Singapore GE2020: Both government and community action needed for more equitable society, says Tharman

Mr Tharman said there has to be risk-sharing and collective responsibility at the broad, societal level. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE -Everyone in society must pitch in if Singaporeans want society to be fairer and more equitable, Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said on Tuesday (July 7).

For Singapore to be a place that tempers inequalities at every stage of life, there needs to be both government action and community action, said Mr Tharman, who is also Coordinating Minister for Social Policies.

"It is not just a set of goals, not just about pious statements, not just a set of political declarations," he added in the speech on strategies for an inclusive society, livestreamed on the People's Action Party's Facebook page on Tuesday.

"This is about real programmes - real programmes that we keep improving, learning over time what works, never perfect, but constant improvement."

This also means there has to be risk-sharing and collective responsibility at the broad, societal level, instead of leaving it to individuals to make sure they have enough savings for healthcare or retirement, Mr Tharman said.

"If you just leave it to individuals, what you find is that society becomes more divided and it becomes more unequal in the years when people are the most vulnerable, which is their older years."

Mr Tharman said: "It happens in society after society - if you leave it to individuals to make decisions of their own, and each individual deciding how to invest their funds or spend their monies, you just end up with more inequality."

The issue of retirement adequacy has been raised by opposition politicians ahead of Friday's general election. The Workers' Party has called for wider use of Medisave and free public transport for seniors, while the Singapore Democratic Party wants the bottom 80 per cent of retirees over 65 to be given a monthly income of $500.

Mr Tharman said in every election, there will be politicians who make "very nice sounding promises" on what should be done to help seniors, including for Central Provident Fund payouts to start earlier or for the Government to pay more of Singaporeans' healthcare costs, such as subsidising MediShield premiums.

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But many of these measures will only end up hurting the very people they are trying to help, said Mr Tharman, such as resulting in higher tax rates for middle-income households, because nothing comes for free.

Countries like the United States that have chosen a more market-based approach have seen the bottom third of their population enter retirement with more debt than savings, while those like Denmark and Finland, which because of political pressure have liberalised their social security systems to provide earlier payouts, are now trying to reverse course, said Mr Tharman.

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"Some promises look appealing, but they actually lead to greater inequality over time," he said. "Think hard about the need for a fair system, a progressive system and a sustainable system, and that's basically what we're trying to achieve in Singapore."

While Singapore has evolved its CPF system over the years to provide more flexibility, the central tenet of schemes like the CPF Life annuity and MediShield Life basic health insurance is still to look after those who need the most help, which is the lower- and middle-income groups, he said.

Mr Tharman said: "We cannot say that everyone decides for themselves and somehow, things are going to end up rosy.

"Some people will take care of themselves very well and in every society, the rich end up somehow being able to take care of themselves and doing better, and the poor end up in tougher straits, in more difficult circumstances."

This is also why the Government provides additional support to help those in the lower- and middle-income groups in their silver years, such as with higher interest rates on CPF balances after 55, and the enhanced Silver Support Scheme that will see low-income retirees receive quarterly payouts of $900 a quarter from next year, he added.

The community, too, has a part to play, said SM Tharman, who quoted the popular Hokkien song Ai Piah Cia Eh Yia, or You Must Fight To Win.

He said: "The most interesting ditty within the song: What happens in life is determined 30 per cent by the will of the heavens and 70 per cent by hard work, or in those days, bitter hard struggle."

Singapore should retain the social ethos where people work hard for themselves, take responsibility and take pride in standing on their own feet, Mr Tharman said.

"But you can't rely on the heavens, you can't leave people to fend for themselves either. That 30 per cent has to be community (effort)," he added.

This means Singaporeans taking responsibility for each other, which includes paying more for things like conservancy work so that low-wage workers can move up, he said.

"For building a fairer and more equitable society where everyone is moving up together, it's a small cost to pay," he said.

"We pay a much larger cost if we end up with a divided society. We have to avoid that."

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