It was a strange choice of a word, and it jumped out at me. People’s Action Party member of parliament Vikram Nair (right) said he found it “hurtful” that Chen Show Mao (Workers’ Party) had implied that the PAP government had not done enough for vulnerable groups.
In my mind’s eye, I instantly saw a picture of a grown man running to a corner to cry. His feelings had been hurt.
What never-never-land does the ruling party live in? Do PAP members of parliament seriously expect opposition members to concede that the government had done ENOUGH for whatever section of the population they happen to be discussing at that moment? Is that the opposition’s role in politics?
For the record, here is the news snippet where the cited word came from:
The previous day, Mr Chen had urged the Government not to look at social spending as a one-way outflow of resources, but an investment in human capital which will yield returns in ‘unlocking’ economic, social and cultural value among Singaporeans.
Yesterday, Mr Nair said Mr Chen implied that the PAP Government had not done enough for vulnerable groups, or that it cared less about them. He found this ‘hurtful’.
‘I think many of us here have been working year in, year out, helping the vulnerable groups, and it is pretty hurtful coming from Mr Chen because he might have held this belief for a long time, but he came back only quite recently to help in this,’ he said.
— Straits Times, 1 Mar 2012, Vikram Nair: Show me the money, Chen Show Mao, by Rachel Chang
Such a subliminal choice of a word brings to mind similar situations where people expect to be praised for their good intentions, even though they have fucked up. They’ve been incompetent and made a mess of things, but when you’re about to lambast them, they defend themselves by pointing to their good intentions. We meant well — they say — therefore you shouldn’t criticise us.
I have very little patience for people for whom intentions and feelings trump competence. The issue has nothing to do with whether or not the PAP meant well towards vulnerable groups or cared for them. The issue is whether or not the government has delivered.
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Vikram Nair also took a swipe at Chen Show Mao for relocating to Singapore only just before the 2011 general election. Chen’s career had been entirely abroad, in America and China. The point Vikram tried to make was that PAP members, perhaps like himself, had been working the ground, extending help to constituents while Chen parachuted in.
There are two things one would need to beware of in an insinuation like that. The first is to be careful whether it is true. Haven’t there been plenty of examples of PAP MPs parachuted into constituencies just months before an election too?
The second is more insidious — that “helping” at a micro level is cast as good whereas doing politics at a macro level is seen as inferior. This kind of valorising does not withstand analysis. I see its fallacy all the time in charity work, for example. When one works within the system to try to deliver help, one effectively legitimises the system. Intentionally or not, one begins to foreclose other ways of doing good — for example, when a do-gooder says, “we musn’t be too hard on the minister and cause offence even when he is a do-nothing dud, because we need his goodwill and co-operation in order to help the cases we handle.” Many people doing charity work have stopped to ask themselves whether they are actually perpetuating the abuses of the system by going around applying plaster to the wounds the system inflicts.
Sometimes it is the outsider who overturns the system that does the most good. He has not helped any individual directly, but by putting an end to the grind, he actually helps more people.
Wasn’t there a religious leader who said he would not give fish to the hungry; far better that he taught them how to fish? By the same token, helping the vulnerable at the micro level may achieve less than changing the overall scheme of things.
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This brings to mind another exchange during last week’s parliamentary debate.
The Workers’ Party was thus wrong to want healthcare spending to rise from the current 1.6 per cent of GDP to the global average of 6.1 per cent of GDP, [Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam] said.
That level of spending would mean a spike in tax rates. If the increase were funded through the Goods and Services Tax, GST would have to go up from the current 7 per cent to 20 per cent. If it is through corporate income taxes, it would mean a rate hike at the top end from 17 per cent to 40 per cent, and if through personal income taxes, rates would go up from 20 per cent to 60 per cent.
Mr Tharman warned of the real limits to raising taxes at the top end, given competition from other cities. As it is, half of personal income taxes here are paid by foreigners, and the rest by well-educated, highly mobile Singaporeans.
— Straits Times, 2 Mar 2012, Grow economy to forge inclusive society: DPM; Strategies to tackle inequality are in place, Tharman assures MPs, by Lydia Lim
I hope Tharman does not think his argument is slam-dunk obvious, because when I read the above, I told myself: So why not do it? Let’s perhaps use a mix of corporate and personal income tax, with both going up halfway to Tharman’s “scary” levels in order to fund a more assured healthcare system. That means corporate income taxes going up from 17 percent to 28 percent and the top rate of personal income tax going up from 20 to 40 percent.
Sure, it may mean that even the middle-classes may see their income tax rates creep up in tandem with the top rate, but why do we assume that people won’t accept that?
It’s like insurance. We pay a knowable premium in order to fend off an unpredictable, unknowable cost. So if we tell Singaporeans that a large part of their healthcare cost risk will be socialised if they pay higher taxes, I can foresee many people being convinced. Yes, they will say: we pay more each year so that we avoid the risk of a huge catastrophic cost in the future.
The funny thing is this: I have yet to see the government deny that people would agree to this bargain. The PAP may even secretly fear that I am right and that people will choose the socialised option if presented to them. Look closely and you will see that the government’s line against higher taxes is not that Singaporeans won’t pay them, but that foreigners won’t pay them. And that rich (which in their mind is equated with talented) Singaporeans would flee this place for another tax quasi-haven.
And this is where we come up against the prevailing paradigm. The PAP sees rich people as critical to economic growth. No foreigners coming in, no multinationals relocating here, no GDP increase — the logic goes. No rich Singaporeans, no domestic job creation. This is followed by another logical reduction: foreigners come here and rich locals stay only if tax rates are among the lowest in the world.
Many are beginning to question this. Have we not considered other, domestically-based, sources of growth? Have we not, by being seduced by the idea that only foreigners have talent, psyched ourselves into thinking that non-rich Singaporeans cannot produce growth and thus, as self-fulfilling prophecy, smothered indigenous talent and creativity?
Furthermore, even if we wish to tap the talent and investments that foreigners can bring, why do we assume that they won’t relocate here unless we have the lowest tax rates? In fairness to the government, they themselves speak of how the “rule of law” (please don’t laugh), security of intellectual property, efficient transport and communications are other pull factors. So why don’t we enhance these and other pull factors and not rely on the narcotic of low tax rates? How about a lively city that celebrates human freedoms, with a vibrant arts scene, or one where public services are not so uncomfortably, crushingly crowded? How about a city where Singaporeans feel a strong sense of attachment to, to counter any urge to emigrate? Such a city would have to be one where people feel they can make a difference — in other words, back to questions of freedom and empowerment.
It’s quite ironic that this government knows very well Singapore cannot compete on the basis of cheap labour cost. It’s no use racing to the bottom, they remind citizens, we just have to create value to justify our higher labour cost. So why does the same government insist on racing to the bottom with respect to lowest tax rates for the rich? Why don’t we focus on creating value instead?
Might it be because this government is a captive of rich Singaporeans, and what better way to justify low tax rates for themselves than to argue that the foreigners must have that? And while we’re at it, hold ordinary Singaporeans hostage by threatening that they (the rich and “talented”) will decamp if their privileges are withdrawn?