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Bouncing off Tharman's trampoline


TWO seconds - that's all it took for Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam to deliver the sound bite of the month.

The gem of a comment happened during a one-on-one interview by BBC Hardtalk presenter Stephen Sackur, at the St Gallen Symposium in Switzerland earlier in May. Fittingly for Singapore, the theme for this year was "Proudly Small".

Here's an excerpt from the now widely-shared exchange (which can be watched in full on YouTube):

Mr Sackur: "Do you believe in the concept of a safety net?"

Mr Tharman: "We believe in a concept of support for you taking up opportunities. So we don't have unemployment--"

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Mr Sackur: "I believe in the sometimes simplicity of yes or no answers. What about this idea of a safety net? Does Singapore believe in the notion of a safety net for those who fall between the cracks of a successful economy?"

Mr Tharman: "I believe in the notion of a trampoline."

Cue a moment of stunned silence, and then appreciative laughter and applause from the audience. Mr Sackur, for his part, seems caught off-guard - for a full 10 seconds he says nothing, capable only of a few chuckles.

It's a pity Mr Tharman didn't elaborate on the trampoline metaphor in his own words. Why his choice of the springy contraption over the more conventional safety net?

First, there's the obvious: a trampoline doesn't just catch you if you fall - it helps you to bounce back up.

But it's also true that on a trampoline, you're going to come back down. Indeed, the analogy prompted Mr Sackur to ask: "So people are just bouncing up and down in Singapore?"

Mr Tharman's reply: "No, it boils down to what policies you're talking about. If you provide help for someone who is willing to study hard; if you provide help for someone who is willing to take up a job and work at it, and make life not so easy if you stay out of work; if you provide help for someone who wants to own a home . . . it transforms culture.

"It's not just about transactions. It's not just about the size of grants. It's about keeping alive a culture where I feel proud that I own my home and I earn my own success through my job. I feel proud that I'm raising my family. And keeping that culture going is what keeps a society vibrant."

Mr Tharman admits that "it's almost a paradox" - where an active government intervenes to support social mobility, without undermining personal and family responsibility.

In the trampoline metaphor, such government support could take the shape of a platform for the jumper to leap up on to, or a rope to grab a hold of. Either would allow the person to avoid the inevitable drop back down.

There's also a link to personal effort here. Unlike a safety net - which has slack to accommodate a hard fall - a trampoline bed is pulled taut by its surrounding springs. The potential energy stored in these springs means that you're only going to bounce up as high as you make the effort to; your chances of escaping to the platform of stability are determined solely by your willingness to try.

But as someone who spent countless after-school hours jumping up and down on a trampoline, I should also add: those things are pretty darn dangerous. Land badly, and broken bones are par for the course; you could also fly off the trampoline altogether and land in a mangled heap on the floor.

While wince-worthy, it's apt in describing Singapore's long-held stance on social assistance - it's not supposed to provide for a comfortable life, and the prickliness of the situation is meant to spur you back on your feet. As Mr Tharman said, the government looks to "make life not so easy if you stay out of work".

The good news, though, is that once you clamber back on, a trampoline will support your efforts once more. That's not going to happen with a safety net - while it may help to break your fall, it will do nothing to assist in your ascent back up.

All of this decoding aside, one could argue that a trampoline isn't the best metaphor, simply because a drop back down is inevitable. If this is so, maybe Mr Tharman's decision to use the trope was motivated by something far more simple.

For one, it could have been a well-timed verbal sleight of hand - deploy a wholly unanticipated metaphor, and startle the audience (and Mr Sackur) into silent contemplation.

Secondly - and more seriously - it could have stemmed from an unwillingness to engage with the term, "social safety net", as it is understood and defined in the West.

After all, Mr Tharman has never shied away from using the term when speaking to Singaporeans. Just this year in his Budget 2015 speech, for example, he referred to ComCare and Medifund as "safety nets that help Singaporeans who fall on hard times".

So by choosing to invoke the image of a trampoline at St. Gallen, Mr Tharman succeeds in getting a broader message across. As he says earlier in the interview: "The larger point is this: I think we all need some humility on the ways that best advance a liberal order . . . economically, socially, and politically. We all need some liberty, some humility, as to how we achieve that - not just for today, but for tomorrow."

It's a timely reminder for Singaporeans, especially in this jubilee year. In many ways, 50 years on, the nation itself is now suspended in mid-air. Moving forward (or upward?), how do we want to see the country evolve, and how much effort are we willing to put in to get there?

Already, citizens are calling for greater social spending, but the reality is that this must come with a new social compact - where a stronger sense of collective responsibility bolsters the age-old foundation of personal effort.

Whether we get there by safety nets, trampolines, or bouncy castles, one thing's for sure: we're going to need a generous dose of humility.

The writer is a former national trampoline champion who knows all about flying high and falling

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