Thursday, 18 June 2015

The Third Freedom

Singapore has been criticised for not having "Freedom". Specifically, Freedom of Speech/Expression, Freedom of the Press, and maybe freedom to chew gum.

Calvin Cheng rebuts this criticisms, pointing out that we do have Freedoms - Freedom from Crime, Freedom from poverty, Freedom from Religious Intolerance, Freedom from Unemployment.

This was, in turn, critiqued for conflating Freedom (or civil liberties) with Security (the Freedoms Cheng argued that Singaporeans have).

Previously I have argued that the first Freedoms, a.k.a. civil liberties are instrumental freedoms. They are a means to an end. They are intended to support the democratic process to ensure good government (this is a hope, a theory, not a guarantee)

The second Freedoms, or security, are what people REALLY want - Freedom from deprivation, Freedom from economic uncertainty, Freedom from crime and danger, Freedom from abuse, harassment, predation. In short, the Freedom to live our lives in a civilised manner, without having to deal with rudeness, intrusion, uncertainty, and fear.

Which is probably enough for most of us.

Then the Sabah Quake happened, and people started to exercise their Freedom of Speech (or at least the Freedom to comment on Facebook), and some questioned the judgment of parents who would allow their children to pursue dangerous and extreme adventures like mountain trekking.

These comments were probably made by people who needed to re-assert their internal locus of control so that they can believe that they have control over natural disasters... or that their prudence and caution will mitigate the effects any natural disaster will have on them.

But in doing so, they are demonstrating that quintessential Singaporean Characteristic - Kiasu and Kiasi.

But these two characteristics actually reflect a practical reality in Singapore: we can't afford to lose. Hence we are afraid to lose.

Which brings me to the third Freedom: the Freedom to Fail.

I believe that Singaporeans already have the second Freedom (most of it) and so do not need the First Freedoms, which is largely instrumental (means to an end - the second Freedoms).

If Singaporeans need anything as we grow as a nation, they need the Third Freedom.

It is the Third Freedom that will drive innovation in Singapore, but this is inherently difficult because of the way Singapore is set up, and because of the social compact that governs Singapore and Singaporeans.

So what we need to do is to give Singaporeans what they have never been able to afford: Failure.

Why can't Singaporeans afford to fail?
Many Singaporeans are feeling poor. Not the poverty that is the result of not having enough money to pay for basic necessities, but the poverty of choice, the poverty of security. The feeling that they are not Free to Fail. That they can't afford to fail. That their families depend on them NOT to fail. Because failure has a cascading effect. This is the "New Poor".
The average Singaporean is just one crisis, one catastrophe away from cascade failure.
Everything links to the family, in reference to the social compact on which the Family is the first line of help, and state help is the last resort.
All it takes is for an elderly parent to have a catastrophic medical event, say a stroke, or a fall leading to debilitation. Say, the daughter stays home to look after the invalid. To do so, she has to quit her job. And then the burden of the home mortgage falls upon her husband, and they had already maxed out their loan limit and tenure, so the husband has to make cash payments to the mortgage and this reduces the household discretionary income, which in turn may affect say the payment on the car, life insurance, enrichment classes or tuition for the children.
The crisis cascades, spills over from one arena of your life to another.
And because the average Singaporean has managed to walk his life on a tightrope, he is now precariously balanced and cannot risk failing.
In this, I believe Tharman is theoretically correct - we need to provide a trampoline not a safety net, but empirically wrong, because our "trampoline" tramples people rather than bounce them up when they fall.

Which is not to say that we do not try to help people. But there are two kinds of help - developmental help (which the Singapore Government is happy to provide), and remedial/reparative help which the govt is wary of, because it might result in "moral hazard".

Developmental help is mostly there. Not perfect, but substantial. One could argue that it should be more, and it is a matter of degree - how much help is enough help. Education, Healthcare, Housing, and Safety/security are all well-provided in Singapore, for Singaporeans. Generally.

Then there are those who fall through the cracks.

They fall. They fail.

Is there a trampoline for them?

To quality for Public Assistance, one must be
 are unable to work due to old age, illness or unfavourable family circumstances
 have no means of stable income
 are elderly persons who receive only a small monthly payout from CPF Minimum Sum/ CPF Life, Pension, Eldershield, Lease Buyback Scheme, and the monthly payout is lower than the prevailing PA rates
 are elderly persons whose children are low income themselves and unable to support their parents. The children must be supporting their own families and each have household income $1,700 or below 
That's not a trampoline.

That's your last ditch, no hope, cannot pick yourself up at all, "safety net". You're not bouncing up from that.

A trampoline would be some sort of help for a youngish person (not elderly) who may have tried to start a business and failed.

Is there some financial assistance for such "young" failures? Something that would help them pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and try again?

Well, there's short to medium term assistance:
 are looking for work or temporarily unable to work due to illness or have to care for children, elderly or other dependents
 have a monthly household income of $1,900 and below or a per capita income of $650.
 have little or no family support, savings or assets to rely on for your daily needs
But is trying to restart a business the same as "looking for work"?

To be fair, I am not aware of ANY country who will provide financial assistance to Failed Entrepreneurs. There is a distinct moral hazard in helping failed entrepreneurs.

New businesses are very risky and people who try to start new businesses should think very carefully, plan even MORE carefully, and Budget EVEN MORE carefully.

And they can still fail.

A scheme to help failed entrepreneurs may well attract dilettantes who dabble with a new business without the passion or the preparation, only to fail and draw on public assistance.

And should they succeed, the profits and benefits accrue solely to them.

So the question is, how do we give Singaporeans the Freedom to Fail, to free them from the fear of failure, to spark off that enterprising spirit, that entrepreneur in them, to take risks, to try to soar, but not fear that failure will mean disaster for their families?

What would make Singaporeans take more risk?

That may well be a trick question.

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