Social policy must not undermine personal responsibility: DPM Tharman

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam (left), along with Tommy Koh, gives the annual S Rajaratnam lecture on the challenges of sustaining a fair and inclusive society. -- ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM
Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam (left), along with Tommy Koh, gives the annual S Rajaratnam lecture on the challenges of sustaining a fair and inclusive society. -- ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam highlighted on Monday the important role of culture in building a good society, in a speech to more than 600 foreign service officers and members of the diplomatic corps at the annual S Rajaratnam Lecture.

As the Government does more for those at risk of falling behind, how it redistributes resources is as crucial as how much it gives out, he said.

What matters is building a culture that combines individual responsibility with a willingness to support others. That is what will determine whether Singapore's shift to a more inclusive society is successful, he said.

Mr Tharman, who is also Finance Minister, outlined how policy could have a negative impact on social culture if it eroded the work ethic.

In Sweden, for example, traditional industriousness and self-reliance had given way, due to entrenched disability and unemployment benefits, to changing attitudes towards work among its population.

Despite being one of the healthiest people in the world, for example, there are high rates of sick leave and disability benefits: "New social norms have evolved, hand-in-hand with the expansion of welfare entitlements," he said.

But the unfettered free-market also creates an unhealthy social culture where "individuals look out for themselves," he noted.

The Government here is trying, in its policies, to walk a path of "true progressivism," where active government policies level up those with less in a way that does not reduce the vim and energy of citizens.

"As we step up our social policies, our approach must therefore be to encourage a compact between personal and social responsibility, where each reinforces the other rather than a zero-sum game," he said.

Mr Tharman also highlighted the need for Singapore's social culture to be more innovative and risk-taking, as these qualities are what the global economy rewards.

Here, there may be no policy solutions nor the need for them, he said, adding that his sense is that risk-taking and entrepreneurship "start from young," and that there is a need to engender in Singaporean youth a "stronger sense of their own personalities," and a stronger preferences towards original thinking and time outside the classroom.