A fundamentally different outlook from Lee Kuan Yew: Part 1

hee Soon Juan

I was helping my daughter, who is in primary school, with her homework when I came across a line printed across the bottom of her writing pad: “No one owes Singapore a living”.

Apart from the question of employing sloganeering as a teaching tool, there is the bigger concern—for this present essay, at least—of the values we are imparting to our children.

When one visits the Discovery Centre, which seems to be a must-see for all schoolchildren who venture out of the classroom on an excursion, the ‘no one owes us a living’ slogan appears repeatedly and prominently on the exhibits.

These words, of course, belong to Mr Lee Kuan Yew who laid them out as the founding philosophy of the Government he led for 31 years. They embody the idea of self-reliance, that we must create our own opportunities and achieve our own successes. Every man for himself.

The extension of such credo is that citizens should not entertain the idea that the state should intervene and provide help in the form of welfare. Such assistance, Lee says, would erode the viability of the state:

Subsidies on consumption are wrong and ruinous…for however wealthy a nation, it cannot carry health, unemployment and pension benefits without massive taxation and overloading the system, reducing the incentives to work and to save and care for one’s family—when all can look to the state for welfare.

A legitimate difference

I accept that this is how Lee sees the world. A legitimate point can be made that economies are more competitive if people do not develop dependence—the so-called crutch mentality—on the state. Reliance on handouts rather than hard work blunts productivity. Better still if people are allowed to keep all that they sow. Rewarding enterprise and diligence in a capitalist system—and not the enforcement of conformity in a collectivist state—produces talent. The Steve Jobs and J K Rowlings of the world could not have emerged from North Korea.

And yet, “no man is an island, entire of itself”. Rowling was a divorced single-parent who was diagnosed with clinical depression. For a time she was dependent on state welfare.

“I couldn’t have written this book if I hadn’t had a few years where I had been, really, as poor as it is possible to go in the UK without being homeless,” Rowling said. “I mean, I had friends who helped me, but I had no friends or family who were in position to give me a house, so we were on welfare.”

It was while she was receiving welfare benefits that she penned what was to become the wildly successful Harry Potter series, an endeavour that has made her a millionaire many times over. In 2011, Forbes estimated her wealth to exceed $1 billion.

Given that it was her fellow citizens who had contributed towards her welfare assistance, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect Ms Rowling to pay her good fortune forward.

Indeed, this is what she accepts as her obligation: “I pay a lot of tax, and I feel, one of the reasons I stay and pay why I’m not based in Monaco…I think my country helped me. There are places in the world where I would have starved.” What she received in welfare, she more than paid back in taxes.

It would be tragic, however, if we measured her returns to society purely in monetary terms. The pride she brings to her fellow Britons, and the inspiration that she gives to younger people is immeasurable.

This is the powerful message in Rowling’s story: While it may take individual talent and drive to succeed, we need our fellow citizens, the communities that we live in, for that start.

Lee, himself, hitched a ride to study in London on a British troopship funded by, by his own admission, the welfare section of the Colonial Office. His education in the UK was funded, at least in part, by the state. His son, Lee Hsien Loong, now Prime Minister, received his university education on two state scholarships made available by the Singaporean public.

Now that they have reached the pinnacle of the policy-making hierarchy, it hardly seems right for them to argue that citizens should not be looking to the state for welfare assistance.

No, no man is an island. Our success, in varying degrees, stems from the support others provide. When we climb over a wall, we do it standing on the shoulders of those who come before—whether we care to acknowledge it or not. The schools that provide our education, the buses that we take, the roads on which we drive are all paid for by the community.


I am reminded of a game that an anthropologist played with children from an African tribe. He placed candy in a decorated basket at the foot of a tree. He then called the children and suggested they play the game. When the anthropologist said “now”, the children had to run to the tree and the first one to get there could have all the candy to him/herself.

So the children all lined up waiting for the signal. When the anthropologist said “Now!”, all of the children took each other by the hand and ran together towards the tree. They all arrived at the same time, divided up the candy, sat down and began to happily munch away.

The anthropologist asked why they had all run together when any one of them could have had the candy all to themselves. The children responded: “Ubuntu. How could any one of us be happy if all the others were sad?”

What motivated such kind of behaviour? South African human rights advocate Archbishop Desmond Tutu explained:

One of the sayings in our country is
Ubuntu – the essence of being human.
Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself. We think of ourselves too frequently as  individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world…the whole of humanity.

No free lunch

Lee’s views underpin much of the policies that run Singapore today. Take, for instance, healthcare. The former prime minister reminds us why he instituted Medisave:

My major objective in the early days was to make sure that nobody derails the idea of having individual accounts for CPF and Medisave. Whatever you earn, it’s yours.

Whatever you earn, it’s yours, no one owes us a living, there is no such thing as a free lunch. These words appeal to our basest instincts and rob us of that most essential of human qualities—our ability to care.

Such thought, channeled into policy, has had more than half-a-century to work itself into our culture, and the results are not promising. We have the largest income gap amongst developed economies with all the attendant social, economic and moral ills: Citizens who are highly distrustful of each other, people who find little joy and pride in the work they do, and youths who don’t bat an eye even as they see the elderly clean up after them at hawker centres.

Something has gone very wrong in our society. We must change it. We must adopt a different development paradigm and go down a different path. We can, and must, appeal to our better angels.

Take, again, the example of healthcare. While Lee believes that what we earn, we keep for ourselves in our own Medisave accounts, my colleagues and I in the SDP believe differently. We believe that what we earn, we should contribute into a common pool. The government co-pays into the fund making up the bulk of the healthcare budget. Whoever falls ill can use the funds to pay for their medical treatment regardless of their wealth, or the lack of it.

It is a fundamentally different outlook from Lee’s but one that is no less legitimate. In fact, I submit that such an approach makes more sense and, more importantly, is the only sustainable one in the long run (a subject I will elaborate in
Part 2 of this essay). At its core, the message is that we are all in this together and if we don’t look out for one another, we start the descent into a society that is at once brutal and unevolved. It is a society devoid of humanity and, frankly, a thought too frightening to entertain.

I am privileged to be working with individuals who share this common outlook: That the role of a good government is to care for citizens who need assistance and then getting out of their way when they are up and running.

This is the philosophy upon which the SDP has built our foundation and it will be the basis upon which we will continue our work.

Read also: A fundamentally different outlook from Lee Kuan Yew, Part 2

Chee Soon Juan is Secretary-General of the SDP

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