Prominent Indigenous commentator Noel Pearson recently argued that instead of looking to the USA and Britain Australia should turn to its near neighbor Singapore for successful solutions to problems of poverty (Weekend Australian 5/3/11). Yet his discussion of the Singaporean welfare system is highly superficial, and bears little resemblance to the policies we have observed as social policy teachers and researchers in Singapore over the past seven years.
It is understandable that some western neo-liberals are attracted to Singapore given that its welfare regime appears to be based on low social expenditure and limited and discretionary social assistance. There are, for example, no direct cash transfers to groups such as the disabled and the aged as is the case in Australia. But the true picture is far more complex, and there is evidence that the apparent differences between Singapore and western countries such as Australia are less marked than appears evident at first sight.
Singapore's welfare policy is driven by strong cultural assumptions based on traditional Confucian ideas and values such as individual and family self-reliance, and the inappropriateness of state welfare provision. However, there is also a strong emphasis on communal responsibility for supporting the disadvantaged which includes universal benefit programs in health, education and housing that arguably support the capacity of citizens to be self-sufficient.
The current Singaporean welfare model has significant positives in that its minimal state expenditure and promotion of a strong work ethic appears to contribute to Singapore's overwhelming economic success. But the model also has significant social costs.
For example, the disadvantaged position of the Singapore Malays, as the indigenous people of Singapore, remains of concern to policy makers. There have been significant efforts over many years to close the gap and address Malay inequality, and there has been significant progress in this area. However, the Malays continue to under-achieve across a number of measures of social and economic success such as gross incomes, educational attainment and upward social mobility. The Singaporean system hardly seems to be a positive model for Indigenous Australians to follow.
A broader limitation is that the system fails to provide an adequate safety net for the working poor, the unemployed, the disabled, single mothers and the poor generally including many unsupported older people. Singapore only provides social assistance on a philanthropic, rather than entitlement basis.
The limited Public Assistance Scheme is limited via strict criteria to 'deserving' persons or families living in acute poverty who are unable to work due to old age, illness or disability, and have no family member able to assist.
Approximately 2000 persons receive public assistance benefits which are paid at a relatively low rate of between S$290 per month for a single person to S$670 for a family of four (where one Singapore dollar currently buys 0.77 Australian cents). Recipients are doomed to live way below the minimum accepted wage of S$1500 per month.
The system also poses no challenge to broader structural inequalities and injustices. The income of the top 20 per cent of Singapore households is now 31 times that of the bottom 20 per cent. In fact, the reliance of the system on the family as the principal welfare provider tends to reinforce traditional gender inequalities whereby women feel obliged to perform non-paid caring roles.
Another factor is the rapidly ageing population, and the demands they are likely to make on health care and other social expenditure given that they already constitute the largest proportion of disadvantaged Singaporeans. A further factor is the challenge of economic globalization which seems to be driving changes in the Singaporean economy that have led to greater inequality and reduced opportunities for unskilled workers. These changes are likely to place pressure on Singapore to follow other countries in the region which have substantially increased their spending on social protection.
The Singaporean Government recently announced a $20 million increase in spending on specialist professional social workers to provide leadership in the social service sector, and more effective assistance to needy citizens.
It would appear that even Singapore is recognizing evidence of increasing hardship, and the need to strengthen its welfare safety net.
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