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More social spending, less filial piety?

By Chris Kuan

Well we do know that often only rubbishy opinions are published in the Straits Times’ Forum. This one “Excessive social security may erode filial piety” published on 29 March 2016 takes the cake.

The long and short of it is that there is “mounting electoral pressure on the Government to increase spending on welfare - and the ruling party is responding.” This causes the writer to worry on two counts

  • Countries elsewhere are being pushed to insolvency by their excessive welfare spending
  • Excessive social security may erode filial piety.

Welfare Spending and insolvency

His first worry about sovereign insolvency from excessive welfare spending exposes him as an unthinking, unquestioning follower of the old PAP scary Sandman narrative about welfare spending.

In truth, 15 out of 19 members of the Eurozone were unaffected. 11 other European nations in and out of the European Union were also unaffected. That is to say the writer highlights the insolvency just because of the 4 nations that he thought were felled by welfare spending but yet silent about the other 26 that were not, even if they too have the same or more welfare spending.

But then other than Greece, which of the other 3 countries needed bailout because welfare spending has caused their debts to be excessive. The answer is no one else because the nations that ended up with bailouts were not those with the highest debts and those with the highest debts did not need bailouts. In fact 2 of those who required bailouts, Ireland and Spain had debts that were even lower than the strongest members of the Eurozone.

In short, the European debt crisis, with the exception of Greece, was not due to welfare spending causing excessive debts. The cause was the Global Financial Crisis resulted in banks bailout and sharp reversals of capital flows and then the effects were amplified by rigidities inherent in the treaty obligations of Eurozone membership. Don’t take my word for it. It is the consensus view of 70 prominent private and public sector economists and academics. (http://www.voxeu.org/article/ez-crisis-consensus-narrative).

Monetising Filial Piety

The article quotes a supposedly prominent Chinese economist Zhang Wuchang who asserted that excessive social security will destroy the concept and practice of filial piety. However it did not answer the most important question: what amount of social security is excessive. In the Singapore context, the issue is one of inadequate social security not one of excess.

Then this issue of social security eroding or destroying filial piety seemed typically placed on the slippery slope of the monetizing of our values because it infer that filial piety is measured in dollars and cents. Do we become less filial because we provide less financial support to mom and pop if they received more social security from the government? Taking this further, are we then less filial because mom and pop did well enough for themselves that they do not require our financial support?

And why do we need social security from generational family perspective? It is all well and good if sons and daughters do well enough to be able to support parents in the absence of adequate social security, without eroding their own savings and without affecting their ability to provide opportunities to their own children. But what if they are not? The erosion of sons and daughters’ savings to support parents means not only less opportunities for their own children but they become dependent on their own children’s savings in old age. Poverty or income inequality then becomes inter-generational. When one is poor, there are no good options only the least bad of poor options. (Please read an excellent research by NTU sociologist.) Children are left with poor economic choices like having to leave school early to support family or become less a burden to parents, with all the inherent negative effects on social mobility.

If increased social security helps the under privileged break out of the poverty cycle and promote social mobility, provides many with assurance in retirement and healthcare to improve the total fertility rate, then let us have more of it. If excessive social security erodes filial piety beyond the crass monetary values inferred by the ST Forum article, then it is less a worry than the huge income inequality in Singapore. In any case, we are a very long way from excessive social security.