TL;DR – Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.
Straits Times had a rather curious article. It was by their Opinion Editor, Chua Mui Hoong. The headline read “Future economy needs future-ready social safety net”.
In that article, Ms Chua pointed out that technological advances, especially in areas of automation, have resulted in increasing job insecurity.
Ms Chua highlighted that the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE) report had many strategies and tactics about industry transformation, scaling up our enterprises, going global, and reskilling workers to address the increasing job insecurity. However, she was concerned that there still wasn’t enough about how to help workers adapt. Specifically, Ms Chua asked:
“What about social safety nets?”
The article is curious because Ms Chua rarely says things that contradict the government’s official line. And the government’s official line is that we aren’t that big on having social safety nets.
DPM Tharman’s ostensibly great reply when asked at the St Gallen Symposium in Switzerland in 2015 whether he believed in the notion of social safety nets is quite revealing. He said:
“I believe in the notion of a trampoline.”
Beyond that soundbite, DPM Tharman did elaborate further. Not in the same forum, but almost two later, in a speech he gave in January this year at his alma mater, the London School of Economics (LSE). In that speech, he elaborated that nations should regenerate individuals, not merely redistribute wealth. He elaborated four strategies that would help in that effort. These strategies, broadly speaking, are:
- Increasing innovation and the quality of jobs
- Constantly regenerating housing and neighbourhoods
- Staying open economically
The CFE provided much details of how Singapore intends to implement these strategies in the coming years. We think few people will deny that these are important and necessary strategies. However, we also think that most people will, like Ms Chua, wonder if just having these strategies are enough.
For example, former civil servant turned academic Donald Low said this about the CFE report:
“Finally, the CFE missed an opportunity to discuss how Singapore’s social security and regulatory systems might be adapted for what is widely referred to as the “sharing economy”. Already, a few technological and business model innovations have required our regulatory agencies to relook their approaches and rules. The rise of the “gig economy” also raises important questions on how our social security system (the CPF in particular) should be organised.”
Ms Chua also echoed such sentiments. She said:
“I too feel there is a huge gap in the conversations we are having about the future economy, and it has the changing employment status of workers and the gnawing, invidious sense of job insecurity that will affect many… Without permanent work, people could suffer an acute sense of job insecurity that erodes their dignity. No government can protect citizens from the forces of disruption. It can’t guarantee everyone full-time, permanent, meaningful work with a comfortable salary that lets them plan for their future. It can, however, make sure existing social provision programmes are future-ready.”
Another active online social commentator, Chris Kuan explained that our falling total fertility rate is an example of the grave negative consequence of this lack of social safety net.
“High living costs and job security are only part of the huge lifetime uncertainties faced by Singaporeans. Add to that high cost of owning a home, retirement inadequacy and healthcare costs in old age. So in the absence of financial stabilisation provided by a social safety net and the inadequacy of childcare support, no surprise the TFR continues to plummet with Singaporeans working long hours… Social risks exists. It is a matter whether it is households that have to fund most of it or it is the government with its financial resources, reserves and its revenue raising powers who should do so.”
We think these are valid concerns. Beyond shaping our economy, technological advancements are likely to fundamentally change the way our society is structured. It has happened before. For instance, technological advances in agriculture that allowed the development of the first great civilisations of humanity, and the industrial revolution that completely changed the way we work and lived.
Similarly, this fourth industrial revolution will undoubtedly change our society at a fundamental level. It is therefore pertinent to not only think of future-ready economic policies, but also of future-ready social policies.
So. A committee on the future society, maybe?
(Cover image via)