Strike balance between individual and collective responsibility

The recent discussion on alleviating the plight of low-income families has been informed by a more liberal moral-political perspective ("Lifting families out of poverty: Focus on the children", March 3; "Ease stress of day-to-day survival so poor can plan a better future", March 3; and "Why low-income parents may make 'poor choices'", last Thursday).

It eschews blame-the-victim arguments, and advocates providing more integrated and structured help to low-income families.

The commentators call for a greater understanding of the "failings" of lower-income individuals and more social responsibility for the vulnerable in our society. This call is timely as Singapore moves from a residual welfare system to a more inclusive society, and especially when we are facing more difficult economic times ahead.

However, even as one agrees that the individuals cannot be blamed entirely for making "bad" decisions, it is troubling when they are absolved of any autonomy for their decisions.

Where do we, as a society, draw the line between enabling individuals and letting them be responsible for their actions? For instance, how should social workers treat recalcitrant individuals who act against their advice?

A general liberal philosophy of social responsibility and help is admirable, yet it does not provide practical clarity and help to on-the-ground realities. This is especially when different sets of ethical principles contradict one another, even as they are both just and equitable.

As Singapore transforms its social welfare system, we need to consider a broader spectrum of views and strike a balance between individual and collective responsibility, particularly when policy changes involve raising taxes and redistributing resources.

Tam Chen Hee (Dr)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 16, 2016, with the headline 'Strike balance between individual and collective responsibility'. Print Edition | Subscribe