Is it time to ditch 'nothing is free' mantra?

SINGAPORE - One of Singapore's strengths has been that we do not subscribe to ideology for its own sake. Other than sticking to our core beliefs on being a meritocratic system and shaping a fair and harmonious society, we are free from dogma.

How far are we prepared to abandon dogma or ideology, in the interest of our nation? One thing we appear to be quite dogmatic about is the mantra that "nothing is free".

There is no such thing as a free lunch, there is always an element of co-payment, the risks are shared between the people and the Government or businesses and Government, and "free" has become somewhat a dirty word, especially in the provision of public services such as health care, transport and education.

The concern is that anything free is over-consumed and under-valued. The "moral hazard", the "buffet syndrome". Anything free distorts behaviour.

However, this is something that the world of marketing, advertising and consumerism is very well aware of, and takes advantage of.

Think of the "free gifts" offered in order to attract customers to buy something bigger or more expensive, something we really didn't need?

When ERP charges are removed from some roads, there are motorists who would rather sit through a jam using up more fuel on an ERP-free road.

Ultimately when choosing a policy tool, the outcome is the issue. An example would be the call for more health-care spending, or free health care.

Free health care sounds great, who wouldn't want all the essentials of life taken care of? Unfortunately, when we look at the health-care outcomes that matter, such as mortality and the quality of life as a senior, there is no correlation.

Free health care doesn't change what really matters. Free health care achieves one significant outcome, it results in much higher state spending, which is funded by higher taxes. "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch". Free health care isn't free and isn't good for your health.

What about going in the other direction, "spend more"?

Why do other countries spend more? Is it that they achieve better health-care outcomes? Or is it that they do a less than optimal job of controlling their costs? In principle, I can't object to spending more on health care, and we may well need to. But we should be very careful about the "why" and "how".

Doing more, spending more is not automatically going to improve health.

A recent study in the United States identified the most satisfied patients as those who had the highest expenditure, and the same patients had the highest mortality. You can draw your own conclusion - spending more doesn't always mean better health.

Returning to things that are free, could that be the right policy tool? In public transport, the concept of "free" could be used as a tool for demand management. Currently on the MRT, a discount is offered to incentivise people to travel early. Instead, why not provide a window period where commuters can travel for free? If we can afford it, have all travel on public transport until the start of peak hour, free?

If that's too great a leap, then maybe for example, every weekday morning, for 30 minutes or an hour, ending at 7.45am, commuters travel for free. Will this distort behaviour?

Absolutely, that's the whole point. This will attract more people to change their travel patterns than any discount.

On the surface it may look like we would be shifting to take a more liberal, leftist approach, but in truth this would be a pragmatic, utilitarian approach to achieve a concrete outcome, in this case to change passengers' behaviour to ease congestion. The Government will still be doing what it has done all these years.

This is an excerpt of MP of Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC Dr Janil Puthucheary's speech during a parliamentary session.

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