Rethinking Responsibility

Two young Singaporeans reflect on whether narratives of self-reliance may obscure deeper structural gaps.


Date Posted

27 Apr 2018


Digital Issue 2, 29 Apr 2018

In an interview with The Straits Times earlier this year, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam pointed out that Singapore’s social spending structure has changed over the years to account for the fact that people in different life circumstances have different opportunities afforded to them. However, he argued that it is essential to “sustain a culture of personal responsibility”. Calling this “a crucial social ethic” for Singapore, he stressed that welfare policies should not ultimately act just as a safety net, but galvanise those with “a spirit of aspiration” to do well for themselves.1

Indeed, a can-do spirit and keen sense of personal responsibility have long been regarded as central to Singapore’s survival and prosperity. But while this narrative was particularly salient in our early, resource-scarce years, and remains an important driver today, it may be worth considering whether it needs to be qualified in the current policymaking environment.

As young public servants, we believe that we need to reconsider the overriding value accorded to personal responsibility—as a central element in our public discourse, and as a basis upon which policy decisions are justified. There needs to be a critical appreciation of unintended adverse effects on vulnerable persons, policymakers, and the public at large, with more serious attempts to address structural shortfalls.

A Deep-Seated Narrative

Enshrined in one of our National Education messages2—”No-one owes Singapore a living”—is the idea that we are responsible for Singapore’s survival. This also applies to individuals: as a recent citizenship education syllabus3 puts it, the Singaporean must see that “he has a duty to himself, his family, community, nation and the world”. In the same vein, his ability to “exercise responsibility for himself” in the face of crisis is a key part of our “Singapore Family Values”.

Such rhetoric is reflected in our labour policies, where every worker has a duty to “Adapt and Grow” (also the name of Workforce Singapore’s career development programmes).4 A range of schemes under the SkillsFuture umbrella, such as the “Earn and Learn Programme” and the “Professional Conversion Programme”, are built around an ideal of “lifelong learning”,5 where “individuals ... pursue skills mastery and develop fulfilling careers” on their own initiative. In other words, individuals are expected to respond to any changes or constraints in the labour market by assessing their own prospects and developing their capabilities to remain employable. Accordingly, the loss of job security is read as a mark of individual failure.

The same narrative prevails in social policy. In an article on Singapore’s social policies, the Brookings Institution’s Ron Haskins regards a culture of “individual responsibility as a necessary precursor to government responsibility”.6 Indeed, the central pillar of social support, the Central Provident Fund, is premised on the expectation that Singaporeans themselves should save for a rainy day. Health policy expert John Goodman writes: “Think of all the reasons why people turn to government in other developed countries: retirement income, housing, education, medical care etc. In Singapore people are required to save to take care of those needs themselves.”7

Analysts of Singapore’s current policies to cope with an ageing population suggest that the country’s “Many Helping Hands” approach to social support8 “holds individuals personally responsible for their old age and expects them to be self-reliant”.9 Similarly, in other areas, the onus falls on the individual—and their immediate community—to respond to vulnerabilities. Despite an expansion of social support since 2011, state assistance is still perceived as a last resort.

The conventional responses to why we have decided against more comprehensive social assistance is that it not only raises the moral hazard of dependency, but requires an increase in taxation. As a Gov.SG explainer puts it, “spending is popular, but raising money to pay for it is not”.10 This unfortunate phrasing suggests that an unpopular tax burden (mostly borne by the rich) prevents us from taking care of our poor. Even if this is not, in fact, the underlying consideration, the stern reminder that a “lower tax-burden ... enables us to take home more of our pay” reveals (if unintentionally) that one flip-side of self-reliance is self-centredness: let others fend for themselves, so we can keep more for ourselves.

All this is consistent with a paradigm of citizenship that is seen to confer Singaporeans with responsibilities, not rights. As sociologist Shirley Sun argues, “citizenship is primarily interpreted to confer ‘duties’ by the state”, in the sense that citizens are expected to contribute to the nation in defined ways, like productive or reproductive labour.11 The ideal citizen (including the prospective immigrant) is one willing and able to play a part in the national project and can fulfil particular roles.

A focus on self-reliance exacerbates the crisis of self-worth experienced by many vulnerable persons.

