Social welfare - essential building block of a nation
Ho Chi Tim For The Straits Times
27 April 2013
THE recent formation of the Ministry of Social and Family Development, the leaner-looking successor to the former Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports, brings a sharper focus on family issues, social services and social safety nets - in other words, the welfare of Singapore society.
Government concern for society's well-being is not new.
For Singapore, this started during the British colonial period with the introduction of an empire-wide Colonial Development and Welfare Act in 1940.
Moral concerns about the imperial neglect of colonised peoples were exacerbated by the Great Depression of the 1930s, accusations of colonial maladministration and wartime anxiety over imperial unity. The Act marked a fundamental break from earlier laissez-faire colonial governance.
It envisioned colonial governments proactively improving society's well-being, using British resources to implement social services such as education, health care, housing and welfare.
The fall of Singapore to the Japanese in February 1942 heightened British insecurities. As defeat was partly blamed on inherent divisions within the colony's plural society, one solution was a unified government to foster unity among diverse communities.
Social welfare as a government function was part of such forward thinking. This was consistent with Britain's own move towards a welfare state. In late 1942, economist William Beveridge unveiled his plan to reform Britain's social welfare system by unifying existing social insurance schemes and related services. The Beveridge Plan became a promise of a fair and just post-war society, where burdens and risks would be shared and the right to economic welfare and security would be recognised.
Immediately after the war, the British Military Administration (BMA) convened a Pan-Malayan Welfare Council, from which regional executive committees were established. The Singapore Executive, as the latter came to be called, included government and voluntary organisations. It started a free child-feeding scheme and drew up plans for youth clubs and the earliest version of the Juvenile Court.
For the first time in Singapore's history, the colonial government was doling out cash directly to the destitute, the unemployed and others recovering from the Japanese Occupation.
A Department of Social Welfare was established in June 1946 as part of the succeeding civil government. It took over BMA emergency relief operations and adopted several plans by the Singapore Executive. The fledgling department expanded rapidly.
Between 1946 and 1949, it operated feeding schemes to counter global food shortages, conducted an ambitious social survey that exposed the extent of wretched living conditions and drew up a long-term plan for social welfare in Singapore.
This was in addition to the day-to-day functions of the department, including former BMA emergency relief (renamed Public Assistance in 1951), protection for women and young persons, care for the homeless and destitute, juvenile probation services, youth welfare and general counselling (part of which became Legal Aid).
Throughout the 1950s, the department was involved in colony-wide planning to introduce social security. It undertook a ground-breaking social survey in 1953-4, which revealed the income levels and living conditions of the working class and established a basic poverty line. It was conducted by the late Dr Goh Keng Swee, who was also responsible for the earlier social survey. Dr Goh was with the department from its inception and became director of social welfare in 1957.
Proposals for social security were discussed through the 1950s by various administrations. Plans included a pension scheme, a provident fund, the possibility of a minimum wage and a social insurance scheme. The Central Provident Fund (CPF) was the chosen option. It was initially seen by some as the prelude to a comprehensive social insurance scheme, similar to the Beveridge Plan, which would have protected workers and their families from financial insecurity arising from retirement, illness, death and unemployment.
Despite plans at an advanced stage (including draft legislation), the scheme was never realised, an unfortunate casualty in the battle between the People's Action Party, the Barisan Sosialis and their opposing visions of a post-colonial Singapore.
We can see from the colonial-era initiatives the beginnings of social concerns present in Singapore today. While the Department of Social Welfare is long defunct, the Ministry of Social and Family Development runs contemporary versions of its functions, such as the public assistance scheme and juvenile probation services. Originally a retirement savings fund, the CPF evolved over time to cover housing, education and health-care needs, and currently also operates MediShield, a basic medical insurance scheme.
Recent suggestions of a new social compact and "wage shock therapy" also mirror past concerns about income inequality and standards of living.
Still, past and present contexts are different. Social welfare was introduced in a British colony that was recovering from World War II. Its implementation was affected by nationalism, decolonisation, militant trade unions and unpredictable political developments.
Singapore today is a politically independent entity, relatively more settled but feeling its way through the vagaries of nation-building and globalisation - both of which would also make their own mark on social welfare.
What has remained consistent over time is government assuming responsibility for the well-being of those unable to help themselves.
The colonial impetus to introduce social welfare here may not be all that different from current aims of new social compacts or wage reform. Essentially, both are working towards a cohesive and inclusive society. While one was initially meant to shore up an ailing empire, the other may prove significant in creating the nation Singapore wants to be.
The writer, a graduate from the National University of Singapore, is a doctoral candidate at the Department of History, University of Hawaii, at Manoa.