I will be using Esping-Andersen’s Welfare-State Regimes model (1990) to analyse the speech that was delivered by DPM and Minister for Finance Heng Swee Keat at the Singapore Summit on 20 September 2019. He expressed concern about the fracturing of societal interests as a result of the retreat from globalisation, the growth of nationalist and populist movements and the disenchantment of young people. He believes that Singapore will need to address widening inequality, growing intergenerational divide and deepening political polarisation to maintain Singapore’s social compact.
Based on Esping-Andersen’s model (1990), although the overarching philosophy of Singapore’s policy appears to be influenced by social democratic principles, its policy about social provision appears to take on a liberal approach.
Heng (2019) shares that Singapore’s “economic development needs to be paired with social strategies to invest in our people and to enable them to access opportunities”. He believes that social policy that invests in human capital presents an opportunity to help Singapore to achieve economic growth. This welfare orientation demonstrates Esping-Andersen’s social democratic welfare regime. According to Esping-Andersen (1990), the most prominent characteristic of the social democratic regime is the “fusion of welfare and work” and commitment to “full-employment”.
Another typical characteristic of the social democratic regime is the promotion of equality of the highest standards for all (Esping-Andersen, 1990). This welfare orientation is evident in the three key focus of Singapore’s social policy—education, housing and healthcare. Heng (2019) shared that Singapore’s government invest heavily in education to make “every school a good school, and to bring out the best in every child, regardless of their starting point.” This education system is enjoyed by all citizens regardless of their socioeconomic status.
Regarding homeownership, Heng (2019) cited that 85% of low-income households can own their home and this percentage is close to Singapore’s homeownership rate of 89%. The chance for a low-income household to own a home is similar to any average Singapore household. Thus, Singapore’s social policy, especially in the area of education, housing and healthcare, appear to demonstrate a high standard of equality that ensures low-income citizens the same benefit as the other Singaporeans.
Although the overarching philosophy of Singapore’s policy appears to be influenced by social democratic principles, its policy about social provision seems to take on a liberal approach with a focus on employment-based welfare programmes. Heng (2019) highlighted that the Singapore government tops up the income of the bottom 30% of workers to preserve the worker’s “incentive to work”. The incentive to work is critical because “a job provides not only income but also dignity and hope for progress”. This demonstrates that Singapore has traditional view about work-ethics norms, which is more typical of a liberal welfare model than a social-democratic one which entails that “citizens can freely and without potential loss of job, income, or general welfare, opt-out of work when they themselves consider it necessary” (Esping-Andersen, 1990, pp. 23).
Based on Esping-Andersen’s model, Singapore has a hybrid welfare system that is predominantly social-democratic. This can be observed from Singapore’s use of social policy as a tool to maximise labour participation and promote economic growth. However, it retains elements of a liberal model that emphasizes on employment-based welfare programme so as to encourage traditional work-ethic norms and promote self-sufficiency (Lee & Qian, 2017).
The Implication to Welfare Development
Singapore’s social challenges – an ageing population, falling fertility rates, and disparities of income, wealth and social capital – are becoming more complex (Public Service Division, 2015). At the same time, there is increased pressure on the People’s Action Party to ensure political leadership success after losing some support from Singaporeans in the 2011 General Election.
In response to these challenges, Singapore’s government will likely continue to implement social policies that invest heavily in its human capital to prepare its citizen to adapt to future challenges. However, there is a possibility that the government may devote greater attention to welfare commitment so as to enhance their legitimacy. In fact, since 2011, there is a significant shift in the government’s policy position towards universal coverage and social security provision for the low-income citizen. For example, the government has invested more in preschool education, expanded the KidStart programme to more families and made a significant effort to encourage lifelong learning through the SkillsFuture national movement.
We have also noticed an increase in the universal element in its healthcare policy in recent years. This can be seen from the expansion of health and disability insurance (i.e.MediShield Life, CareShield Life) to all its citizens. Lastly, the government has taken on a more relaxed position towards social provision for the low-income through the increase in ComCare assistance and implementation of programs to assist low-income families (e.g. Workfare Income Supplement Scheme, Silver Support Scheme). With the needs of the citizens changing, the welfare orientation and policy position of the government also shift with time.
Given that the Singapore government is now taking a more consultative approach towards addressing issues of pressing concerns to its citizens, there is increasing space for social workers to address barriers and promote social change. It is thus important for social workers to develop a sound appreciation of the Singapore’s policy context (i.e. welfare orientation and historical context) to make better policy assessment and meaningful contribution when advocating for policy changes.