When Self-Reliance Is not Enough

What, then, are the shortcomings of this narrative? We consider its adverse, if unintended consequences on vulnerable groups, policymakers and the population at large:

It depresses self-esteem

First, a focus on self-reliance exacerbates the crisis of self-worth experienced by many vulnerable persons. When prescribed pathways12 for the less-privileged to “better their lives” are reliant on “individual drive and responsibility”, those unable to do so are made to believe that they only have themselves to blame.13

But some vulnerable groups face challenges too intransigent for self-reliance to resolve. In addition to the elderly who have neither savings nor relatives to depend on,14 recent research has shown how inequality may create real barriers that prevent families from bettering their circumstances.15

One study by the Lien Centre for Social Innovation identifies six communities, including foreign workers and the disabled, for whom the approach of self-reliance is “not enough to overcome [the] vulnerabilities” they face. Not only is the resultant labelling “demeaning” and a source of resentment, the authors argue, many also lack stable social protection due to limitations of the Many Helping Hands model,16 including poor coordination between stakeholders, the resource constraints faced by front-line staff, and a piecemeal approach to social intervention.17 On a related note, because a narrative of self-reliance relegates state assistance to the last resort, it also deepens the stigma already associated with welfare recipients, and discourages the vulnerable from seeking the entitlements they deserve.

Some vulnerable groups face challenges too intransigent for self-reliance to resolve.

It obscures structural constraints

Second, the narrative of personal responsibility is likely to obscure structural barriers arising from policy decisions. Recently, Singapore’s social infrastructure of housing, healthcare, education and CPF has been supplemented by Workfare and other assistance programmes. While this has prevented real wage declines, argues Irene Ng, Director of the Social Service Research Centre, we have failed to relook the effectiveness of our traditional institutions as social levellers.18 The opposite may be true: that structuring them along the lines of self-reliance (a differentiated school system that rewards high-achievers, or tiered healthcare where the rich can pay for better care) may have deepened, not resolved, inequality. In the process, there is some indication that the already-stretched circumstances of disadvantaged families may have worsened.19

It compromises social cohesion

Finally, the sheer pervasiveness of a narrative of personal responsibility has unhealthy effects on our public discourse. Besides entrenching unfair perceptions of the disadvantaged, as described above, the mantra of self-reliance encourages Singaporeans to care primarily about their own welfare, and risks compromising efforts to build structures of mutual trust or aid. Likewise, rhetoric that associates vulnerability with irresponsibility could deepen divisions along socioeconomic lines20 in an already diverse city, and foster perceptions of those in truly precarious positions as undeserving of state assistance, or worse, as unworthy citizens.

Within government, different ministries are examining causes of hardship and poverty in structural terms.

What Then?

There are nevertheless encouraging developments. Within Singapore’s public sector, work groups across different ministries (including National Development, Health, and Education) are examining causes of hardship and poverty in structural terms: of differentiated access to education and housing along demographic lines. These quiet efforts appear to be steps towards broader scrutiny of systemic inequalities. Budget 2018 has shed light on some crucial policies: Minister of State for Manpower Sam Tan recently said, for example, that Singapore may see more Progressive Wage Models (PWMs) in other sectors,21 beyond the existing ones for cleaning, landscaping and security. With these, more workers in extremely low-wage sectors may see fairer wages.

But more fundamental change is also required. We should pause to consider the effects of citing self-reliance in response to public discourse on social policies. Instead, the principles of “justice and equality”— enshrined in our national pledge, and written into our institutions of social assistance and fair consideration—could be mobilised to justify policies of state provision or appeals for public participation. Beyond arguments that can persuade the average, aspirational Singaporean, we should actively choose those which help to resolve, not entrench, our communal divides.

Tackling deep-seated narratives takes hard work (and a healthy dose of self-awareness) both at the levels of public policy and public discourse. And yet the harms we may otherwise perpetuate make it imperative that we do so. By exercising more thoughtful ownership over the stories we tell ourselves and their effects in policy and daily life, we may learn a deeper meaning of responsibility and do better for all Singaporeans, together.


Theophilus Kwek has recently completed an MSc in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies at Oxford, where he served as Publications Director at OxPolicy and Convenor of the “Conversations in Singapore History” seminars. His current research focuses on conscription and migration in Singapore.

Stephanie Siow is a policy officer concerned with the integration of Singapore's foreign workforce. She founded the Southeast Asian Movement at Yale, where she studied international development, and has worked on mental health research and campaigned against human trafficking. She represented Singapore at the Youth20 conference ahead of the G20 Summit in 2017. 

The views expressed in this article are their own.


