CEC member writes

Norway’s welfare state: High public support cuts across party lines. Will it happen in Singapore?

jee say with norwegian family

Jee Say sat down for tea with a Norwegian family in Bergen, a coastal town in Norway, on 23 September 2014. There was a robust discussion on the Norwegian passion for equality and universality. The late matriarch of the family took care of Jee Say’s mother-in-law when she was holidaying in Bergen 60 years ago.

Not so long ago, a welfare state used to be associated with political parties of the Left, socialist or social democratic parties. Today it is also embraced by conservative parties of the Right such as in the United Kingdom and Germany.

In last year’s general election, Norway elected a conservative coalition government of the Conservative and Progress Parties, replacing the social democratic ruling coalition. More than a year has passed. The new government has not dismantled the welfare state. Nor has it any intention to do so. Instead Norway’s welfare state remains widely acclaimed as “the world’s most generous welfare state.”

Is this generosity due to its vast petroleum wealth? It is more than that. A Norwegian family friend helped me understand why when he invited me to tea in their home in Bergen, a coastal town described as the gateway to the Norwegian fjords.

Passion for equality

Norway’s welfare state predated, by several decades, its discovery of oil in the North Sea in 1969. It is firmly rooted in its “passion for equality”, a passion shared equally by its fellow Nordic neighbouring countries of Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Iceland. In the past, Norway was poor with the people subsisting on fishing and farming. A few wealthy families owned ships. There was a strong community spirit of helping one another, particularly with the better off providing more for the less well off. Mutual trust was high which continues to this day and explains why fear of abuse is low.

It is the passion for equality and prevalence of public trust that underpin the Nordic welfare model which is characterised by high levels of redistribution of wealth, universal coverage and generous cash benefits and social services. The principles of equality and universality mean that the welfare benefits are not just targeted at the poor and low income but are also extended to the middle classes. Consequently, the gini coefficient, a measure of inequality, hovers around 0.25, among the lowest in the world. The small gap between the rich and the poor further enhances social cohesion among the people and entrenches their commitment to the welfare state, hence its widespread popularity among the people regardless of which political party they support.

Has this quest for equality compromised economic competitiveness? No, it has not. The Nordic countries are consistently among the top ten most competitive economies internationally, with The Economist newsmagazine describing them in 2013 as “probably the best-governed in the world”.

Old mindset

Yet the PAP has thrown cold water on the Nordic model, repeating ad nauseam that high taxes will reduce economic competitiveness, an assertion that is contradicted most astonishingly by the Nordic experience. On the other hand, some PAP ministers in recent months, have been talking about government spending more, targeting help on the poor and low income earners. Even DPM and Finance Minister Tharman declared that PAP has moved to the left of centre. Has it? Unless it moves away from an elitist mindset and stops talking about preferring 10 billionaires to lowering the gini coefficient, “welfarism” will remain a “dirty word” in the PAP narrative. And what are the words that are music to PAP ears? – “High minimum salaries for ministers but no minimum wage for workers, and to hell with the gini coefficient and income gap”.

New bold journey

Today Singapore is at a crossroad. Do we want to continue with the old narrative of “to each his own”, or are we bold enough to embark on a new journey with a strong social safety net? Do we have the means to do so?

Like Norway’s petroleum wealth, Singapore’s huge financial surpluses provide us with the means and the responsibility to reinvent Singaporeans into a new class of people with grace, self-assurance and dignity. In the coming months, we at Singaporeans First will unveil proposals for a new narrative that will promote economic growth together with a strong social safety net for all, not just the poor and lower income, but including the middle classes who are also struggling to cope with the rising cost of living. Our package is reasonable and will not “bankrupt” the country. It is an amount that is allowed under the existing Constitution and does not involve drawing down the national reserves. It is a responsible way to achieve a fair society with strong families and an esteemed people, the vision of Singaporeans First.

This post first appeared on http://www.facebook.com/tanjeesay

Categories: CEC member writes

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