The invisible hand of social culture

The invisible hand of social culture

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam on Monday spelt out the Government's approach to social policy in the annual S. Rajaratnam lecture organised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Diplomatic Academy.

He said every country faces the challenge of preserving a fair social compact centred on three fundamental issues. These are: giving people jobs and good incomes over time; preserving a sense of social equity, so people with humble beginnings have opportunities to improve their lives; and ensuring a fair deal between generations to avoid younger generations having to pay for welfare entitlements promised in the past.

Of the three, he identified the third as the greatest challenge, given the large public debts of many developed societies.

Singapore too faces the above challenges, but is starting from a position of strength, he argued.

Singaporeans have access to good jobs. Incomes are growing; at the bottom, they are aided by social transfers. Meritocracy is being broadened so that people of different talents can succeed.

But the Government's role in redistribution has to be done carefully to make sure it supports, not erodes, self-reliance.

This is where social culture matters.

In this extract, Mr Tharman highlighted four areas in which an active government's social policies can create the right social culture to support individual and community efforts.

"The Government is playing a more active role in redistribution. We began tilting our policies in favour of the lower-income group in 2007, and have expanded support for the middle-income group in the last few years.

But the most important question is not how much we redistribute, but how we do so.

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