By Andrew Loh
'We can't have a situation where we protect you even from yourself. If the entire population needs to be protected from their own choices, then we will be in a very, very sorry state in the future.'
- Minister for Community, Youth and Sports, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan during the debate on the casino issue. (Nov 17, 2004, Straits Times)
In recent times, it seems that the government is adopting schemes which run counter to the principle espoused by Dr Balakrishnan above. Namely, that Singaporeans be allowed to make their own choices and not be subjected to government legislation to do so.
The recent spate of announcements about “opt-out” and “compulsory” participation in certain schemes perhaps is a worrying trend. Worrying because it gives the impression that the government would rather take the easy way out through legislation to get Singaporeans to “participate” in government-led schemes.
And that Singaporeans are increasingly being deprived of making choices for themselves, a point which Dr Balakrishnan took pains to elaborate on when debating the casino issue.
The latest of such schemes is the proposed compulsory purchase of annuities for all Singaporeans. (link) This is part of the government’s multi-pronged approach to addressing the ageing and retirement issue.
It is unclear if the scheme will eventually have an opt-out option for those who do not wish to participate, but in 2005, when it was first brought up, an option to opt out was mentioned:
“The CPF Board is developing programmes to teach CPF members about annuities, and encourage more members to take them up. One way is to change the default option to annuities for all members upon retirement, unless the member specifically decides to opt out.” (TODAY, “New pension plan in works: PM”)
Opt-out schemes are not new.
The government instituted legislation in 1987 for what is known as the Human Organ Transplant Act (HOTA). According to the NKF’s website:
“This Act presumes that non-Muslim Singaporeans and Permanent Residents between 21 and 60 (age-wise), who die in accident, have pledged to donate their kidneys upon death, unless they opt-out in their lifetime.”
On the 1st of July 2004, the government expanded the Act to include other organs, such as corneas and livers, besides kidneys.
In September 1992, the Chinese Development Assistance Council (CDAC) made it compulsory for all working Chinese Singaporeans to contribute a monthly stipend to the council. (link) This ranged from $0.50 to $1.00, depending on your income level.
Singaporeans who do not wish to make such a contribution had to opt-out of the scheme.
MUIS – Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura or Islamic Religious Council Of Singapore – also has a similar scheme. Called the Mosque Building And Mendaki Fund (MBMF), all muslim workers (including PRs and foreign workers) are required to contribute a monthly amount – ranging from $2 to $11.
A muslim employee can opt out of the scheme by submitting “his request in writing to MUIS, after which a certificate will be issued to him. The employee shall, with the certificate, notify his employer who will then cease to make the contribution.” (link)
There are similar schemes (with the opt out option) for SINDA and the ECF – Singapore Indian Development Association and the Eurasian Community Fund, respectively.
“Launched in 2002, ElderShield is a severe disability insurance scheme to help Singaporeans pay for their long-term step-down care if they become severely disabled.” (MOH)
The contributions will end at age 65 but the coverage is for life. As of 2006, about 750,000 people have ElderShield policies offered by NTUC Income and Great Eastern Life. (CNA ) Those who do not wish to be on the plan will have to opt out.
In a TODAY newspaper report, March 16, 2005, it was reported that Great Eastern Life Assurance and NTUC Income Insurance Co-operative will take over the Central Provident Fund Board's (CPFB) term-life insurance scheme known as the Dependants’ Protection Scheme or DPS.
The DPS is an opt-out plan meant to provide basic coverage for CPF members
in the event of death or permanent incapacity.
According to the NTUC Income website:
“As long as you are a Singaporean or a permanent resident between 16 to 60 years and currently have CPF contributions, you are automatically insured under DPS.”
Again, those who do not wish to be on the scheme have to apply to opt out. (The NTUC Income website has an opt out form here.)
What is perhaps noticeable is that in 2007, more such schemes were introduced and implemented.
In March 2007, it was announced that all new-born babies will be automatically covered under Medishield – unless the parents opt out of it.
According to a TODAY report (Mar 7, 2007), the scheme will be extended to children below age seven and also to older children:
“This means, they will have insurance cover should a medical emergency strike. A similar opt-out scheme is planned for children below the age of seven when they register for Primary One, while a one-off exercise is planned for older students.” (“Medishield to reach out to all newborns”)
(See also the Parliamentary report here)
In April 2007, the Spam Control Bill was introduced in parliament, which makes “it an offence for companies to send out bulk advertisements or offers to people who have not previously agreed to receive them.” (CNA)
This piece of legislation is peculiar in that it puts the onus on subscribers to unsubscribe to spam contents which is something most people do not want anyway:
“Users who do not want to continue receiving spam must unsubscribe. All businesses sending out such messages must provide such an avenue, structured in a "consumer-friendly" fashion, and act on requests to unsubscribe within 10 days.” (TODAY, April 13, 2007)
Effectively, members of the public have to opt out if they do not wish to receive spam!
In July 2007, MUIS proposed the inclusion of all muslims under the Human Organ Transplant Act. (CNA)
“Its fatwa or religious ruling committee has come up with a position that it is permissible for Muslims to come under the Act. This would mean that Muslims who do not want to have their organs harvested after death, will have to opt out of the scheme.”
More recently, on August 3rd 2007, Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan was reported to have said that his ministry is “considering having opt-out HIV screening tests for male adults at hospitals. “ (CNA)
Opt out schemes unfortunately, in my view, are not restricted to the government. Businesses have adopted such schemes in various forms. One can do a google and see these schemes or as my colleague Sze Hian mentioned here, opt out schemes are even being implemented for donations to charity events!
Explaining policies after legislating
A friend of mine was telling me the other day how different it is nowadays. “In the past, our MPs and government would come personally to your house, enquire about your well-being and took time to explain things to you. But now, they just legislate and you have to go to them if you disagree!”
“Well, the government – and MPs – still take time to explain policies, but after they have legislated”, I replied.
While no one doubts that opt out schemes have their benefits – especially when it is done for the greater good and involve people who are perhaps not as well-informed - what we should be also mindful of is that it does not make Singaporeans so ignorant or apathetic that they just leave everything to the government.
This would run counter to what the government is trying to do – that is, to built an inclusive society and one which every Singaporean is well-informed and given space to make their own choices.
The government itself must keep in mind that taking time and making effort – before implementing legislation – to consult and explain policies are a necessary and important part of governance.
Otherwise, Dr Balakrishnan’s prediction may indeed come true.
We will be in a very very sorry state.
When the State starts making personal choices for us.
“My own sense of it is Singapore is now a much more mature society and, generally, the vast majority of Singaporeans can be trusted to make up their own minds, exercise their choices and act responsibly.”
“The fundamental question is, are we ready as a society to let people make choices of their own, take responsibility for their actions and face the consequences?”
- Minister for Community, Youth and Sports, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan during the debate on the casino issue.