The rise in social assistance payments made to the needy in the last financial year, amounting to a record sum of $116 million, might either reassure or unsettle social observers, depending on their broad outlook. Does this represent support that no society can conscionably ignore or is it the thin end of a wedge that will prise open a Pandora's box of welfarism? The conservative approach to welfare of past years has been justified by the need to uphold "time-tested values of hard work, self-reliance, family responsibility and community support for those in need", as the Government reiterated when The Economist magazine referred to it as a "stingy nanny" in 2010. The rationale has not changed but the application of policy has since evolved, as reflected in Social and Family Development Minister Tan Chuan-Jin's comment that "the increase (in ComCare financial assistance) is not too surprising because we have increased our efforts in the last few years to bring help closer to those in need".
Indeed, the National Council of Social Service's list of ComCare and other assistance schemes for those in social and financial need now runs into 80 pages. Continuing growth in the funding of such programmes raises fundamental issues of financial sustainability, generational equity and social culture. The appeal of a benevolent welfare state is wearing off even in Scandinavian countries long associated with liberal programmes. Most worrying is a change of attitudes towards work and entitlements, reflected in extreme forms when the young and others who are able insist on living off a welfare system - supported by high taxes - despite having made little contribution to it. This can create social divisions; and cutting back schemes can prove tough when votes count in a democracy. Hence the need to "encourage a compact between personal and collective responsibility, where each reinforces the other" as social policies are stepped up, as Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam noted.
With self-reliance as a touchstone, social programmes ought to be tilted towards helping the needy help themselves, while long-term assistance is devoted mainly to the elderly and incapacitated. Though the latest data shows that 65 per cent of households on such assistance are formed by the elderly living alone, one should track changes over time that could prove undesirable. The reality is that uncontrolled social spending would place an onerous burden on current taxpayers who would have to support not just the poor and a growing pool of seniors, but also those seeking various sorts of benefits. This should be reason enough for pragmatism, and not dogma, to guide Singaporeans as they come to terms with the paradox of active state social support that is geared towards promoting personal responsibility, as well as community responsibility.