“We have to take social protection seriously” – Economist Yeoh Lam Keong

At the inaugural PSP Speaker Series, moderator Khush Chopra reiterated speaker Yeoh Lam Keong’s message that it was a major policy error that has led the country’s failure in properly addressing poverty. Specifically, the country’s reliance on cheap foreign labour and related immigration policies have been tough on those at the bottom, the absolute poor.

In terms of the working poor, Mr Chopra reiterated the veteran economist’s message that while wages are rising, it is rising too slowly. As for the elderly poor, the numbers are set to triple as Singapore’s society ages.

Finally, for the unemployed poor, Singapore is simply not prepared for the impact of technological disruption. As Mr Chopra noted, this kind of unemployment happens through no fault of anybody. People are displaced as technology becomes more efficient and that is inevitable.

In light of that, and in light of Mr Yeoh’s presentation on necessary reforms that the Singapore government can eminently afford to undertake, Mr Chopra asks, “In 2017 in a FB post you said and you said it again today, what on earth are we waiting for?”

Mr Yeoh first says, “To be fair I think the government has moved in the right direction.”

Noting the institution and later increase in payouts of programmes like the Workfare Income Supplement (WIS) and Silver Support Scheme (SSS), the introduction of MediShield Life for hospital acute care, CareShield and ElderShield and other social support schemes.

However, Mr Yeoh contends that these are not enough because of how big the poverty gap is and how far so many Singaporeans are from earning a living wage.

He also commented that the government might not even know what the gap actually is.

“I’m not sure they know how far it is above because it hasn’t been measured properly. If you don’t know where it is, you’re thinking you’re making progress but are you doing enough to make a difference to the lives of 250,000 people, is my question.”

Mr Yeoh also said it’s crucial to get around the idea that giving people more money will make then lazier.

“This isn’t about laziness, this is about survival. If you don’t survive, there’s nothing to talk about,” he pointed out.

Mr Yeoh asserted that schemes like WIS do not dis-incentivise effort. In fact, it does the opposite. It is a subsidy to work, he says. He also notes the programmes like the SSS do not dis-incentivise people from saving either, because “who is going to stop saving just because if you don’t work, you get S$800?”

“So the laws of economics tell us that it’s not going to dis-incentivises, it’s not going to make anybody lazy. But we need to take care of our people so that we remove the scourge of absolute poverty.”

Absolutely poverty will “slowly destabilise society” warned Mr Yeoh, pointing to Hong Kong as an example where many people live in extremely small spaces. Pro-democracy protests have roiled the autonomous city for the past three months, leading to many violent clashes between protesters and the authorities.

When a society is put in such a harsh position, the government loses political legitimacy and credibility, said Mr Yeoh. He cautioned that one that legitimacy and credibility is lost, the damage may be irreparable.

Mr Yeoh asserted, “So we have to take social protection seriously and in a forward-looking way and we have to prepare for the future. We have to be future-ready for the trebling of the elderly poor, for the dramatic increase in unemployment and frequency.”

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