Don't rule out universal basic income for S'pore

Office workers during lunch time at Raffles Place.
Office workers during lunch time at Raffles Place. PHOTO: ST FILE

I agree with Opinion editor Chua Mui Hoong that Singapore needs to think long and hard about prescribing a universal basic income (UBI) in the near future ("Why the debate on unconditional basic income is relevant for S'pore"; June 7).

Its logical and economic merits aside, the concept of a UBI would at first glance seem incongruous with the fundamental tenets of Singaporean society.

It has often been said that in our city-state, "there is no such thing as a free lunch". Many remain disdainful of social welfare programmes, for fear that these cultivate laziness and an overdependence on state institutions.

The predominant social narrative has been one where hard work and sacrifice necessarily lead to greater rewards.

Unfortunately, this narrative has become increasingly detached from reality.

Already, serious income inequality and a perceived lack of social mobility have done much to erode confidence in the classical success story.

Moreover, disruptive new technologies and economic restructuring have turned employment into a decidedly fragile affair, with serious ramifications for how workers can access medical, financial and social benefits.

We should also consider our rapidly ageing population, where the need for strong social safety nets is most urgent, and where employment is a less applicable factor.

Therefore, the time has come to challenge our preconceived notions of what a UBI would entail for our society. To do so would be to overcome a significant mental block that stands in the way of serious discourse and, in the long run, implementation.

It is worth mentioning at this juncture that the Singapore story has always been built on the back of generous support for the people by a magnanimous Government.

Many of our greatest policy successes, such as the development of affordable public housing by the Housing Board, were premised on the idea that the state would provide for basic needs, freeing citizens to embark on more ambitious enterprises.

In a sense, the notion of a UBI might not be so at odds with the Singapore philosophy after all.

Paul Chan Poh Hoi

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 02, 2016, with the headline 'Don't rule out universal basic income for S'pore'. Print Edition | Subscribe