Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

Singapore is no welfare model for Australia

By Philip Mendes and Kerry Brydon - posted Wednesday, 13 April 2011

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.

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. All

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

4 posts so far.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Authors

Associate Professor Philip Mendes is the Director of the Social Inclusion and Social Policy Research Unit in the Department of Social Work at Monash University and is the co-author with Nick Dyrenfurth of Boycotting Israel is Wrong (New South Press), and the author of a chapter on The Australian Greens and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in the forthcoming Australia and Israel (Sussex Academic Press).

Kerry Brydon is the Singapore Program Co-ordinator at Monash University.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Philip Mendes
All articles by Kerry Brydon

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Article Tools
Comment 4 comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy