Right way to shift to the left

If this proves to be the last Budget of the Government's term before a General Election, there might be little unfinished work to complete the transformative agenda of Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who took up the finance portfolio in 2007. Together with his Cabinet colleagues, he has steered the Government decidedly to the left in social policies. The cumulative effect of major programmes - from Workfare (made permanent in 2007) to Silver Support (the latest) - has contributed to the recent display of nervous concern among some MPs.

Will social spending cross a "red line" marking a possible future of chronic deficits? How sustainable will the expansion of well-intended social programmes be as society here ages? Such caution is salutary but one can take comfort that the nation's fiscal conservatism is enshrined in constitutional rules that prevent a government from running a deficit within its term, and from spending more than 50 per cent of expected long-term returns of its reserves. Yet an intergenerational impact cannot be taken for granted when schemes are to be funded by current taxation over the years when the number of workers supporting seniors has dwindled - from 4.8 now to 2.1 in 2030.

The permanent schemes emplaced are in tune with the socialist roots of the ruling People's Action Party. These reflect a supply-side socialism that aims to help each individual make the most of his potential and fulfil his aspirations through various support schemes and subsidies for education and health care that can enhance the nation's competitiveness, while delivering a quality of life befitting its First World status. Like the ends, the means are similarly nuanced. Where appropriate, risks are pooled, and whenever desirable, there's a co-sharing of burdens - to deter over-consumption and avoid weakening the ethic of individual and collective responsibility.

A key to the sustainability of social programmes is the broad acceptance of the social contract. That represents the implicit agreement among all to organise society in a way that best secures mutual welfare and social peace, as opposed to a state of no-holds-barred competition that gives free rein to brute instincts.

Ultimately, an agreement must be seen in less transactional terms and transcend the dominant status quo (especially when meritocracy as an organising principle might veil built-in advantages and disadvantages) to become an enduring impulse to look out for one another. Social policy can draw only so much from ideology and fiscal largesse. One must "take truths from both the left and the right", as Mr Tharman put it, in order to push forward.