MSF’s Response to “Sam”: Why We Need to Talk about Democratic Equality

In April, weeks after the start of circuit breaker measures, the Sunday Times ran an article titled “Coronavirus: $200 left with family of 6 to get through 3 weeks”.[1] It detailed the financial circumstance of “Sam” and his family, as well as the pressure they faced due to the circuit breaker. In response, the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) clarified in a Facebook post that “Sam” and his family were indeed receiving a range of financial and social assistance from numerous organisations.[2] The comments section on MSF’s Facebook post subsequently erupted with discussions both for and against MSF’s take on the matter.

Looking at the nature of the conversations that ensued, it is hard to deny that MSF’s response was indeed poorly crafted. In fact, the debacle proves that Singaporeans, both our citizens and our ministries, continue to miss the point when it comes to talking about equality.

The nature and content of MSF’s response reveals the ministry’s view on equality. MSF’s website describes one of their missions as “to nurture a caring society” and their values include respecting the individual.[3] The response is telling of the ways MSF seeks to achieve this. MSF provided details of “Sam’s” case history, detailing the extent of the income and resource support provided for “Sam” by various government agencies, community partners and school as well as for how long the various assistance had lasted. In citing their extensive distribution of resources and income to “Sam” as evidence against the claim that there was a lack of state support, the MSF reveals their ideological commitment to distributive equality.

Such ideological commitment, however, does not entail liberal redistributive policies.  Singapore’s social assistance policies are guided by a culture of individual responsibility. Teo You Yenn deconstructs this into three principles – help the needy achieve self-reliance, encourage familial aid, spur community organisation involvement under the “Many Helping Hands” approach. Government aid is therefore reserved for the exceptionally needy.[4]

MSF’s policies are neatly aligned with this philosophy. For example, ComCare “seeks to inspire responsible individuals” by providing temporary help as they work towards self-reliance.[5] As such, distributive social assistance programs, like ComCare, are granted on a needs basis. To administer this, stringent means-testing is employed. Applicants have to provide documents from bank statements and doctor’s memos to utilities bills in order to substantiate their claims for aid. State institutions then decide who deserves assistance through this mechanism. This is meant to guard against free-riders, and has the inherent effect of targeting the exceptional – those that are truly poor in a wealthy Singapore.[6]

Therein lies the first issue with MSF’s response – it passes a judgement on the worth of individuals. In order for “Sam” to qualify for assistance schemes such as ComCare, they will need to be deemed by the means-testing mechanism to be exceptional. Not only does it ask that citizens prove that they are in a less advantaged, inferior position compared to other citizens, it formalises such an opinion as fact. Only when this fact has been established will citizens be eligible for social assistance schemes. Essentially, state institutions, through means-testing, pass judgements on its own citizens.

To further problematise the response, consider a reconstruction similar to Elizabeth Anderson’s hypothetical letters[7], where she imagines what it would be like for state equality boards to inform disadvantaged citizens of their eligibility for assistance programs:

To the Singapore public: “Sam” has come out to explain his dire circumstance with only $200 for the next three weeks. However, here is a specific list of financial and resource assistances us and other organisations are already providing him or will provide to him in time to come. Their children do not pay school fees, and the Ministry of Education even provides for their meals in school. On some occasions, like employment training, “Sam” had failed to show up. He also did not contact his social service officer for help. All these demonstrate the contrary to what was described in the 19 April article.

Constituted in this manner, the condescending and vindictive tone of the response becomes apparent. MSF’s response not only frames “Sam” and his family as reliant members of society, they also raise this judgement to the level of public discourse. Worst still, the response antagonises “Sam” as dishonest. As egalitarians such as Anderson would put it, this disparages the disadvantaged and raises private disdain to the status of official fact.[8] By publicising “Sam’s” case history, it invites public comparisons and criticisms toward private individuals. Nowhere is this more evident with the comment that reads, “[i]s this ‘Sam’ guy abled bodied. With complete pair of limbs?” If MSF’s aim is to nurture a caring society and if respecting individuals is one of their values, they are certainly paddling in the wrong direction.

Some comments suggest that “Sam” is simply taking advantage of the assistance schemes. Such claims should be considered. When assistance programs require individuals to prove that they are less well-off compared to others, it does provide incentives for individuals to put on a public display in order to disparage oneself. In order to gain access to benefits, one only has to make an “undignified spectacle of oneself”, as Anderson puts it. [9] It is simply easier to recount one’s unfortunate plight so as to qualify for assistance schemes than to earnestly work to improve one’s own living conditions.

So, we may assume that there is merit in some of the comments made in this regard. Should we then fault “Sam” or his family for it? Probably not. The issue is systemic, where the design of social assistance schemes provides more reasons to make a degrading spectacle of oneself. Apart from disparaging the disadvantaged, stringent means-testing also fail to promote the individual responsibility that MSF purportedly aims to achieve. In fact, it may very well explain why the article on “Sam” was published in its shape and form to begin with. The ministry’s response, and the commenters, fail to recognise such policy shortcomings. Instead, they seem to pin the blame on the individuals simply seeking resources to survive.

