A budget of trust

The Singapore Democratic Party’s shadow budget believes in the inherent trustworthiness of society and its people. Is this wise or misplaced faith?

“We’ve got to have rules and obey them. After all, we’re not savages,” writes author William Golding in his literary classic Lord of the Flies. Lawless and unfettered from the conventions of society, the group of schoolboys in the novel, stranded on a desert island, descends into anarchy and turns into a bunch of wild, irrational madmen. The younger children imagine that there is a monster lurking on the island, looking to get them. At one point in the novel, they realize “maybe there isn’t a beast, maybe it’s just us.”

However, history has shown over and over again that human beings are just as capable of organizing themselves into civilized societies based on ethical values, upholding human rights and dignities. That even without the fear of excessive scrutiny or punishment, people can be counted on to be responsible, socially conscious and to have integrity.

The SDP would certainly have us put faith in that. Its shadow budget for 2012, Securing Our Future (download it
here), is crafted on the principle of adopting “efficient, productive, people-focused and creative approaches to the development issues of our time,” and takes into account the possibility of an economic slowdown in the year to come.

This is underpinned by a belief that people do have the right to a basic standard of living and work, to full empowerment in society and that creative, out-of-the-box thinking and risk-taking are strengths to be cultivated. “Government,” it says in the budget, “must learn to let go.” The people, it implies, can be trusted.

This translates into numerous concrete recommendations in the SDP’s 28-page document, the highlights of which we outline here in broad strokes.

For the economy, the SDP advocates less government involvement, a freeing up of the private sector and in particular aggressively facilitating the growth of homegrown SMEs. This will reduce Singapore’s dependence on not just foreign workers, but also foreign investments and give us intellectual and commercial property that we own and which we can capitalize on.

For education, the SDP proposes that we adopt more creative pedagogies in schools, build more schools and reduce class sizes to about 20 students to a teacher.

With GST, a contentious topic in the face of rising income inequality and cost of living, the SDP recommends that this tax be tiered so that at the lowest end of the tax range, essential goods and services are zero rated while, at the highest end, luxury goods bear a GST of 10 per cent. “Those who have extracted more from the Singapore economy and society,” the shadow budget says, “should help those who have not prospered so well.”

But it is perhaps in the community support that SDP places most faith – in the inherent goodness of Singapore-kind. “Public community services and welfare support will be orientated towards enabling all Singaporeans to live a dignified life,” the party asserts. “The now discredited idea, that welfare disables self-reliance, is rejected in favour of a balanced framework of community support for those who are in need, alongside incentives for continued hard work and disincentives to dependency.”

Along these lines, the SDP proposes a minimum wage, scaled across different industries, and a Retrenchment Entitlement, where a person who has lost his job will receive a portion of his salary over 18 months. There are other community support recommendations, but key to all of them is this principle — that they form part of the entitlement of citizens rather than a privilege “to be dispensed with at the government’s pleasure.”

All this will have the PAP banging on its budget calculators. The PAP’s signature approach of using social transfers to offset costs to individuals and businesses, rather than just outright eliminating or reducing those costs, runs contrary to SDP’s fundamentals. The PAP’s insistence on self-reliance assumes that people have no god-given material rights, and that the government certainly cannot be expected to bear the costs of those rights even if they existed. Entitlements such as unemployment benefits, they surely feel, will just be abused and the state’s coffers will be bled dry — because people inherently cannot be trusted.

So which approach is right? And which is wise? In an ideal world, everybody would be honest, responsible, caring and would take pride in themselves. In our less than perfect world, however, some people cheat, take advantage of help that’s offered, and are lazy and selfish. But which side of human nature do we choose to believe in and call on? Do we cater to the good or do we police against the bad? Which should come first?

If we bestow trust on people, the onus is on them to live up to it. If we decide from the get go that people cannot be trusted, well then don’t be surprised if they get up to tricks or slack once your back is turned. It all starts with what we choose to believe. And it’s a tough choice for a government to make. Because if you assume your people can be trusted and enough people then let you down, then you’ve failed in your ability to govern.

But given that the forces of change are already underfoot in Singapore society, where people are claiming more personal, social and professional self-determination — whether it be in their choice of career, educating children or how they look after their elderly parents where we are seeing more diverse views and open communication, and as we need to step up to face the economic challenges ahead — I think it’s time to give trust a chance.

Elaine Ee has been a writer and editor for 15 years. She has written extensively for books, magazines, websites and exhibitions on a wide range of topics: the arts, personalities, food, travel, heritage and social issues, and was formerly Managing Editor of I-S Magazine. She is also the author of five books. She currently freelances for a variety of publications, contributing regularly to cnngo.com and Time Out Singapore, and when she is not writing spends time with her three kids, practices Bikram yoga and makes it a point to keep trying something new.

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