Delivered in Parliament on 3 September 2020
Thank you Mister Speaker. Through my admittedly brief time in interacting with Sengkang residents, an underlying theme that unites them is the aspirations they have for Singapore in the 21st century. Therefore, I wish to speak today about compassionate policymaking.
Compassionate policymaking seeks to identify the marginalized in society
What is compassionate policymaking? The word “compassion” refers to a sympathetic concern for others.1 By linking compassion to policy, I am suggesting that the design of our national policies need to be more cognizant of how these policies play out, not just on the aggregate, but also how the impact different groups, especially those at the margins of society.
Students of policy learn very early on that the policymaking process comprises two key pillars. The first, efficiency, describes how well policy deploys the resources at our disposal. The second, equity, speaks to the sense of fairness inherent in resulting policy.
Ultimately, policy entails a tradeoff between the two. Traditionally, our policymakers have prided themselves as being stewards of rational, efficient policymaking. Accordingly, Singaporeans have been called to acquiesce to policies of tough love, sacrificing individual justice on the altar of national progress. To be clear, this worked well for us over three generations, and has brought us from third world to first.
And so we, as a nation, shied away from the sort of policies that would lend support to certain segments of society, if it also meant that we had to compromise our deeply- rooted sense of personal responsibility for the economic and social circumstances that we find ourselves in. This, indeed, has been the cornerstone for our national belief in meritocracy and self-sufficiency.
But the truth is, reality is often far more complex than we are willing to allow or admit. Workers do not simply collapse into a state of dependency when offered supportive handouts by government, because most people find a sense of purpose and meaning in work, even when they draw humble salaries. Children born into poor, broken families leave school early not merely because they are lazy or lack talent, but because when they fall behind, they lack resources to help them catch up, and some may become discouraged and question their ability. People fall into debt, not just because they have an irredeemable penchant to gamble their lives away, but because those little bets they place offer them their best hope for escaping what they perceive to be dreary, hopeless situations.
Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that we stop rewarding hard work or success, or that we squander the fruits of past generations by irresponsible expenditures to prop up undeserving individuals and families, in the name of progressive policy.
What I am suggesting, Mister Speaker, is that the sort of decisions we make as a society and as a country should no longer privilege efficiency at the sheer expense of equity. Because we are no longer a third-world nation, we cannot continue to operate as if we are blind to the consequences that tough-nosed policies carry for our people. This is especially at a time where we need to help everyone pull in the same direction for our collective future.
In her speech, Madam President spoke about the importance of building a fair and just society, about sharing the benefits of progress with all citizens.
The hard truth is, inasmuch as we have indeed progressed over the past few decades, the gains from this progress have not been equally shared across society. While we have slowly chipped away at the extreme inequality that characterized earnings just prior to the global crisis of 2007, the distribution of our national income–even after accounting for taxes and transfers—remains embarrassing when compared to our high-income peers. The number of poor in our midst—informally defined, because we have steadfastly refused to define an official poverty line—is flattered by our very conservative definition of basic needs, and even so is estimated at as much as a quarter of the population.
Existing policymaking approaches have been too tentative
It is therefore undeniable that our existing approach to policymaking can benefit from a greater injection of compassion and thoughtfulness. Yet the fear that many policymakers often hold when we talk about policy reform is that we mustn’t break the system that has worked so well for us. Sure, we recognize a need for change. But let’s do it slowly, in careful steps. So the policies we pursue turn out to be tentative, incremental, kiasu.
The problem with this approach, Mister Speaker, is that such marginal changes do little to right the boat. As a nation, we have, fortunately, yet to experience the sort of populist pressures for change that have plagued many other developed nations. But the people are losing patience. I speak with residents, many who are modest and unassuming, who nevertheless feel crushed by dual weight of high costs and low wages, with seemingly little compassion for their plight.
Remarkably, our policy balance has now become so skewed that we could potentially garner significant gains in terms of improving equity—and by extension, national welfare—with minimal losses from forgone efficiency. All we need is the courage of our convictions.
We have a form of minimum wage policy, via the Progressive Wage Model. Yet, until recently, we had deigned it unwise to make it universal, and still dress the policy with so many additional conditions that these incentives for upskilling turn into loopholes that employers use to retain workers on the lowest rung of wages. We warn against unaffordable costs and lost jobs, despite evidence that the majority of Singaporeans would be willing to pay more for essential services, and that the employment impact of a minimum wage will likely be very limited.
We propose a form of negative income tax, via Workfare. But the nature of earned income tax credit programs of this nature is that it compels work; this is wonderful if your view of human nature is that people would otherwise while away their time, but unconscionable when it requires our elderly to continue working into their sunset years, or if we wish to provide genuine support for single mothers.
We talk about the importance of improving the quality of life after retirement, yet we remain overwhelmingly rigid and insist on ensuring the future adequacy of their CPF savings, even when they face extenuating financial circumstances are causing severe distress today. We excessively constrain the usage of Medisave, leaving seniors with chronic condition the tab of paying for expenses that exceed the annual withdrawal caps.
We remain stubbornly afraid of policies that involve redistribution, even when our workers secure some of the lowest share of income in the developed world. We often default to the mindset that equates redistribution with sloth, while glossing over the enormous challenge of making a living while being pinched from below by low-cost foreign workers, and outcompeted from above by high-skilled foreign talent. This leaves our blue-collar workers feeling left behind, and our PMETs increasingly insecure.
What we need are more policies like ComCare and the Kindergarten Fee Assistance Scheme, both of which have made substantive steps toward bolstering our sense of opportunity and care for others in our society. These policies, and others like them, demonstrate that we are capable of injecting compassion into our policy choices. My contention, then, is that we are certainly able to do more.
