Budget 2018

The economy as a means to an end, not an end in itself

It's time to shift away from privileging narrow market values to talk about meeting needs of people in society

The writer says people should be valued for the social roles they take on, that is, beyond wage workers but as fathers, mothers, grandparents, neighbours, volunteers and otherwise contributing members of society.
The writer says people should be valued for the social roles they take on, that is, beyond wage workers but as fathers, mothers, grandparents, neighbours, volunteers and otherwise contributing members of society.

As a sociologist, I have been thinking a lot about the urgent problem of income and wealth inequality in Singapore. I have seen others - social workers, teachers, academics, activists, artists, parents - similarly concerned.

Over the past few decades, Singapore has become a very wealthy country. Compared with other wealthy countries, it ranks highly as one of the most unequal.

Beyond indices and rankings, inequalities are increasingly palpable in Singaporeans' daily lives - in contact or lack thereof with others living in the city, because of class similarities or divides; in the visible spaces that keep people in or out by virtue of costs; in the categories many of us too easily attach to distinguish certain types of kindergartens and schools from others.

People in Singapore are confronted not by a single city but a bifurcated one - for some, a global city, with numerous consumption choices; for others, a space of insecurity and uncertainty, where life feels both precarious and stagnant.

In recent weeks, Singapore's national leaders have been talking about the problem of rising inequality and decreasing opportunities for upward social mobility.

In his Budget speech of 2018, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat declared within minutes of beginning his speech: "We need to keep a close watch on income inequality and social mobility. We want growth to uplift all Singaporeans and deepen our social compact."

Later in his speech, he stressed that "a strong economy is not an end in itself; it is a means to build a better home and provide a better quality of life for all our people."

What does it mean to say that the economy is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself?

And what does this approach imply for what citizens should ask of public policies, and particularly about how public goods are generated and distributed?

The writer says people should be valued for the social roles they take on, that is, beyond wage workers but as fathers, mothers, grandparents, neighbours, volunteers and otherwise contributing members of society. PHOTO: ST FILE

First, this frame suggests that as a society, our policy discussions should always be anchored by big and audacious questions: Who are we as a people? What values do we care about? Where would we like to be headed?

If the economy is a means to an end, then the end itself must be something else, something more noble than wealth or growth per se.

Singapore's founding values - justice, equality, prosperity for all - encapsulate well what that end might be. It is not easy always to be asking such questions, but these are in fact the most important questions all members of society must ask about public policy.

Second, needs - for things, for social participation, for dignity - must be front and centre in any discussion of public goods.

Before talking about affordability, or how to balance varied interests, we must first delineate what needs people have, what needs are unmet, and what needs may need to be met in the future.

Thinking of the economy as a means to an end suggests that the end is some level of happiness, some degree of choice and autonomy so that people can live meaningful and dignified lives as they choose. Policy should thus be evaluated on how effectively they help meet people's needs for dignity, choice and autonomy, and how they contribute to happiness.

Finally, we have to confront the fact that public policy must shift away from privileging narrow market values. The notion of a rising tide lifting all boats is metaphorically powerful; empirically, it has not worked out this way.

Comparative studies - such as the recent World Inequality Report, or the Commitment to Reducing Inequality Index - show that countries that have done better in managing inequality and distributing wealth, are countries where state policies have systematically and strategically mitigated the exploitative tendencies of market forces and tried to reduce the capture and monopolisation of resources by a small group.

In the Commitment to Reducing Inequality Index, for example, the authors -Development Finance International and Oxfam - point to the significant roles states play in distributing the wealth of a nation such that everyone can reap the rewards of development. In this index, Singapore is ranked 86 out of 152 countries because social spending as a proportion of overall spending is low compared to other countries with similar capabilities for spending; its tax structure does not sufficiently redistribute wealth generated by the country to the broad population; and its labour policies afford limited leverage to low and middle-income workers vis-a-vis employers when it comes to wage conditions.

The announcements made during the Budget speech - increase in Buyer's Stamp Duty, an enhanced GST Voucher scheme, or the SG Bonus - do not go far enough in committing to reduce income and wealth inequalities. For example, the SG Bonus, which gives $100 to $300 for each adult Singaporean, is equivalent to between just $1.90 and $5.80 per week, for one year.

If Singapore's founding ethical values are to be taken seriously, we as a society must change the market orientation that currently dominates the welfare regime.

Adequately meeting everyone's needs - for housing, healthcare, education, work-life balance, long-term security - will require shifts away from the current model, where wage-earning capabilities are the precondition for access to all these things.

Throughout a human life cycle, people may sometimes be wage workers; but they are likely also caregivers - fathers, mothers, grandparents, daughters, sons, nieces, nephews, grandchildren. Many are simultaneously volunteers, helpful neighbours and otherwise contributing members of their communities. The talents of our people also include things that are not easily monetised, and our country is undeniably richer because of the labour of artists and civil society activists. All of these social roles ought to be valued.

People should not be deprived of having their basic needs (such as for housing or healthcare) met because they take on various social roles that take them away temporarily or permanently from wage-earning.

Inequalities in wages should not also map onto public goods, which by definition are goods that all should have access to, for the good of society. Lower income during a life course should not, for example, result in reduced access to basic healthcare. Policies governing the distribution of these goods should reduce market inequalities, not replicate or compound them.

To speak of a means to an end on behalf of a nation is tricky business.

Public policy regimes have to foster not just individual values but also shared ones. They must make space for the concrete practice not just of individual choices but also social solidarity.

These are easy words to say. In practice, they require institutional mechanisms that shift people away from thinking only about and acting on behalf of themselves and their families.

As a sociologist who studies poverty and inequality, I hope our policy regimes will foster this shift. Because inequality is a central problem, not a mere externality. And the economy is a means to a potentially beautiful end.

• Teo You Yenn is Associate Professor and Head of Sociology at Nanyang Technological University, and author of This is What Inequality Looks Like (Ethos Books, 2018).

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 23, 2018, with the headline The economy as a means to an end, not an end in itself . Subscribe