In “Ploughing On: The Faces and Insecurities of Singapore’s Elderly Working Poor”, Cunico, Lim, and Han describe the story of Eddie (1-2). Eddie is a 63-year-old Singaporean with no lifesavings. He is unable to hold full-time employment because he is the sole caretaker of his deaf brother. Although Eddie has a son who supports him with small handouts viz., S$100, these handouts are given infrequently. So, Eddie works as a cardboard-picker, an informal occupation that involves finding and collecting unwanted cardboards, to support himself. Even though cardboard-picking is physically demanding, it pays poorly. On a good day, Eddie collects 200 kilograms of cardboard and receives a meagre compensation of S$20 from the recycling plant for his effort. His meagre income means that he struggles to pay for basic necessities i.e. food and shelter.
Despite Eddie’s struggles, he does not receive any assistance from the Singaporean government. The Singaporean government does in fact offer a plethora of conditional help schemes to assist individuals such as Eddie. But these schemes have complex and stringent conditions attached to them. Hence, individuals are discouraged from applying for them because they do not have the literacy skills required to comprehend these schemes (Cunico, Lim, and Han, 7-8). Further, in Eddie’s case, he does not qualify for these schemes because he fails to meet the stringent conditions attached to them (Cunico, Lim, and Han, 7). For instance, the Singaporean government offers a ‘Workfare Income Supplement’ (WIS) to scale up the income of workers in low-wage formal occupations. Nonetheless, Eddie does not qualify for the WIS because of the informal nature of his occupations (Cunico, Lim, and Han, 5 & 7). In this manner, Eddie falls through the cracks of the system: he receives no assistance from the government and struggles to afford basic necessities. As Cunico, Lim, and Han mention, Eddie is only one among many other individuals who face this struggle (5).
Using Elizabeth Anderson’s view that a modern society’s economy operates as a system of joint cooperative production, I argue that that the Singaporean government should not let individuals such as Eddie fall through the cracks of the system. By ‘joint cooperative production’, Anderson means that all products of the economy are produced on account of every worker’s contributions (Anderson, 321). Since Singapore’s economy depends upon Eddie’s contribution to produce goods, the Singaporean government should ensure that Eddie receives adequate compensation for his contributions. The compensation he receives should at least enable him to afford basic necessities. Hence, I recommend that the Singaporean government should implement a universal basic income (UBI) to ensure that individuals such as Eddie receive adequate compensation for their economic contributions.
On Anderson’s view, the modern society’s economy is a system of joint cooperative production because it relies on a comprehensive division of labour to produce goods (322). In this system, no worker produces a good solely by his own efforts (Anderson, 322). For instance, Michael Jordan could not have impressed large crowds with his skills if there were no builders to construct the stadium he plays in (Anderson, 322). Likewise, if there were no brick-makers, these builders would not have had the materials to build the stadiums in the first place. Effectively, every worker’s contribution is made possible because all other workers perform their respective roles in the division of labour. Since every worker is jointly involved in economic production, the principles that govern the division of labour and the distribution of its products must be acceptable to every single one of them (Anderson, 322). Hence, all workers in the economy must accept the demands of Cohen’s interpersonal justification test: any policy argument must justify that policy when uttered by any participant in the economy to her fellow participants (Anderson, 322).
To briefly clarify, although Eddie only holds informal occupations viz., cardboard-picking and non-wage caregiving, he still contributes to the economy. In collecting cardboard and selling them to recycling plants, Eddie is contributing to the recycling industry. As the sole caretaker of his deaf brother, Eddie contributes to the economy by relieving his son of the responsibility of caring for his disabled relative. In that manner, Eddie enables his son to (i) hold full-time employment in the market economy and, (ii) be more productive at work because he has fewer responsibilities to worry about (Anderson, 324).
Now, let us apply the interpersonal justification test to Eddie’s case to understand why the Singaporean government should not let him fall through the cracks of the system. Since Eddie contributes to the Singaporean economy, the principles governing the economy’s division of labour and the distribution of its products must pass the interpersonal test. Simply put, these principles must be acceptable to Eddie. So, with regard to his role as a cardboard-picker, the principle ‘let us be served by occupations so inadequately compensated that those in them struggle to pay for basic necessities’ will fail the interpersonal justification test (Anderson, 323). Eddie will not accept these principles because it means that he will be unable to afford basic necessities despite contributing to the economy. Likewise, in his role as a caretaker, the principle ‘let us assign others to discharge our caregiving obligations to someone and attach such meagre benefits to people in that role such that they struggle to pay for one’s basic expenses’ will not survive the interpersonal justification test for the same reason (Anderson, 324).
