Simplistic to blame individual choices for social inequality

I am unimpressed by Mr Toh Cheng Seong's arguments that, in essence, amount to victim blaming of the socio-economically disadvantaged (Unconditional support not the way to tackle inequality; July 29).

Such comments do a tremendous disservice to fellow Singaporeans who are struggling daily with harsh realities in one of the world's richest city states.

The insinuation that inequality on a societal scale arises from "poor individual choices" - downplaying the significance of "the system" - is directly contradicted by decades of sociological and economic research and observation.

Mr Toh fails to recognise that the availability of life choices is often constrained by factors beyond any one person's control, such that upward social mobility can be difficult in spite of "prudent planning" and careful decision-making.

Moreover, I am not persuaded by Mr Toh's overly simplistic view of the issue as a hard binary between individual responsibility and reckless state handouts.

Many countries commonly perceived as offering "free rider" social welfare actually have very strict requirements in place to preserve a degree of individual responsibility. In the Nordic model, for instance, applicants for unemployment aid must first supply documentary proof to the authorities that they are actively searching for a new job.

Emulating such models might serve us well. In the continuing fight against inequality, the design of our redistributive policies should be based on hard evidence, rather than stereotypes, generalisations, and misconceptions.

Paul Chan Poh Hoi

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 07, 2018, with the headline 'Simplistic to blame individual choices for social inequality'. Print Edition | Subscribe