“There’s a very thin sense of mutual obligation, very thin sense of lateral ties across society,” said sociologist Associate Professor Teo You Yenn in an Academia.SG webinar on Friday (1 May).
The zoom webinar titled “Beyond the pandemic: what we have learned, and still have to learn” featured five panellists who shared their opinions and ideas of the current COVID-19 crisis and the aftermath.
The speakers were Professor of Media Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University’s School of Communication, Cherian George; Professor Emerita of Corporate Strategy and International Business at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business, University of Michigan, Linda Lim; Professor of Practice at the Institute of Public Policy of the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology, Donald Low; Associate Professor at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Kenneth Paul Tan; and Assoc. Prof and Provost’s Chair in Sociology at the Nanyang Technological University, Teo You Yenn.
Moderated by Assoc. Prof Teo, panellists reflected on the possible fallout of the COVID-19 crisis and offered suggestions as to how those negative impacts could be mitigated. This included prioritising social justice in policymaking, building moral sensibilities at the individual level and rethinking the country’s economic model.
Crucial to prioritise social justice in policymaking instead of growth and efficiency
Prof Low first submitted that the current crisis shows the different ways inequality manifests, from spatial to environmental, health, and housing. He added that the Singapore government should therefore look at inequality in all its forms.
“That means not just inequality within Singaporean society but also inequality between Singaporeans and non-residents. And inequality not just in terms of income and wealth but also in terms of living conditions, housing, access to public goods and amenities, and so on.”
Prof Low suggested that policymakers should, going forward, be more attuned to social justice as a way to measure good policy making instead of just focusing on growth and efficiency.
When asked why social justice should be prioritised, Prof Low explained that the crisis has revealed that when there is no equality or social justice, there is no way to achieve efficiency which is what the government has been and is prioritising.
Using current examples, he said: “The most salient, most vivid manifestation of inequality in Singapore is in the disparity between Singaporeans and foreign labour,” elaborating that inadequate access and inadequate protection of foreign workers suffer is what led to Singapore being place on lockdown.”
Building up moral reasoning and incorporating social justice into the framework of the community
Assoc. Prof Tan then weighed in on the perspective of moral reasoning. He argued that you need a moral compass to navigate complex problems, however this is something that is built up over time. Before that, what first needs to be developed is “moral sensibilities”.
Elaborating, the associate professor said that a good thing to come out of this crisis is the many expressions of generosity and kindness of people who have stepped up to provide assistance to others.
However, he also stressed that these sensibilities tend to emerge drastically in times of crisis, and that people who come out of it may be energised to do good, but that this shouldn’t stop at just being kind to people without also making necessary changes at the policy level.
He explained that now, people see cracks in the system which are being filled by kind and generous people. However, this might lead society to say that the system is doing fine and doesn’t need to be changed, but it does.
Assoc. Prof Tan suggested that there are many ways of how social justice can be incorporated in the public.
“And probably the weakest approach, at least in curricular terms, is to simply teach people moral frameworks,” he said, as people need to understand these different lenses used to make sense of complex situations.
But this is insufficient. “There needs to be an experiential level to this,” stressed the professor.
He then gave an example of university courses that send out students to engage with communities and civil society organisations, elevating it from an academic exercise to one where there is more at stake.
But he warned that we should refrain from turning this learning into ‘poverty tourism’ where students experience hardships of others but only to get away with the sense of being grateful.
Assoc. Prof Tan also emphasised that these communities have people with their own voices and that those voices may have been silenced for all kinds of reasons. He added that such courses should be designed to be collaborative so as not to solve problems for the community but to work with them.
Going back to the current crisis as an example of this, Assoc. Prof Tan said, “If we were to engage with the migrant workers, for example in this very specific problem of dormitories today. We’ve hardly heard their voices in the solutioning type of work that’s been presented in public. Where are their voices? Where is their creativity? Where is their agency expressing what the problems really are?”
Later, Assoc. Prof Teo also noted that current social policies do mitigate the economic impact of the pandemic to a certain degree, access to good education healthcare and housing is so deeply tied up with employment and wages as well as the narrow definition of family.
She added that the relationship between state and society is quite an individualistic one and people tend to think in terms of what they can do for themselves and their families and less about what they can do for society.
“There’s a very thin sense of mutual obligation, very thin sense of lateral ties across society,” said Assoc. Prof Teo.
The economic model of maximising growth has to be fundamentally rethought
Addressing inequality and the government’s strategy of maximising growth to build reserves, which Prof George notes appears to be proving its value now, Prof Lim explained that inequality comes from the economic model Singapore chooses which “tends to reward capital more than labour.”
“A big part of inequality comes from the fact that wages and consumption demands are very low proportions of GDP by global standards,” she said.
“I think we need to think more about how we cannot privilege a model that generates inequality. “
Talking about the nation’s reserves which the government are drawing from now to tide through this pandemic, Prof Lim notes that reserves have not been a constraint in this pandemic globally on how other governments spend.
“Other government show that you don’t need to build up reserves for 30 years in order to spend them in 3 months,” he stressed.
She further said, “We have run budget surpluses. What is a budget surplus? Budget surplus is government taking from people more than it gives back to them. Do we want to have this forever?”
Stressing that this is a long term structural issue that the country has “evaded” simply by sticking to this high-growth policy, Prof Lim pointed out that experts have been saying since the early 1970s that Singapore should reduce its dependence of foreign labour.
“We’ve known these problems for decades but we got hooked onto a model because for some time it generated growth and high returns for some people,” she lamented.
“We reached that point of diminishing returns even before the pandemic. We do need a fundamental rethinking.”
Chiming in, Assoc. Prof Teo added that if collective action is not taken, people will face great hardships and the number of people who struggle will only grow as the pandemic inevitably leads to higher unemployment and lower wages.
“We do have to mitigate these impacts at least partly through reforms in our social policy regime. Because social policies are meant to correct some of the irrationalities of the market,” she said.