  1. Prime Minister's Office, "The Straits Times Interview with DPM Tharman: Social Policies, Spending, and Taxes", January 11, 2018, accessed April 17, 2018, http://www.pmo.gov.sg/newsroom/straits-times- interview-dpm- tharman-shanmugaratnam
  2. “National Education Programme”, NUS High School of Math & Science, accessed April 7, 2018, http://www.nushigh.edu.sg/student-development/national- education-programme.
  3. Ministry of Education, 2014 Syllabus Character and Citizenship Education Primary, 2012, accessed April 7, 2018, https://www.moe.gov.sg/docs/default-source/document/education/syllabuses/character- citizenship-education/files/2014- character-citizenship- education-eng.pdf.
  4. Workforce Singapore (website), accessed April 7, 2018, http://www.wsg.gov.sg/adapt-and- grow.html?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIlsrF9omn2gIV0gorCh1oDAxSEAAYASAAEgIi6vD_BwE.
  5. SkillsFuture Singapore and Workforce Singapore (website), accessed April 7, 2018, http://www.ssg- wsg.gov.sg/about.html?_ga=2.237454848.1460083303.1523066789- 94431159.1523066789&_gac=1.11665920.1523066835.EAIaIQobChMIlsrF9omn2gIV0gorCh1oDAxSEA AYASAAEgIi6vD_BwE.
  6. Ron Haskins, “Social Policy in Singapore: A Crucible of Individual Responsibility”, June 1, 2011, accessed April 7, 2018, https://www.brookings.edu/articles/social-policy- in-singapore- a-crucible- of- individual-responsibility/.
  7. John C. Goodman, “Singapore: A Fascinating Alternative to the Welfare State”, Forbes, March 31, 2015, accessed April 7, 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/johngoodman/2015/03/31/singapore-a- fascinating-alternative- to-the- welfare-state/#3c1af67676c0.
  8. Janice Tai, “All Hands on Deck Needed for Social Good”, The Straits Times, April 11, 2016, accessed April 7, 2018, http://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/all-hands- on-deck- needed-for- social-good.
  9. Philip A. Rozario and Amanda Leigh Rosetti, “Many Helping Hands: A Review and Analysis of Long- Term Care Policies, Programs, and Practices in Singapore”, accessed April 7, 2018, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/230827771_Many_Helping_Hands_A_Review_and_Analysis_of _Long-term_Care_Policies_Programs_and_Practices_in_Singapore.
  10. Ministry of Communications and Information, “Why Doesn’t the Government Increase Social Spending“, August 13, 2015, accessed April 7, 2018, https://www.gov.sg/factually/content/whydoesntthegovernmentincreasesocialspending.
  11. Shirley Hsiao-Li Sun, Population Policy and Reproduction in Singapore: Making Future Citizens (Abingdon: Routledge, 2012), 16–17.
  12. Public Service Division, Prime Minister’s Office, “Supporting Singaporeans and Ensuring No One Is Left Behind”, accessed April 7, 2018, https://www.psd.gov.sg/heartofpublicservice/our- institutions/supporting-singaporeans- and-ensuring- no-one- is-left- behind/.
  13. In her recent book, This Is What Inequality Looks Like (Ethos Books 2018) sociologist Teo You Yenn argues that framing upward mobility as a question of individual responsibility ignores the constraints created by inequality on individual aspirations, and unfairly characterises as “lazy” or “incompetent” those who are the victims of their circumstances.
  14. Kane Cunico, Yvonne Lim, and Jade Han,”Ploughing On: The Faces and Insecurities of Singapore’s Elderly Working Poor”, Channel NewsAsia, May 15, 2017, accessed April 7, 2018, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/cnainsider/ploughing-on- the-faces- and-insecurities- of- singapore-s- elderly-8824490.
  15. Teo You Yenn, “Why Low-Income Parents May Make ‘Poor Choices’”, The Straits Times, March 10, 2016, accessed April 7, 2018, http://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/why-low- income-parents- may-make- poor-choices.
  16. Braema Mathi and Sharifah Mohamed, Unmet Social Needs in Singapore, October 2011, accessed April 7, 2018, https://lcsi.smu.edu.sg/sites/lcsi.smu.edu.sg/files/Unmet_Social_Needs_in_Singapore.pdf, 38–41.  
  17. Mathi and Mohamed, Unmet Social Needs in Singapore.
  18. Irene Y. H. Ng, “Social Welfare in Singapore: Rediscovering Poverty, Reshaping Policy”, January 25, 2012, accessed April 7, 2018, http://scholarbank.nus.edu.sg/bitstream/10635/118934/1/2013- social_welfare_singapore-postprint.pdf.
  19. Janice Tai, “Social Welfare: Pressure on Family Mounting”, The Straits Times, October 25, 2015, accessed April 7, 2018, http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/social-welfare- pressure-on- family- mounting.
  20. Charissa Yong, “New Study Finds Clear Divide among Social Classes in Singapore”, The Straits Times, December 28, 2017, accessed April 7, 2018, http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/new-study- finds-class- divide-in- singapore.
  21. Yuen Sin, “Parliament: Progressive Wage Models Can Be Extended to More Sectors, Says Sam Tan”, The Straits Times, March 5, 2018, accessed April 7, 2018, http://www.straitstimes.com/politics/parliament- progressive-wage- models-can- be-extended- to-more- sectors-sam- tan.

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