Friday, August 15, 2014

Is Singapore a Winner Take All Society?

[Two letters and an editorial piece. If you're here to read my usual rant, apologies. This will be a... calmer post. Partly because the issue is an important one. We'll start backwards. I read the original article by Lydia Lim (it's the second article in the link). Thought about it, but left it simmering at the back of my mind. I missed the letter supporting her article. Then I saw this "rebuttal":]

Jul 03, 2014

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cornered the best doctors and equipment, condemning the rest to inferior public hospitals with third-rate doctors and outdated equipment.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.

Cheng Shoong Tat

Jun 28, 2014

[I get the sense of at least mild impatience at the "liberal-minded", but generally, the above echoes the position of the govt generally, and possibly many if not most Singaporeans. 

However, I note his assertion that there are "opportunities for advancement... if they apply themselves to the fullest." 

This is similar to the quote attributed to S. Rajaratnam: "Everyone can be rich if they try hard."

This would suggest though, that if you are not rich, you didn't try hard enough.

So then, why should we transfer wealth to the less successful? Obviously they are less successful because they didn't try hard enough, that they didn't "apply themselves to the fullest". And if so, why should we transfer wealth to you, you lazy bum?

That is the inconsistency in his argument.]

Engage now for a more equitable society

I CANNOT agree more with political editor Lydia Lim on the need to change our social and cultural values so that we can limit the adverse effect of meritocracy turning Singapore into a winner-take-all society ("Long-term task to fix winner-take-all mindset"; Sunday).

We need meritocracy to spur success. It was the economic model since our nation's independence 49 years ago.

But to evolve into a winner-take-all society is utterly bad for national unity.

It leads to a divisive population and reduces trust in government.

It is one in which there is superior financial advantage for those at the top but if you are second or further down the hierarchy, you get nothing comparable, however good.

Having benefited from meritocracy, I was enlightened by Occupy Wall Street - the protest movement in New York that brought to light some of the social ills of unabated American capitalism, such as the widening income gap and stunted social mobility.

[Note: He seems to equate Meritocracy with Capitalism (unabated or otherwise. Bated?). BUT, he has not defined either, nor has he implicitly or explicitly explained how meritocracy equal capitalism. ]

Singapore's Gini coefficient - a measure of income inequality - is among the highest in the world, so there is every cause for concern.

While we should not stoke class resentments, rational dialogue among the top-echelon citizens should begin sooner rather than later. More data and research are needed so that discussions can be more productive - beyond rhetoric.

[Note: "class resentments". Together with the out of left field jibe at "capitalism", I am suspicious of this shadow communist! :-). But I can agree to get beyond rhetoric.]

When convinced, I believe more affluent Singaporeans are prepared to make adjustments for a more equitable society.

We can explore how to further improve our economic mechanisms to distribute wealth more fairly.

Edmund Lam (Dr)

[One line from Lydia Lim's opinion piece was that we:

" in a meritocracy which has to date stressed that the talented deserve to be richly rewarded for their efforts."
That on the face of it seems reasonable. But I have found that as I grow older, I have started to ask, "and what does the flip side of that mean?"

If success is the reward for the talented, the able, the hardworking, the deserving, then the flip side of it is that failure is the outcome for the talentless, the incapable, the lazy, and the undeserving.

And that is the Just World Belief working its way into our psyche.

Think about it. When you see a poor person, do you think, "poor guy, he has been so unlucky in life. Let me give him a little something to make his life less miserable."

Or do you think, "Get a job!"

I am always impressed by people who give to the poor. Their hearts are untainted.

Me? I think "Get a job!" and suspect that they are part of a begging syndicate. I have grown cynical. My heart is tainted.

If you click on the link in "Just World Belief", it will take you to an article about Meritocracy. And this conclusion:
In short, Meritocracy has the following flaws or negative effects:
First it engenders a Just World Belief. It leads people to judge "failures" or "unsuccessful" people as "meriting" their lower status, their poorer status... if you subscribe to meritocracy, you intuitively believe that "Everyone can be rich if they try hard." And the corollary to that is, "if you're not rich, you did not try hard enough". Or is not good enough. And so you deserved to be poor, to be unsuccessful.
Secondly, it justifies class differences. Singaporeans then become a "stratified" society that justifies Social Strata with meritocracy, and the Just World Belief. That is, not only are there "high-class" and "low-class" people in Singapore, but these classes were determined not by some unfair caste system or hereditary status, but by the VERY FAIR meritocratic system.
Thirdly, Singaporeans [well, most Singaporeans] become very hardhearted, judgmental, punitive, unsympathetic, and justify their attitude with Meritocracy and their Just World Belief.
The other point in the article is that there is often an element of luck in Success, but having succeeded we do not like to believe that we were just lucky. We reframe the narrative of our success such that it was an inevitable success. Destiny even.

But there is an element of luck in almost all success stories. And we should remind ourselves, that meritocracy or not, we had also been lucky.

Watch the Youtube video of Michael Lewis at the graduation ceremony. It is enlightening. If you don't have 13 minutes to spare, watch from 6:13 and watch for about a minute. Then if that piques your interest and you can watch from the start. 

The first writer (the shadow Communist) has a point though. Although "Welfare" is a dirty word in SG, the SG govt does provide some welfare. The question is, should SG provide more welfare? 

Then there's Thomas Piketty's hypothesis that Capitalism inherently favours the Capitalists (this sounds a lot more obvious when stated this way)]

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