A post by Jose Raymond, member of the Singapore People’s Party, reveals the story of a resident (who we will address as Mr T. in this article) – a 59 year old handicapped man whose request for social assistance was denied by the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF).1 Mr T is visually handicapped and suffers from kidney failure, thus being declared as medically unfit for work and cannot earn an income. However, upon writing to MSF to request for additional assistance, he was denied on the basis that he received a source of income through his monthly payout of $650 from his Central Provident Fund (CPF) Account. When this case was brought to the public eye, MSF faced criticism for being heartless, as well as for describing CPF hangouts as income instead of savings. MSF justified their decision with a list of their considerations, which includes his rental flat being paid for by a temple and him receiving a monthly donation of $550 from a close friend.2 Another friend of Mr T’s wrote in to clarify that this $500 infrequent and meant for all three tenants in his flat, also highlighting that Mr T meets all the criteria listed on MSF’s page for social assistance.
While the details of the situation are not clear, what is stark is the public scrutiny and discussion of whether Mr T., a man who faces additional needs due to his physical disability, deserves the social assistance he is seeking is questionable and to some extent, dehumanizing. More generally however, Mr T.’s case is way for us to look at the provision of social assistance through the experience of those receiving and applying for aid. In this article, I use Anderson’s criticism of luck egalitarianism in her paper What is the Point of Equality? to explore how the underlying attitude behind social assistance programmes in Singapore is problematic and unjust.
While Mr T’s case is specific, it reflects the reality that many Singaporean households face. The 2019 Household Expenditure Survey found that the bottom 20 per cent of households are each spending S$2,570 a month while having a monthly income of S$2,235, which include regular government transfers such as Workfare. This means a shortfall of S$335 on average each month.3 This situation has persisted for many decades but this has been the highest shortfall in at least a decade. The means that households have to use to cope with these shortfalls are varied, including ad-hoc government transfers and rebates or subsidies. Hence, the situation of listing down all their personal and familial considerations and concerns in order to justify that they are sufficiently needy is an experience familiar to anyone who has had to seek for any level of social assistance in Singapore. This experience is often accompanied with the feeling of being viewed with suspicion by case workers on permanent alert for fraud or anyone who learns that one is on social assistance is understandably extremely demoralizing and puts a strain on one’s sense of belonging in a society. To invoke Anderson’s words, such a system of suspicion “succeeds not in establishing a society of equals, but only in reproducing the stigmatizing regime of the Poor Laws, in which citizens lay claim to aid from the state only on condition that they accept inferior status.”4 Here, she is referencing the English Poor Laws, a system of poor relief that sought to distinguish between the deserving and undeserving poor where the undeserving poor were punished to varying degrees for their idleness while the deserving poor only received aid on the basis that they are innately inferior in “talent, intelligence, ability or social appeal to the rest of society”.5
Intrusion of the state
Anderson acutely highlights the problem of a system which main purpose is to cleanly delineate the deserved and undeserved as one that “requires the state to make grossly intrusive, moralizing judgments of individual’s choices.” We see this when MSF lists out all of Mr T’s considerations so as to calculate whether or not he has enough to live and to ensure that any aid given is always for those that needs it the most, instead of funding any luxurious tastes. This would thus require the state to determine whether or not a person’s choices are luxurious – which implicitly happens when MSF evaluates exactly how much money the household requires and has, denying them the choice of purchasing anything other than bare necessities or the option of working less which is afforded to anyone who does not face poverty.
While determining what is luxury instinctively seems simple, what it truly entails is something that is much more intrusive in nature. One way for the government to determine citizens’ prudence is to create a standard or a set of expectations for what kind of life choices a prudent citizen should make – for example, they should work hard to find a well-paying job, they should spend to cover their families’ needs and they should save for a rainy day before they pay for anything luxurious. However, this is a very high standard to be setting for people and thus a stiff punishment to be dealing them when we deny them support when they fall short of this standard. This standard is especially unreachable when we consider the experience those on the receiving end social assistance programmes – people who are faced with the complex psychology of poverty where scarcity mindsets and tunnel vision often traps them in making bad decisions.6
Ultimately, the question in adopting such a system is whether the state is able to accurately determine whether people are responsible for their luxurious or imprudent choices without conducting extreme intrusions and without exposing its citizens’ personal life to government and public scrutiny as was done in the case of Mr T. A failure to protect citizens’ privacy and liberty in attempting to pass judgement would be to disrespect certain dignities that should be accorded to a member of society.
