By Abdul Shariff Aboo Kassim

In discussions on poverty, conventional knowledge is that income redistribution will only have limited impact in alleviating poverty if the behavioural attributes that contribute to adverse socioeconomic outcomes are not tackled.

In ‘anti-welfare’ states, a key reason why welfare is selective is that the alternative is deemed to undermine the incentive to work and erode values such as self-reliance and resilience that are instrumental in helping the low-income wean themselves off assistance schemes.

Incorporated in the targeted approach is intervention in how choices are made. This includes education on prudence in managing finances and strategising for eventual self-sufficiency.

Selective benefits regimes claim that welfare schemes are calibrated to target those most in need and are most effective in relieving a recipient of his most pressing problems, thus placing him on the path towards self-sufficiency.

The goal of getting the needy to be self-sufficient makes sense and, in all likelihood, the poor themselves may also not wish to face the stigma of being on assistance schemes, especially in a status-conscious society.

The Myth of Meritocracy?

In recent times, particularly in light of the national level discussion on inequality, there have been calls to revisit minimum wage and to consider universal benefits as it has the effect of promoting social solidarity, an antidote to elitism and the resentment that taxpayers feel against those benefiting from social schemes.

The ensuing exchanges between the government and proponents of reforms point to the former retaining its existing policies albeit with tweaks at best to meet emerging challenges.

Even meritocracy has been debated intensely as social stratification becomes more apparent. For decades, the philosophy was held in high regard because of its perceived fairness in according rewards based on merit rather than background, status, wealth or connections.

However, as inequality loomed large, people are beginning to learn that meritocracy may be complicit in perpetuating class divide.

Meritocracy does not have inbuilt features to mitigate the advantages that the wealthy and the well-connected have in seizing opportunities even as it purports to reward the deserving. A unique term had been coined:  “compassionate meritocracy” – which entails urging those who have benefitted from meritocracy to give back to society[1].

Sociologist Teo You Yenn, whose ethnography of inequality arguably ignited the intense debate on inequality, underscored the need to unpack the nuances underpinning the term “deserving”. In a society blinded by meritocracy, it is possible for a person achieving an outcome with less hurdles to clear to be seen as more deserving than a person from a disadvantaged background with far more obstacles to overcome and who achieves a lesser outcome, the latter having worked harder notwithstanding. This is because of the tendency to pay attention to what one achieves, not how it was achieved.

It is quite common, for instance, to see cut-off points specified by recruiters for certain jobs or admission to higher institutions of learning, say a GPA of 3.5. It effectively rules out those who have to struggle against the odds to achieve a GPA of 3.3.

It has to be acknowledged that looking into how a result was achieved would require more resources that not many organisations may be willing to expend, such as interviewing a diverse lot of applicants to find those with the desired attitude. However, not doing so would mean that they deny themselves prospective candidates with a better set of attributes, the cost of which would be felt in the longer run.

The ongoing debates are not all in vain. It has induced rethinking on welfare, as is evident in the last two Budget announcements, which included the sandwiched middle-income groups in certain schemes[2]. However, it retains much of its selective attributes and has thus far shown no indications of compromising. This would mean that applicants of welfare schemes will continue to be subjected to rigorous means testing to demonstrate need.

Burdens of the Poor Made Heavier

In a welfare model that is premised on selective benefits, attention on beneficiaries will inevitably turn towards the behavioural aspects: values, habits and practices. They are supposed to ‘graduate’ from the schemes. Hence, commitment, discipline, positive mindset, industriousness and prudence are necessary traits for a successful outcome. Consequently, beneficiaries who fail to make progress while they are on welfare schemes will have their behaviour scrutinised.

A man on an assistance scheme who spends money on cigarettes will have his habit questioned because the opportunity cost of smoking is expenditure on a basic need. If taxpayers and donors were to find out that a beneficiary is spending on a wasteful habit, it is likely to confirm the notion held by some of them that people are poor because of the choices they make. Social workers will have to advise the man to quit his habit.

However, in many developed countries, smoking tends to be higher among the low-income for various reasons[3]. Some of the reasons cited, that may be applicable to the Singapore context, are that the lower-income groups may have limited access to materials educating them on the harmful effects of cigarettes and effective ways of quitting the habit. With limited means of relieving oneself from battered self-esteem, worries, stress and loneliness, smoking is a very tempting outlet.  A man with the means may have alternative ways of coping with his troubles, such as going on a vacation.

This is not to say the poor man’s smoking habit should thus be tolerated. At the very least, it should be acknowledged that his choice is contributed by the poor options he has in coping with his plight.

Social workers must continue to educate him on kicking the habit but policymakers must also consider measures that enhance his coping mechanisms, such as exploring the possibility of including low-cost recreation in the list of basic needs as it is a factor that contributes to well-being. Well-being may increase the odds of him beating the deeply-rooted problems that have been incapacitating him.

In reality, the choices one makes are more visible than the options one has. It is a key reason why when the poor or those who empathise with them attempt to justify possessing ‘luxury’ items in a targeted welfare landscape like Singapore, some of the harsher but common responses are that the poor should live within their means and stop complaining.

An example is the television set which is deemed a luxury for someone on a welfare scheme.  Society rarely probes further to understand what the role of the television set in a poor household is, a task that Professor Teo undertook in her visits to such households[4]:

“Televisions play important roles in the everyday lives of low-income persons, probably more so than those with higher income. Singapore is an expensive city. Going out involves money – children asking to buy things, paying for food, transportation, or entry fees to attractions. Parents worry about bad influences in the neighbourhood. It is boring to be at home without toys and games, and with limited capacity to partake in other hobbies. Television is therefore especially important entertainment.”

Once a household’s circumstances are taken into account, television looks more like a necessity than a luxury. If the longer-run costs of not owning a television is factored into consideration, a television may be a more prudent choice. It will be hard for sceptics to reconcile their beliefs with this view unless they are able to see that the household has poor options.

Discussions on inequality, among other things, revealed the tension between sociology and social work. While the former sheds light on why poor options rather than poor choices is the problem, thus drawing attention to the existing welfare model, the latter argues that poor options is not a reason why spending choices and needs should not be subjected to interrogation.

It is not that social workers are not empathetic towards the plight of the poor but they have to practice “tough love” if their beneficiaries are to attain self-sufficiency. Social workers testify that such an approach has produced tangible results as PAVE Executive Director, Dr Sudha Nair, did in her commentary for The Straits Times (June 23, 2018). She further added:

“If we say the poor should be spared hard questions or being challenged, and be given help without conditions, we would in effect be conceding that such families are hopeless and helpless. A cardinal principle in social work is that everyone has the potential to do well and social workers harness that potential.” 

However, from a more macro perspective, the legitimacy of subjecting a group to such treatment will shape perceptions towards them and will hardly facilitate the social mixing that the government envisions.

Contrary to what one may believe, poor choices are made by everyone from time to time, regardless of their socioeconomic background. However, in a landscape where welfare is delivered selectively, only the poor, for reasons understood, will be made to account for poor choices even though they are constrained by poor options.

Hence, if inequality is to be mitigated and a more cohesive society is to be nurtured, as academic Ng Kok Hoe, in his commentary for TODAY (June 14, 2016) urged: don’t write off the benefits of universal social policies.


[2] Refer to Budget Speeches 2017 and 2018

[4] This is What Inequality Looks Like – Teo You Yenn


Abdul Shariff Aboo Kassim is a Researcher / Projects Coordinator with the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA), the research subsidiary of the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP). 

This commentary was also published in The Karyawan, January 2019, Volume 14, Issue 1

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