Four pillars of social security – really?

by Leong Sze Hian

When I was asked to write about the Prime Minister’s speech at the fifth anniversary of Comcare, the first thought that came to my mind, was what else can I say, after writing more than a thousand articles on the four pillars – CPF, 3Ms (Medisave, Medishield, Medifund), HDB and Workfare, over the last ten years or so.

The Rise and Fall of Rome

Well, I had just watched “The Rise and Fall of Rome” on the History Channel, and therefore, before I make specific remarks about the four pillars, let me use the analogy of the Roman Empire.

The fall of Rome

Although this may be an over-simplification, Rome’s rise was due in no small part to its ability to provide security (safety net) to its citizens, at a time when anarchy was the rule of the day.

As Rome progressed, it became obsessed with the expansion of the empire (GDP growth), and perhaps the beginning of its fall was when it relied too much on mercenaries and barbarians (foreign talent) to defend the empire, and slaves (foreign workers) began to permeate into almost every facet of Romans’ lives.

This lead to the citizens (Singaporeans) disenchantment with the state, as the security (safety net) which grew Rome in the first place, began to disintegrate as its citizens (Singaporeans) could no longer rely on having a secure home, jobs, food, medical care, children’s education, retiring, etc.

CPF, 3Ms, HDB and Workfare

Now, let me get into the specifics about the four pillars.

When CPF was first conceived, its vision was to provide a safety net for Singaporeans when they retire.

However, over the years, this safety net has been slowly frivelled away as follows:-

HDB

HDB prices were allowed to grow at arguably the highest rate of increase for public housing in the world, under the HDB’s convoluted Market Subsidy Pricing policy.

There is no disclosure as to how many HDB bank loans are in arrears, have been foreclosed, forced to sell in the open market, etc.

3Ms

Medisave

Medisave is probably the only national medical insurance scheme in the world, that is not run like an insurance scheme.

As medical costs were allowed to escalate, many Singaporeans become literally broke and in debt, when they fall sick, because the complex system of Medishield, Private Shield plans, deductible and co-insurance riders, Eldershield, Medisave withdrawal restrictions and limts, etc, is akin to a safety net with many holes.

Medishield

There is no disclosure as to whether the Medishield scheme is being run with a surplus, and if so, how much is the surplus? I believe every national insurance scheme in the world discloses its deficits and rare surpluses.

This is probably one of the few national insurance schemes in the world which covers about 80 per cent of the resident population, and people drop out everyday because they are unable to pay their premiums, and then may not be able to rejoin because they have health problems or history.

Medifund

Nobody knows how many people are unsuccessful when they apply for medifund when they cannot pay their medical bills.

Since the criteria on Medifund approvals is secret – all that we know is that all family members must have exhausted their Medisave accounts, assets cannot exceed $4,000 or thereabouts, cannot stay in a 5-room or bigger flat or private property, etc, in order to even meet the preliminary criteria.

Workfare

Since the bulk of it goes to CPF, instead of as cash, most lower-income older self-employed may be reluctant to contribute, in order to qualify for Workfare, and employees also get very little extra disposable cash income.

Also, only those age 35 and above earning not more than $1,700 are eligible.

So, where is the Workfare safety net for the lower-income below age 35?

CPF

CPF pays probably the lowest interest historically amongst all pension funds in the world. This has resulted in practically every study indicating that Singaporeans retire with one of the least replacement income in retirement, despite having the highest pension contribuion rate in the world.

In summary, CPF pays very low interest, most of it is consumed by high HDB prices and rising healthcare costs, Workfare is also mostly into your CPF, and now under the CPF Life scheme, most Singaporeans have to wait until 65 to collect a monthly life annuity, regardess of whether the quantum can sustain one’s living expenses after inflation adjustment into the future.

Even with the implementation of the Re-employment Act in 2012, there is no safety net of a job until 65, because employers can rely on “reasonable factors” not to offer re-employment, cut wages, pay $4,500 to $10,000 to those who are not re-employed, or simply terminate employees even before they reach 62.

Another article giving a detailed analysis of the latest Comcare statistics will be published soon