Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Parliamentary debate chokes on values 

Yesterday was the first day of parliamentary debate in Singapore. Two oft-debated issues caught my attention.

On the chronically unemployed, opposition member Low Thia Kiang, calling the New Singapore Shares and the Economic Restructuring Shares “a cup of water to douse a large fire”, asked for a “proper or systematic social safety net to protect the poor people, the workers”.

However, The Straits Times reported that Mr Seng Han Thong rebuked Mr Low for being critical but not providing any solutions himself. He pointed out instead the government’s efforts at job redesign and training.

And in reporting the debate, journalist Chua Mui Hoong of The Straits Times wrote that “Mr Low cavils when he accuses the President’s Address of not saying enough about the plight of the worker”, implying that Mr Low failed to acknowledge the government’s efforts on training and education.

To me, though, both Seng and Chua themselves may have missed the point. It is obvious that Mr Low is actually asking for more substantial welfare benefits to be provided by the government to the chronically unemployed. That is surely a plausible solution, even if one doesn’t agree that it is the best one.

And their apparent faith in training and job redesign is misplaced, in my opinion. Realistically, such schemes can only reduce the number of unemployed to a level that can be handled by other mechanisms. They cannot eliminate unemployment totally.

Which thus leads back to Low’s “social safety net”. It seems fair to me that parliament should debate what that safety net should comprise of, and not casually dismiss it. But a bit more on this later.

The other point that caught my attention was Mr Tan Soo Khoon’s regarding the basis for deciding on the introduction of the casino. Mr Tan suggested that in saying that the decision on the casino would depend on whether Singaporeans can be trusted to behave correctly, the government is being inconsistent, since in the case of the Central Provident Fund minimum sum requirement, the government has already determined that Singaporeans cannot be trusted with their own savings.

Mr Tan’s argument does not seem to be very logical to me, though. Just because the government has deemed that Singaporeans cannot be trusted with their retirement savings does not automatically mean that they cannot be trusted on gambling. They’re not exactly the same, and, as in the case of social welfare, it seems fair that the government should at least consider the possibility that Singaporeans have the requisite maturity with regards to gambling, or that perhaps the consequences may not be as dire as in the case of the CPF’s retirement funds should Singaporeans prove not to be so. After all, remember that in the case of the CPF, the government observed Singaporeans’ handling of their CPF money for several years before deciding to impose the minimum sum, and then to raise that minimum sum.

But Mr Tan also said something that suggests where the problem lies. He said that the casino debate is about “money versus values”.

Most people go into a debate with their own set of values. They then proceed to debate around those values. The values themselves — although they form the bases of their stands — remain inviolate and unexamined. When a debate is among like-minded people with similar values, a consensus can often be quickly achieved this way.

However, when the values held by the debaters differ markedly — as with Mr Low’s belief in social responsibility towards the unfortunate versus the Seng-Chua belief in self-reliance — the chance of a consensus becomes remote.

Unless, as appears to be the case in the casino debate, those values themselves are thrown open for debate. Unfortunately, when people’s much-cherished values are thrown into the pot to be debated, especially together with other base considerations like money, you can be sure that some people are going to be rather unhappy.


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