MSF’s response thus falls short in two ways – it publicly disparaged the less advantaged and it failed to recognise its own shortcomings. In doing so, MSF singled out “Sam” from the rest of the population. By attempting to shift responsibility back “Sam” and his family, MSF antagonised them. Not only are they different, it is seemingly their fault for being so. Such policy and public response work against a cohesive society.[10] How, then, can we do better?

Singapore’s egalitarian instincts must go beyond equality of resources. Instead, it must focus on the equality of social relations.  Such equality – democratic equality – endeavours to promote mutual respect and recognition, as well as the individual freedom to participate in societal activities meaningfully.[11] Crucially, it promotes the idea that each individual in society has the duty to ensure such freedoms for other individuals.[12]

Besides social relations, our conception of equality needs to stop regarding resources as ends in themselves but rather, as means to different ends. Under democratic equality, such perspective takes the form of capabilities. The capabilities approach regards each individual as active agents pursuing different goals which are shaped by autonomous reasoning and sociability.[13] In turn, the approach espouses the idea that each individual should be guaranteed a stock of goods that promotes the pursuit of one’s own rational goals. This stock of goods goes beyond the size of one’s income. [14]

While the end goal is to change how we think and talk about equality, perhaps the first step is to reconsider how resources are redistributed to help those in need. Arguably, not all policies in Singapore are bad or unjust. For one, education in Singapore is highly subsidised for all Singaporeans and therefore, accessible for all. However, the main reason why education subsidies are as egalitarian as they are is primarily due to economics.[15] Democratic equality argues that social assistance cannot only occur if it makes sense economically or in exceptional cases. We ought to provide help to fellow members of society without requiring them to grovel and beg for it. Social assistance must be made available because we recognise the inherent potential and worth of each citizen, regardless of their place in the economy. This amounts to a reconsideration of the stringent means-testing we now deploy to make judgements of deservedness of aid. It means we must earnestly consider policies such as universal basic income or minimum wage.

Most importantly, we, Singaporeans, need to realise and accept the role that we all play in ensuring that each of us have the means to live a dignified life. We must forego individualism, and learn to be empathetic and compassionate.

By shifting our conception of equality from ideals of equality of resources to one of democratic equality, we shift away from the idea that Singaporean society is a competition between its members. Institutions such as MSF must change how they talk about equality, and signal to people that it is not about who has more and who has less. Rather, it is about ensuring that the few of us like “Sam” and his family are able to, and have the self-belief that they can, succeed in their own plans of life. If they need help, we should not require them to disparage themselves. Democratic equality reminds us that the less advantaged in society deserve assistance not because they are poor or inferior, but because they are human, just like everyone else. Only when this happens can we truly build the inclusive and caring society MSF wrote of.

 

[1] Zhuo, Tee and Janice Tai. “Coronavirus: $200 left with family of 6 to get through 3 weeks.” The Straits Times, 19 April 2020, https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/200-left-with-family-of-6-to-get-through-3-weeks.

[2] MSF Singapore. Response to Sunday Times report dated 19 April 2020. Facebook, 23 April 2020. https://www.facebook.com/MSFSingapore/posts/you-may-have-read-a-sunday-times-news-report-dated-19-april-2020-about-sam-his-w/3232589193440843/.

[3] “Mission & Values.”Ministry of Social and Family Development. https://www.msf.gov.sg/about-MSF/our-organisation/Pages/mission-and-values.aspx.

[4] Yeo Yenn, Teo. “Differentiated Deservedness”. This Is What Inequality Looks Like. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2019, pp. 149.

[5] “Learn More About ComCare.” Ministry of Social and Family Development. https://www.msf.gov.sg/Comcare/Pages/Learn-More-About-ComCare.aspx.

[6] Yeo Yenn, Teo. “Differentiated Deservedness”. This Is What Inequality Looks Like. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2019, pp. 149.

[7] Anderson, Elizabeth S. “What Is the Point of Equality?” Ethics, vol. 9, no. 2, 1999, pp. 305.

[8] Ibid, pp. 306.

[9] Ibid, pp. 311.

[10] Yeo Yenn, Teo. “Differentiated Deservedness”. This Is What Inequality Looks Like. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2019, pp. 161.

[11] Anderson, Elizabeth S. “What Is the Point of Equality?” Ethics, vol. 9, no. 2, 1999, pp. 313.

[12] Ibid, pp. 314.

[13] Nussbaum, Martha C. “In Defense of Universal Values”. Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach. Cambridge University Press, 2012.

[14] Global-is-Asian. “Social Welfare in Singapore: Are We Missing the Point?” Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. https://lkyspp.nus.edu.sg/gia/article/social-welfare-are-we-missing-the-point#_edn11.

[15] Irene Y. H., Ng. “Social Welfare in Singapore: Rediscovering Poverty, Reshaping Policy.”Asia Pacific Journal of Social Work and Development, vol. 23, no. 1, pp 35-47, 26 Feb. 2013.

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At Yale-NUS College, we are thinking about ideals of equality and democracy, and how they relate to practice, in Singapore and in the wider world.

This website showcases our reflections.

Articles were originally submitted as course papers for Professor Sandra Field’s classes Contemporary Egalitarianism and Democratic Theory.

The Equality&Democracy project has been made possible through the support of a Teaching Innovation Grant from the Yale-NUS Centre for Teaching and Learning: ‘Applying Political Philosophy to Real World Cases’.

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