Since Eddie will not accept the aforementioned principles, Anderson asserts that society should rectify them. To this end, Anderson recommends that society should implement safeguards that will ensure that these principles will be acceptable to Eddie i.e. they adequately compensate him for his economic contribution. On Anderson’s view, these safeguards should come in the form of help schemes that are conditioned upon one being an active contributor to the economy (Anderson, 325). As mentioned, Singapore currently adopts a similar approach e.g. WIS. Yet, Eddie does not qualify for these help schemes because he fails to meet the conditions attached to them. More generally, conditional help schemes fail to assist all needy productive individuals because some of them will inevitably fail to meet certain conditions attached to these schemes (Cunico, Lim, and Han, 7-8).
To ensure that productive individuals such as Eddie are adequately compensated for their economic contributions, I recommend that the Singaporean government should implement a UBI. Following Van Parijs’ definition of UBI, I define it as an unconditional income paid by the government to every citizen above the age of 18 regardless of their (i) employment status; (ii) willingness to work; (iii) level of wealth and; (iv) marital status (Van Parijs , 102, Van Parijs , 3). Unlike conditional help schemes, a UBI does not require individuals to fulfil any conditions in order to receive it. So, a UBI will ensure that individuals such as Eddie will not fall through the cracks of the system: he will surely receive assistance from the Singaporean government.
Nonetheless, I recognise that the UBI must be of a substantive amount if it is to ensure that individuals such as Eddie are adequately compensated for their economic contributions. The obvious worry then is that a UBI approach will be too costly to finance. Assuming for argument’s sake that basic necessities cost S$300 on a monthly basis, a substantive UBI needs to provide a monthly income of at least S$200. For at this level, Eddie will be in a position to afford basic necessities. Accounting for the 3.97 million Singaporean citizens, it will cost approximately S$794 million to run a UBI scheme (Singapore Department of Statistics et al, 5). Although the costs of a UBI is undeniably high, Singapore is in a position in which she can afford it – she has recently posted a budget surplus of S$5.18 billion in the fiscal year of 2017 (Ministry of Finance, 7). Further, the Singaporean government can finance a UBI scheme by abolishing or reducing certain conditional help schemes (Van Parijs , 14). For the UBI will already provide some assistance to productive individuals in need of assistance.
A more pertinent worry is that a UBI approach will inevitably assist and compensate unproductive individuals who do not contribute to the economy. By ‘unproductive individuals’, I mean those who are capable of participating in the economy but unwilling to do so. Since these unproductive individuals fail to perform any role in the economy’s division of labour, they should not receive any form of income or compensation. I acknowledge this unavoidable shortcoming of a UBI approach. Nonetheless, this shortcoming should not stop the Singaporean government from implementing a UBI: it is a trade-off that the government must undertake. For a UBI approach, unlike a conditional help scheme approach, ensures that productive individuals such as Eddie will be adequately compensated for their economic contributions.
To conclude, I have argued that the Singaporean government should prevent productive individuals such as Eddie from falling through the cracks of the system. The government should not let them receive inadequate compensation for their economic contributions. Just as Eddie ploughs on in the face of hardship, the Singaporean government must push on with its efforts to ensure that no productive individual is left in such a predicament. The government must not be content with its current approach of offering a plethora of conditional help schemes given its obvious shortcomings. Rather, the Singaporean government must consider every possible approach and use every means at its disposal to address the shortcomings of its current approach. I believe that it is time for the Singaporean government to not only consider, but implement a UBI.
I thank Professor Sandra Field for her insightful comments regarding my paper. This paper has greatly benefitted from her guidance. I also thank Sherry Yang Xue Rui and Victoire Bret for reviewing my paper and offering important feedback. Lastly, I thank my fellow participants of the 2017’ iteration of the Contemporary Egalitarianism module for their perceptive discussions that have shaped my thoughts on the topic at hand.
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