Brief history of Singapore's Social Policies

The design and implementation of social policies in Singapore have been highly associated with a political and economic rationale. In other words, the institutional arrangements for the social policies in Singapore may need to be understood in a broad context.

These social policies arose largely in the Singapore context of political survival after 1965. Singapore became an unexpected nation after August 1965 as it was unexpectedly ejected from Malaysia, of which it was a part, from September 1963. There were some social policies which preceded 1965 such as the CPF (formed in 1955), but they were fine‐tuned after the formation of Singapore as an independent nation in August 1965. The government sought to build itself up as an institution, and people were left to fend largely for themselves for old age, health and unemployment support, but through government bodies set up for individuals to latch themselves onto. Political separation led to the British withdrawal of armed forces in 1970 (this step was not linked to the separation, but its timing came soon after the separation in 1965). Singapore was compelled to build itself militarily in defence, so that, within a decade, there was a Singapore army, air force and navy. Prior to 1965, Singapore had no need to spend on its own protection. Singapore was purchased by the British from its previous Malay rulers in 1824 and had always been part of what can be described the British Empire up to 1963. In that year, the British transferred Singapore to a new nation called Malaysia, and in its two years in Malaysia, Singapore was defended by the Malaysian armed forces, which, in turn, enjoyed British military assistance through the large British base which continued to be in Singapore. However, the British government encountered financial difficulties and announced in 1967 the withdrawal of its large army, air force and naval forces in Singapore which at that time accounted for 10 per cent of the Singapore economy.1 Singapore government resources had to be diverted from other social imperatives in order to build up the Singapore armed forces; today, the defence budget in Singapore is about one‐fifth of the government budget (Ministry of Finance 2016a). In contrast, the share of military spending in total government expenditure in Japan and Korea is significantly lower than that of Singapore (i.e. about 6 per cent and 10 per cent in Japan and Korea, respectively, in recent years; World Bank 2016). The relatively low share of military spending in Japan and Korea is conceivable, given that both countries are US allies.

Policies with an emphasis on Self-Reliance

The first thing to know about Singapore’s welfare system is that qualifying for welfare is notoriously difficult by the standards of most of the developed Western world. The Singapore government’s position on welfare handouts is undergirded by a staunch economic philosophy of self-reliance and self-responsibility where the first lines of welfare should be derived from one’s individual savings, the family unit, and local communities before turning to the government. The state, in other words, should not act as a guarantor of means but merely a guardian of final recourse.

One of the most substantial organizational forms of welfare in Singapore are the state-guided self-help community groups that are structured along racial lines. They were formed to help tackle poverty alleviation for the lowest-income citizens by helping them through various schemes of general education to improve their economic opportunities. This welfare program started within the Malay community in 1981 and was deemed so successful by the end of the decade that the government gradually expanded it to form similar self-help organizations for the “under-performing” groups of the Chinese, Indian, and Eurasian races, too.

More than just a Safety Net

Although Singapore is making strides in providing greater welfare through inclusive policies, the government needs to bear in mind that the objective of social aid should go beyond providing economic assistance.
Nobel economics laureate Amartya Sen, an Indian economist and philosopher, puts the point across succinctly: poverty is not just about what people have, nor how they feel, but the limitations on what they can do or be[x]. As not all capabilities necessary for achieving a better standard of living are readily convertible from incomes, there is a need for mechanisms that provide opportunities to increase capabilities, on top of schemes that supplement income from work.

Initiatives to increase capabilities is what Singapore's former Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam terms the trampoline approach, contrasting it with the proverbial safety net. He told The Straits Times in January 2018, "The trampoline doesn't mean you leave people on their own. It means that you don't just provide a safety net, but help people to bounce back up."

Accordingly, the Singapore government has launched schemes that aim to improve social mobility, such as SkillsFuture, which Tharman now Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister says can empower citizens throughout life via issued credit that can be used to pay for a wide range of educational courses. In a similar vein, with the KidSTART programme, the government aims to give children from low-income families and vulnerable young children a good start in life, via initiatives such as regular home visits and weekly, community-based playgroup sessions. These mechanisms can be classified under the trampoline approach.