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Siew Kum Hong rebutts MP Hri Kumar

The following article was first published in Siew Kum Hong's blog.

MP Hri Kumar (far left)

 

 

It seems that MP Hri Kumar posted a comment in response to my piece "Room for fresh ideas on income gap". I missed it earlier but was just told about it.

Here is his comment in full:

Kum Hong,

How does this idea work? If an able-bodied person decides that he does not want to work, do we all have to ensure that he has a "minimal standard of living"?

If he is earning a living, but refuses to upgrade himself, do we pay him the difference between what he earns and the "minimum" sum he needs? Where is the money from the endowment fund going to come from - all of us I presume?

How much will such a fund require as a start and how much do we need to replenish it annually? What programs or other expenditure are we dropping to fund it? Unless these questions (and many others) are answered, I am afraid you have wasted a Saturday."

I guess Hri and I must have very different starting points and different philosophies on how (and to what extent) to help those less fortunate than us. Prof Kishore Mahbubani has suggested that the Government has, through its own surveys, ascertained that it costs S$1700 pre month for a 4-person household to maintain a "reasonable standard of living" -- as defined by the Government itself. The question then is whether we, as a society, have a duty to ensure that everyone has that reasonable standard of living (and corresponding standards for households with different configurations), and if so how.

I will take each of Hri's questions in turn:

How does this idea work? If an able-bodied person decides that he does not want to work, do we all have to ensure that he has a "minimal standard of living"?

In an earlier piece "Beefing Up Workfare" (published in TODAY on 24 Jan 2011), I had advocated using Workfare (but essentially pumped up on steroids) as the basic mechanism to get working families up to $1700 per month. So I do not subscribe to the idea of giving an able-bodied person, who deliberately chooses not to work, $1700 per month.

But as we will see below, this question oversimplifies the difficulties of real life.

If he is earning a living, but refuses to upgrade himself, do we pay him the difference between what he earns and the "minimum" sum he needs?

What does "refusal" mean? Perhaps we need to define that. I can anticipate the theoretical construct of an able-bodied person who is the sole breadwinner who works and earns a living (short of $1700), who can find the time to go for upgrading but deliberately chooses not to, because he/she prefers to sit in a coffeeshop drinking beer and smoking with friends.

But again, that may be an extreme. What about the single mother supporting two children and an elderly mother, who has to go home after work to take care of her children and mother? Does she have time to upgrade? If she declines to go for upgrading for this reason, is that "refusing to upgrade"?

What if the person works two jobs, both of which still come up to less than $1700, and going for upgrading might mean losing this precious second job? What if the person works just one job, but the job is not a fixed 9-5 job (as most jobs are wont to be nowadays), and the employer is not sympathetic and does not encourage the person to go for upgrading courses outside of working hours?

Do we penalise these workers as well, because of the possible existence of the theoretical construct?

In the Budget speeches, during the National Day Parade and at the National Day Rally, we frequently see celebrations of those workers who have managed to upgrade themselves and get better jobs. Kudos to them. But it would be a mistake to conclude from their shining examples, that all of the others who have not had those successes, had deliberately chosen not to take that path of upgrading.

Where is the money from the endowment fund going to come from - all of us I presume?

Yes, from all of us. If I were Carlos Slim, then I would fund all of this by myself. But if we, as a country, purport to subscribe to the principles of the Universal Declaration, then we have to fulfill those obligations applicable to us as a country.

In a Straits Times article "Thumbs-up for 'many helping hands'" (March 9, 2011), social welfare policy expert Prof Lester M. Salamon noted that "countries around the world have learnt that the problems of poverty, maintaining health, improving the environment, even fostering culture, cannot be handled by private philanthropy alone. 'They require as well the active involvement of government and the resources that government alone can command.'" He went on: "No country that I am aware of has made the many helping hands philosophy work well yet without the government taking a significant leadership role. Perhaps Singapore will be the first one to do it. But since we don't have much data on non-profits here, we won't know whether it is working or not."

So yes, I think the money has to come from all of us, and I do not see an issue with that.

How much will such a fund require as a start and how much do we need to replenish it annually? What programs or other expenditure are we dropping to fund it? Unless these questions (and many others) are answered, I am afraid you have wasted a Saturday."

I'm not in a position to answer these questions -- the piece is meant (or rather hoped) to start a conversation, a debate, ideally a process. But the answers to these questions can be developed along the way.

I also don't understand why it is necessary to have all (or even most of) the answers in place before something can be considered; after all, even the Government conducts public consultations on proposed policies, presumably because the Government doesn't already have all the answers (otherwise it would be a wayang, would it not?). When MPs make speeches and propose policies, they also do not purport to offer complete solutions with all questions before making these suggestions.

So no, I don't feel like I had wasted that Saturday.

Since Hri has posed some questions, I have some of my own.

I agree that an able-bodied person may deliberately choose not to work, and we can then validly decide not to support him/her -- people have the right to choose, but they should also be prepared to live with the consequences of their choices.

But what about the others who are also impacted by those choices, but have no influence over it? If the able-bodied father of two children deliberately chooses to work, and the mother is for some reason unable to work, then do we simply turn our heads away and ignore the children's and the mother's suffering? If the mother is able to work, but is not able to make enough to meet that $1700 per month standard, then do we nevertheless punish her and her children for the father's choices?

Do we ignore our duty to give the next generation the chance to succeed, and thereby punish them to a vicious cycle of poverty? Do we punish the children for the sins of their parents? Because punishment is exactly what it would be, if we have the power to help but decide not to -- because the father made the wrong decision. For all of the Government's rhetoric on personal responsibility and self-sufficiency, we hardly hear anything said about ensuring that the parents' sins are not visited on the children.

Yes, simple questions have clear, easy answers. But real life usually does not lend itself to simple questions like the ones posed to me above.

Siew Kum Hong is a corporate counsel and the vice-president of MARUAH (Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism, Singapore), a human rights NGO and gazetted political association.

Hri Kumar Nair is a Member of Parliament for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC (Thomson division). He is a Senior Counsel and a director of Drew & Napier LLC.