Another myth worth exploring is this deep transactionalism between the people and the government – that the people’s trust and hard work in their own individual lives will yield some kind of positive result facilitated or provided by the government. And so we end up usually sacrificing the present and the past for the future. Why do we almost insist that the future is worth sacrificing the present for?
How did we end up in this transactional relationship? What does that mean for how we frame issues of welfare? Is the state obligated to do anything? Surely there are obligations to help those who can’t help themselves. Beyond that? There are people who believe that there are inherently different types of people – that education is irrelevant. Then there are those who believe that people are largely the same – that education is important to enable people to develop some of their innate abilities. I don’t want to go too far in the nurture/nature debate; I hope that there’s some maturity in our discourses to suggest that there will innate abilities need a social context to develop; Mozart without a piano or a violin wouldn’t be Mozart; Messi without a football wouldn’t be Messi, and so on. Do people deserve a minimum level of healthcare? Do people deserve protection from sudden events in life, or even brief episodes of unemployment? Depending on how you answered those questions, you might think that people should largely stand by themselves; or you can think that people do deserve some fundamental goods. I attribute my own circumstances to a huge load of luck; as someone once said, the two most important things that determine your trajectory in life are: where you are born in, and who you are born to – two things which one obviously has no control over.
Between indulgence and negligence, a range of choices could be made. In Singapore, there is a reinforcing combination of both indulgence and negligence – such as the subsidies that are thrown at procreation policies; the reluctance to shape culture more robustly for protection against gender-discrimination. Indulgence and negligence are possibly two sides of the same coin. Being indulgent on a set of policies means that the state has to be negligent elsewhere, to reinforce the behaviours desired. And then from negligent there’s plain criminalising – banning certain behaviours outright.
There is another deep sense of entitlement, and that comes about from the stories we were able to touch a bit upon last time – that we believe that the future is better than the present. And Singaporeans tend to believe that the biggest, and sometimes, the only shaper of that future is the state/government. The sense of entitlement could be the result of a political culture dominated by a single political party, where many contrarian voices have been suppressed. When the government becomes the only target of dissent, the government also becomes the only party that will act on the dissent (or not). Many other possible actors in society become inactive or shrivel from the government and state apparatus end up being allocated the resources to address those complaints. The initial state of weak civil societies gets perpetuated; the state has to meet with ever higher expectations. Entitlement becomes emasculation (of the population) in the political, community-building sense..
That said, the expectations for essential services should be rightly high. Emergency services, medicine, security, transport, water, electricity, education, housing, education – the execution of these essential services should be high in standard. Yet even in say, education and housing, the delivery of these services become tricky – the width and depth of coverage has been called into question. More regulation? Less regulation? A basic service? Equality of access? What about mobility of opportunities? Equality of outcomes?
So we are entitled to certain things, on account of us being citizens of a country. There’s some vague sense of what we are entitled to, but the coverage of those entitlements is less clear.
And then there are conditional entitlements – “if I study hard I will be comfortable financially”. And so we try to fulfil the premise – that we study hard, and assume that we will somehow become financially comfortable. But of course, if every parent told their kid the same thing then… we end up where we are today – a highly competitive culture that fills entitled to a comfortable material life after fulfilling a generational bargain of working hard without dissent.