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Room for more left-leaning policies in S'pore, but no free-for-all: panel

Thursday, February 26, 2015 - 05:50
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ESS forum panellists hailed the Silver Support Scheme - quarterly cash payouts of S$300-750 to the elderly poor, depending on the senior's lifetime wages, household support, and housing type.

Singapore

BUDGET 2015 marked yet another step to the left by the government - and it won't be its last, said panellists at the Economic Society of Singapore's (ESS) Budget forum on Wednesday.

Out of the slew of initiatives aimed at strengthening the country's social safety nets, the one which seems to have left the biggest impression is the Silver Support Scheme - a permanent initiative which will give quarterly cash payouts of between S$300 and S$750 to the elderly poor, depending on the senior's lifetime wages, household support, and housing type.

Said OCBC economist Selena Ling: "With the Silver Support Scheme, what's interesting this time around is that it's an intergenerational transfer. Unlike the Pioneer Generation Package - where we're talking about a specific slice of Singapore only - now anybody who turns 65, subject to (a few) criteria, will basically automatically qualify."

Indeed, Silver Support is permanent - both for the needy senior's life, and for future generations of elderly poor in Singapore.

This, she said, is "not the traditional model" that the government tends to use - where caveats are aplenty and assistance is temporary. "The Silver Support Scheme is one further step to the left," added Ms Ling.

Giovanni Ko, assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University's (NTU) Division of Economics, also pointed to the fact that the scheme is "conditional on need, not on work".

"Until now, the government has been very much focused on talking about the need for people to be self-sufficient and so on. That's why I think this is quite a big deal. There is a softening of the stance away from a very - I don't want to say harsh - but a very productive kind of welfare system where you get what you put in. (Now, the narrative is along the lines of) let's all help each other, let's take collective responsibility."

So even though he described the amount of cash provided by Silver Support as "not groundbreaking", Dr Ko believes the scheme "says more than it (appears to) at first".

Taken together with Budget 2015's surprise announcement of an increase in the top marginal rate of personal income tax to 22 per cent from 20 per cent, and the larger-than-anticipated S$32.1 billion earmarked for social development - a 16.3 per cent increase over the previous financial year - all panellists at the ESS event agreed that Budget 2015 marked a clearer intent to mitigate inequality.

As for whether the Singapore government will continue to roll out more left-leaning social policies and redistributive measures in the years to come, speakers like Ms Ling and CIMB economist Song Seng Wun certainly think so.

"I think the pace at which they're moving in that direction is still politically acceptable - in fact, it's kind of good timing," said Mr Song. "But more importantly, from an economic standpoint, it is right to do more. I believe a happier middle class is a more productive middle class."

Still, Ms Ling stressed that even as the government ramps up social spending, it will continue to adopt a prudent approach, where targeted help is extended to those most in need. She said: "The government probably has a little bit more of a left tilt to go. But I think the point is really that it's not the traditional welfare model that you see in the West. They've been quite clear, even with the Silver Support Scheme, that it's not a free-for-all. You probably won't (see Singapore) get to the stage where you have unemployment benefits, or (the types of policies) that Western welfare models have."

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