said...

Helping the poor probably sounds like too much work for some people.

Presumably it's a lot easier helping;
a)rich people,
b)businesses,
c)MNCs,
d)holding on to share investments that decline to near zero during economic turmoil.

Most parts of the world consider PUBLIC SERVICE to mean SERVING the PUBLIC. And serving poor people would have some measure of importance. But not so in Singapore.

We pay the highest salaries in the world to our public servants who really don't want to do PUBLIC Service.

Our Meritocracy is really a Plutocracy in sheep's clothing.

Joe90 said...

Just to clarify, but shouldn't the second sentence in your third last paragraph read:

"If the able-bodied father of two children deliberately chooses not to work, and the mother is for some reason unable to work, then do we simply turn our heads away and ignore the children's and the mother's suffering?"

I think you had omitted the word "not" in your original sentence.

Thanks.

Melbourne said...

"If he is earning a living, but refuses to upgrade himself..."

I found it interesting how Hri chose to squarely place the onus for their situation on the people involved.

I think you made some good points in this article, but they only address the symptoms and not the cause.

In my opinion, the real question is why the Singaporean government cannot create for its citizens enough jobs which pay more than $1700.

Gary said...

Kum Hong,

I detect in his words and tone not someone who is attempting to engage sincerely in a debate to solve an issue. What I conclude is here is someone who pretends to be interested, but in reality is really interested in dampening an idea that does not suit his liking. Very much in the mould of the MIW that we are all too familiar with -juxtaposing imagined difficulties which he does not feel oblige at all to contribute an suggestion. Genuine responses from a person would include an acknowledgement of your points and a suggestion of his own for consideration. Here, he merely took the attitude that you must satisfy him with your answers. In fact he isn't interested at all in helping the poor, it is clear he don't feel any obligation to.

We should call a spade a spade due to the inherent insincerity beneath the veneer.

wendychan said...

lets hear it for shorter speeches in parliament then since answers are so easy. then we could save lots of trees coz ST would not have to print so many words.....

The Pariah said...

There is a consistent pattern in typical PAP responses.

The Honorable MP Hri Kumar is doing exactly what SM Goh Chok Tong did in comparing Singapore's Orchard River to Japan's latest tsunami.

Blame everybody and everything else. Even blame God.

You lazy bums don't want to work.

You leaves fall and clog the drains.

You, God, did this.

You always complain - Be as stoic as the Japanese.

[After Minister Lim Swee Say pronounced in Parliament in Mar 2010 that the PAP is "deaf to all criticisms", now SM Goh is telling us to be "stoic" and keep mum - viz, dumb.]

Up to now, have you been told what caused the Orchard River?

- Was rainfall highest and fastest in Singapore's history?

- Was it mismanagement of Marina Barrage that contributed to it?

- Was it overbuilding?

- Was it tardy or lax inspection and clearing of drains and canals?

Where is Accountability?
Where is Transparency?

PAP play deaf.
People play dumb.

That's what the PAP wants!
Is this what you want?

Siew Kum Hong said...

@Joe90: er you are right. I've corrected it.

I also want to clarify that I had interacted with Hri while I was in Parliament, and I liked him a lot personally. But I obviously disagree with him on some (maybe a lot of) things.

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Just For Coment said...

Very much in the mould of the MIW that we are all too familiar with cerita panas