Pocket money for unemployed? Some govts want to see if citizens work harder or slack more.

Get paid for doing nothing in Singapore? You wait long long.

By Chan Cheow Pong | January 4, 2017

Sitting around not doing much or try to start a new business while collecting money from the government every month -sounds like the stuff of dreams?

Well, this may happen to citizens in some countries if bold and ambitious UBI policy experiments turn out positive results.

Finland embarked on a two-year pilot scheme this week to provide a selected group of 2000 citizens with a basic income, in an effort to understand how to combat unemployment, poverty and social inequality, re-igniting discussions on the merits of such an approach.

What is UBI?

No, it’s not a medical condition.

It stands for Universal Basic Income, a used-to-be radical social benefit concept that is gradually gaining mainstream acceptance among Western policy makers.

It is the idea of paying all citizens a flat, unconditional income, unlike policies that deliver means-tested benefits. Sounds like Singapore?

Why UBI?

Think robots and automation.

As an increasingly automated economy generates fewer jobs, proponents of UBI think it can help people taking portfolios of part-time, irregular jobs to become entrepreneurial risk-takers by providing a basic income safety net.

Zhun bo? Sounds too good to be true? Well, that’s the broad idea behind it.

Which countries are considering UBI?

Mostly Western countries.

Last June, Switzerland held a referendum in which voters rejected a UBI proposal. Despite its defeat, the idea of UBI struck a chord with many in developed countries where growth is stagnating due to structural and technological change.

Besides Finland, there are plans in Scotland to introduce it for the councils in Fife and Glasgow.

Several other countries are also exploring the feasibility of pilot UBI projects such as the Netherlands, Canada, Kenya, Switzerland, Iceland, Uganda and Brazil.


Singapore – Why not UBI?

For years, the Singapore government has emphasised that jobs are the best form of social safety nets. Social policies are highly targeted to give the greatest help to the most vulnerable.

Appeals for minimum wage or unemployment insurance in a rapidly changing economy had often been countered by official rebuttals that Singapore has a better system that includes subsidies for low wage workers and skills upgrading, and also a progressive wage model for low wage sectors.

In an interview with Lianhe Zaobao in June 2016, Minister for Manpower Lim Swee Say said that implementing UBI scheme “will not be easy”, as questions on whether people with retirement benefits or wages higher than UBI deserve to receive such unconditional benefits should be discussed.

But Yeoh Lam Keong, ex-chief economist at the GIC , who has been advocating for the government to do more on the social policy front thinks otherwise. In his facebook post, he described the Finland government’s experimental move as “progressive, innovative and pragmatic”.

Ang pows from government?

The future of work conjures up images of work-life balance as technology allows workers to work at their own pace and convenience. But it is also producing a new generation of high-tech uberized odd-job labourers who have to shoulder their own risks and require better safety-nets.

As a well-intentioned but difficult to implement idea, UBI could be more useful as a thought experiment: Social security systems have to evolve to become more equitable and efficient but feasibility is still important.

The Committee on the Future Economy’s report is set to be published later this month. Together with the 2017 Budget Statement in February, they will outline plans to further develop our economy in transition and the kind of government support for Singaporeans and business.

With a protracted slowdown looming, more help is always welcomed.

Looking forward to ang pows from government, anyone?


Top photo from Getty Image

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About Chan Cheow Pong

It took Cheow Pong two decades to recover from the trauma of memorising General Paper essays before he was ready to be an English writer. In between affliction and recovery, he thoroughly enjoyed his time writing in Chinese and doing Chinese translations.

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