S'pore has never been winner-take-all society

S'pore has never been winner-take-all society

SINCE when has Singapore ever been a winner-take-all society ("Engage now for a more equitable society" by Dr Edmund Lam; last Saturday)?

Even well before the recent shift to "left of centre", Singapore's brand of capitalism was far more benign than the United States' or even Hong Kong's version.

The HDB provided roofs over most Singaporeans' heads, with mortgage payments pegged at sustainable portions of their monthly incomes.

Schools provided virtually free education. No pupil was denied the education he deserved because of financial difficulties, and the ablest from the humblest backgrounds got to study at Oxbridge on the state's account.

No one was left dying in the street because he had no insurance, and no government hospital delayed an urgent costly operation because of doubts over the patient's ability to pay.

Have winners now taken all in Singapore?

If that had happened, newly married couples would not be buying HDB flats (and making a profit five years later), but renting from winners-turned-landlords for years on end.

Winners' children, instead of having to ace the Primary School Leaving Examination, would just be a donation cheque away from the secondary schools of their choice.

And winners would be treated in private hospitals that would have cornered the best doctors and equipment, condemning the rest to inferior public hospitals with third-rate doctors and outdated equipment.

The Government, while allowing meritocracy to create wealth, has not hesitated to transfer wealth from the successful to the less successful. Such transfers have been growing in recent years.

It is dangerous to focus on what the successful can have that the less successful cannot have, instead of what the less successful can have compared to any reasonable benchmark.

The bell curve naturally separates the successful from the rest, so the only way to give similar rewards to both the successful and less successful is to level down the former, but this will not help the latter.

For us to stay together as a community, wealth transfer from the successful to the less successful is essential.

But instead of targeting some pre-determined income gap or Gini coefficient, such transfers must aim at ensuring that the least successful among us live healthy, productive and dignified lives based on a reasonable benchmark, with opportunities for advancement open to them if they apply themselves to the fullest.

A fair and just society is not one in which no one can live better than his neighbour. Such social resentment, which some commentators appear to be encouraging, will bring Singapore to its knees.


This article was first published on July 3, 2014.
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