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The Case for UBI in Singapore (the perspective from a Southeast Asian voice)

By Mark Koh

Universal Basic Income (UBI) or a "universal wage". This programme is essentially an unconditional payment made to all citizens (or residents) of a state or region or perhaps even a single city. Would this be a good time to implement a policy such as this? The intent behind a UBI programme would be to guarantee basic dignities with a sum above a territory’s poverty line. In this article, I’ll share why UBI is viable in Singapore, and how it provides many benefits that go beyond the monetary value.

Not too many decades ago the concept would have been completely alien. I have spent much of my life listening to my parents and grandparents remarking on how adults should be expected to 'work their fair share' or 'pay their way'. I grew up in Singapore, where there are practically no welfare payments for the unemployed or infirm. When I moved to Australia, I encountered baby-boomers that frequently chimed in on the topic of frequent welfare recipients as 'dole bludgers' or 'parasites'... confident that their tax-paying moral high ground gives them the unassailable right to judge lives no matter how unfortunate. I was bewildered because the same people were going to qualify for an aged pension eventually. Back then, I pondered whether transiting into a work-free lifestyle whilst receiving free money forever, was indeed a conversion into a 'dole bludger' state? I was of course ignorant of the social ramifications of pension, and why it is a much more benign policy than forcing the elderly to work indefinitely.

On the other side of the fence, there is a notion that baby-boomers as a generation are draining the most from welfare programmes globally due to their age and swelling numbers. The truth, however, might be that they, at least in America, have contributed more to it than taken out - the only exception might be those that lived through the great depression of the 1930s and worked much less before receiving their payments.

A Lot of the conversations about welfare parallels a major concern with UBI. This is the fear that is if there was free money on the table, no one would want to work. Some governments have attempted a tangent: Instead of giving people free money, why not train them for free to give them skills? We have certainly heard that before... but what UBI does address are the problems that society rarely sees - the uncompensated labour (especially that of women) in home making, the prejudices of hiring in the job market, the insecurity of freelance work and many more.

The time is ripe
With the backdrop of COVID-19 decimating the economy, particularly in certain sectors such as Hospitality (including Food and Beverage retailers), Leisure, Tourism and Aviation, UBI is a concept that has come into the foreground of policymaking. We currently have a situation that many able-bodied people who can work simply can't. Even Pope Francis has recently remarked that this is an opportune time to launch UBI. His argument is that UBI would prevent the working poor from falling through the cracks and give everyone a buffer in the case of a disaster which the current viral scourge definitely is. A sentiment shared by NMP Walter Theseira earlier this month by Singaporean NMP Walter Theseira who pitched a temporary UBI, financed by taxpayers at a higher rate.

The result? No one is poor.

Hypothetically, with a nation-wide rollout, everyone is theoretically above the poverty line. Now since there's no formal poverty line in Singapore , let's just say the arbitrary UBI payout applied in Singapore could be $1,000. This would seem to satisfy the lowest 'tier' of surviving in Singapore circa 2020, according to Moneysmart. Naturally, governments might want people to have comforts like Netflix and restaurant meals just out of reach, so people would aspire to find meaningful work to supplement the UBI. Truth be told, I managed to work out my own 'survival mode' monthly spending to approximately $1,200 - but if I strip out all the non-essentials leaving just food, utilities and mortgage payments , the number goes down to 896.

Now let's look a bit broader. As it is, even a payment of 896 would be beyond what low-income Singaporean families make do with per month in Singapore! Imagine a working single mother would be able to now have some breathing room to afford childcare. Imagine the 40-something blue collar son with two elderly parents an extra $3000 for the household.

let's not forget unpaid carers who cannot forsake their commitments at home for a regular full time job.

As the lowest earners will get a reprieve, middle income earners have more disposable income to make the economy more liquid. Businesses will thrive as more jobs will be created as an aftereffect.

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, an impending silver tsunami where the ratio of the workforce to dependants will shift sharply, UBI could seal the widening financial cracks in our society, however, there are significant downsides to UBI. 

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