Dead-weight loss to society
Moreover, the process of passing moral judgement of the deserved and undeserved through determining one’s prudence immediately demonises and puts imprudence on the negative extreme. This is evident in Singapore’s system which emphasises on improving productivity by making individuals responsible for their own choices such that anyone who desires a higher standard of living should work hard to achieve it. Consequentially, there is an emphasis that help is only given to those that really deserve it. This can be noted from then-Minister of National Development Mah Bow Tan description of Singapore’s rental housing scheme as being “allocated to deserving cases only, so that those public rental flats that we do build will be truly an effective final safety net and housing of last resort for the truly need.”7 The system seeks to address the fear of people choosing to be lazy and live off the efforts of the prudent. However, a closer look at this system reveals how it is actually designed to force people into working hard despite of the situations they face instead of giving them the assistance they need so that they have a more equal shot to live a thriving life in this society.
We can take a look at the application for ComCare assistance as an example. Comcare requires beneficiaries to return to the social service office every few months so that the Government can assess the family’s circumstances and adjust the amount of aid given accordingly. The experience is very complicated (requiring many documents), time-consuming (requiring multiple trips and long waiting time) and intrusive (with officers asking intrusive questions about their spending).8 In other words, the need to attain aid comes at a huge cost of an individuals’ time, where time is already a precious balance of work and rest for those struggling to make ends meet – all because of our emphasis on not giving the undeserved assistance. In the words of Anderson, a system that denies compensatory rewards to people who are judges responsible for their bad fortune makes “it is easier to construct a sob story recounting one’s undeserved misfortunes than it is to engage in productive work that is valued by others. In giving people an incentive to channel their self- seeking energies in the former rather than the latter direction, equality of fortune generates a huge deadweight loss to society.”9 On top of being a system that promotes undignified narratives of citizens, it also proves to be inadvertently unproductive for society at large. Unproductive not only because of their lack of economic output but because these individuals could be pursuing more fulfilling lives knowing that basic necessities are secured. They can choose careers that pay less knowing they can channel their talents in furthering that industry or field without compromising their ability to attain social assistance for their family.
A more compassionate Singapore
While Singapore possesses varied social assistance schemes, it fails to acknowledge that social provision is extends beyond physiological needs as the implementation of these systems can create unjust effects on the psychological wellbeing of individuals who already face strenuous life circumstances. The constant grovelling and putting their private lives and situations in the public sphere for the purpose of making ends meet where society has allowed them to fall through the cracks alienates one from their identity as a citizen. Singapore should strive to create a system that can allow for citizens to lay claim to basic necessities without the “cost of making an undignified spectacle of themselves”10 and while this requires a whole review of the process, it can begin by simple steps to reduce the stresses that individuals applying for social assistance face.
1 Raymond, Jose. Discussion of MSF’s rejection of a senior resident’s application for social assistance. Facebook, 13 June 2018, 12:00, https://www.facebook.com/JoseRaymondThomas/photos/a.1746385912262736/21681654 80084775/?type=3 Accessed 13 November 2020.
2 MSF Singapore. Explanation for Mr T’s Comcare assistance rejection. 16 June 2018, 12:05, https://www.facebook.com/MSFSingapore/posts/1980280168671758 Accessed 13 November 2020.
3 Lim, Kimberly. The Big Read: Unable to Make Ends Meet on Their Own, Low-Income Households Find Ways to Get By. 26 Aug. 2019, www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/household-expenditure-survey-inequalityincome-basic-needs-11840660.
4 Anderson, Elizabeth S. “What Is the Point of Equality?” Ethics, vol. 109, no. 2, 1999, pp. 311.
5 Boyer, George. “English Poor Laws”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. May 7, 2002. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/english-poor-laws/
6 Lim, Kimberly. The Big Read: Unable to Make Ends Meet on Their Own, Low-Income Households Find Ways to Get By. 26 Aug. 2019, www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/household-expenditure-survey-inequalityincome-basic-needs-11840660.
7 Lim, Jun Jie Gabriel, Muhammad Ruzaini Naim Bin Azman, and Tham Kah Jun Gregory. “Public Rental Housing in Singapore – A Last Resort?” Lkyspp.nus.edu.sg, 2019, lkyspp.nus.edu.sg/gia/article/public-rental-housing-in-singapore-a-last-resort.
8 King, Yu Yen. Beyond Social Services Research, 2017, pp. 9, How Existing Social Welfare Policies Cater to the Needs of the Very Low Income.
9 Anderson, Elizabeth S. “What Is the Point of Equality?” Ethics, vol. 109, no. 2, 1999, pp. 311.