Compassionate policymaking seeks to relieve the suffering of Singaporeans
Mister Speaker, may I humbly suggest that the root of these challenges is insufficient compassion in our policymaking process. What again is compassionate policymaking? When we pursue policymaking under the umbrella of compassion, we seek to relieve the suffering of others—which is the other key component in the definition of compassion.
When we prioritize compassion, we become more willing to err on the side of equity, perhaps at some expense of efficiency. This means a willingness to accept that it may be better to allow for a policy where one or two out of every hundred individuals may end up exploiting or abusing the policy, but at the same time, the others clearly benefit from being supported by the expanded social safety net.
But compassionate policy can also be robust policy. Engineers keenly understand that design that becomes too involved, too complicated, too tailored to extract every last ounce of efficiency can also be fragile, embedding multiple points of failure. Robust policy is better suited to deal with the sort of high-uncertainty, post-pandemic environment we find ourselves in. Moreover, when policy is gamed into no longer yielding first-best outcomes, the second-best policy is often drastically different in form from the original.
Some may argue that, as we face down the worst crisis of our generation, the time is not right for us to pursue such “soft” policies; what we need is tough-nosed policies that require all of us to make sacrifices for the greater good. I would argue to the contrary: when we call on Singaporeans to make such sacrifices—and I believe that we are more than willing to come together to do so—we also need to assure Singaporeans that the fruits of such sacrifice will not only accrue to certain winners after the storm has passed.
Not only that, I also believe that improving the social protections we offer to our people can be an important path to blunting the sorts of populist, nationalist pressure that have reared its ugly head in so many countries. I do not believe that Singaporeans are inherently anti-foreigner. After all, we are a nation of immigrants, and we have been an open, trading society for centuries of our history. But what has inspired recent resistance to foreigners is concern about unmitigated population expansion, a sense that they are not getting a fair shake, of feeling discriminated against in their own country. It is a sense that their government that does not appear to have their backs, and that their foothold on prosperity is so precarious that once they fall, there is no way back up.
Of course, the best time for enacting policies that imply some degree of redistribution and the introduction of frictions to unfettered market forces is not when we are in the throes of an unprecedented crisis. But I also believe that we should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. 8 Let us commit to the principles of compassionate policymaking now, and set out plans in the moment. And when the crisis has blown over, we will be prepared to implement the policies we commit to today.
Besides, policies that emphasize compassion also matter for the immediate term. Even as we confront the greatest economic crisis of our generation, Singaporeans are faced not only with the need to tighten their belts to weather the storm. They are also confronted with the uncomfortable conundrum of facing this unprecedented event without the reassurance of tried-and-tested social safety nets that are commonplace in other advanced economies.
It is imperative, therefore, that our focus is on protecting workers though not necessarily jobs, opportunities and not only businesses, ideas and not ideologies. When we do so, we are exercising the sort of compassionate policymaking that is necessary to help us tide over this crisis, and to emerge stronger.
Compassionate policymaking translates empathy into action
So what is compassionate policymaking? Compassion is what translates empathy into action. Compassionate policymaking, then, requires a keen understanding of the plight of others, and a recognition that our policies have deep implications for the lived reality of ordinary Singaporeans.
It is understanding that when we fail to adequately allocate schooling spots to nearby schools, we compel hardworking parents to endure additional costs to raising their family. Like the Goh family, who shared with me how—all their lives—they have always colored within the lines, lived their lives as good citizens, and never asked for what they feel is beyond reasonable expectations. Yet they have been informed that their elder daughter is unable to enroll in any primary school in their neighborhood, and they are now forced instead to add additional travel to their already-taxing daily schedules.
It is understanding that when we insist on the fulfillment of standard feasibility studies before deciding on improvement projects, we impose additional burdens on our elderly. Like the case of Mister Tan, who has asked for years, to no avail, that the overhead bridge beside his block install an elevator. Yet the overwhelmingly young demographic of his neighborhood means that the two senior blocks have effectively been neglected, resulting in their continued difficulties whenever these elderly residents wish to take a bus. Ultimately, we should temper majority interests with concern for the minority as well.
It is understanding that when we ask students to study hard and do well, we have also led them to expect that there are opportunities available for them after they have fulfilled their end of the bargain. So when we have graduates, like Danny or JK, who are unable to secure a decent job after graduation because they feel that they are being displaced by globalization and foreign talent, we should not be surprised when they become disillusioned. When their educational training has repeatedly assessed them on what to think, instead of teaching them how to think, we should be unsurprised that they feel betrayed by the system that they feel has not adequately prepared them for the jobs of the 21st century.
It is understanding that when foreign workers under our charge get sick, we owe a moral responsibility to take care of them and nurse them back to health, as we have correctly chosen to do. But it is also about recognizing that the conditions in which they have been enduring are inappropriate for a first-world country such as ours. And it is about acknowledging that our economic model, which continues to rely on low- wage foreign workers such as this, is a clear blind spot that can stand for reform.
Let me close with a reiteration of actionable policies I have suggested in this speech: we can introduce an official poverty line closely linked to ComCare. We can implement a simple, across-the-board minimum wage, and we can introduce more flexibility to our access to our CPF monies. We can expand the coverage of KiFAS. And there are many more, which we hope to raise in this House over the months ahead.
Almost eight centuries ago, the Sufi poet and scholar Jalalaldin Rumi wrote of such empathy. In his poem A Great Wagon, Rumi implored for us to go: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, [where] there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” Politics is the art of compromise. It is inherent on us to find a better balance to the policies we pursue for the future of Singapore. Mister Speaker, I believe that we can become a better, richer society and country—not just in material wealth, but in intellectual, societal, and spiritual wealth. We can do so by embracing more compassion in our policymaking.
With that, I support the motion of thanks.