Friday, 15 February 2013

Beggaring my neighbor does not make me rich: why the National Defence Duty will not work

I've wanted to blog about the Population White Paper for a week now. But I have very complicated feelings about it, and couldn't figure out exactly what I would say. Until I read Hri Kumar's suggestion about a National Defence Duty on foreigners and PRs (with the catchy tagline of "we do duty, they pay a duty"). Things clicked immediately (more on the White Paper on a later post).

Hri Kumar's suggestion makes perfect sense -- if you see the world through the lens of rational economic theory and you think of people as homo economicus. Male Singaporeans suffer a disadvantage because of NS, so let's apply a tax to make male PRs/foreigners equally disadvantaged. Perfect economic sense, and true to the PAP's technocratic bent.

Except that the world is about much more than economics, and people are homo sapiens not homo economicus. We've traditionally talked about NS as a noble sacrifice, a ritual that turned boys into men. More recently, we've seen it also as a great social leveller that helps Singaporeans from different socio-economic classes mix and understand each other in a way that schools no longer allow (I totally agree, but have to wonder about female Singaporeans then).

And now an MP wants to put a price on it. It makes cold hard rational sense, but humans are warm-blooded; we become cold and hard only after we die.

This proposal encapsulates why the PAP as a whole is struggling so much today. It has become too transactional in its philosophy, the dollars and cents have become too entrenched and central in its thinking. Again, it all makes rational economic sense -- but we are real human beings, not abstract economic units.

This transactional worldview also explains why, despite the PAP's best efforts to "sharpen the differences" between Singaporeans and non-Singaporeans, Singaporeans remain so unhappy and unappreciated. That is because these efforts would work, only for Singaporeans who truly love schadenfraude.

If I am unhappy because I think I am being badly treated, would I really feel better just because the Government treats someone else equally badly? I mean, relatively speaking the other person may no longer be better off than me, but it does not improve my own position in any way. Imposing the National Defence Duty makes foreigners and PRs worse-off, but do not directly improve the lot of Singaporean males (at least not by much, and certainly not in any meaningful way), and most importantly does nothing to address their main concerns, in particular the complaint that employers discriminate against Singaporean males because of their NS liabilities.

In the same vein, charging PRs and foreigners more for public education and public health services (and even, bafflingly enough, horseriding fees at the Turf Club -- an American told me about this) has not made Singaporeans feel better, and not surprisingly, because it's not like they are paying less. Seeing my fellow inhabitant of Singapore suffer as much as I do does not make me suffer any less.

In economic terms, these policies can make sense. The National Defence Duty seeks to quantify the opportunity cost of having to serve Full-Time National Service, and then impose it on those who do not have to serve. Heck, the formula can probably even be tweaked to include some proxy measure of the opportunity and other costs of NS liability. Similarly, differentiated fees for Singaporeans vs PRs/foreigners means that Singaporeans are better-off than PRs/foreigners, even though Singaporeans are actually not better-off at all.

But in all these cases, the Singaporean's life does not become better in a meaningful way. This is the flaw of the PAP's transactional worldview -- it is a view of the economic world, and not of the real world.

Instead, if we want to make up for the cost and burden of defending the country, we should give those who have served NS even more benefits than they receive today. More, much more than the tax relief and the SAFRA membership. This is not to compensate them for what they have given up for NS, which is frankly something that can never really be done, but to do what we can, as a country, to recognise their contributions and express our appreciation.

For example, we can waive polyclinic consultation fees and public hospital C-class bed charges (or apply an equivalent discount for those who opt for more expensive classes), in full for everybody who has completed Full-Time NS and the 13-year NS cycle, and at 25% or some other percentage for those who completed Full-Time NS but did not have NS liability. And yes, that's for life.

And/or do the same for public school fees and miscellaneous fees. And/or public transport charges when they become senior citizens. And/or discount other medical charges in public hospitals. And/or give them priority queues in public government agencies.

The possibilities are nearly endless. Yes, these measures can be costly and/or inefficient. But the goal here is not to be economically efficient or precise, but to express our true gratitude to those who have given up part of their lives to serve and defend Singapore and Singaporeans. And honestly, we spent over S$12 billion on defence in 2012; anything we do will almost certainly be less than a drop in that ocean of money.

Similarly, sharpening the differences between Singaporeans and PRs/foreigners should be done not be making things more expensive for PRs/foreigners, but by giving some positive benefit to the Singaporeans. Instead of increasing the school fees and polyclinic charges for PRs/foreigners, why not reduce them for Singaporeans. It may cost more to the Government, but it will also be much, much more likely to achieve the desired results of making Singaporeans feel cherished.


16 comments:

Daniel said...

I'll drink to that. We've undervalued a powerful institution and a common honour for far too long. Instead of advertising some platitudes about careers in the military, maybe it's time to build some strong cultural, ideological and emotional capital, and not just with $80 worth of vouchers and 1 years' SAFRA membership.

Dave said...

I did not serve NS, being a naturalised citizen, but I agree we simply have to move the pendulum away from the money-driven PAP theology to one that is more meaningful; and that means truly appreciateing the sacrifices of the NSmen, and not give them $100vouchers from time to time

TalkingSense said...

While w are at it can they stop discrimatory practices against singles and single parenta who are equally tax payimg Singapore citizens?

The said...

Bravo. Hri Kumar is the personification of the government's preferred modus operandi - dollars and lack of sense.

Juber said...

If they put a monetary value to it, then by extension, shouldn't locals be allowed to pay to avoid serving NS? It will be a cheap way out for those who are rich. And those who pay are then entitled to hold their head up as equals to those who physically served, whether naturalized citizens our otherwise? It's a slippery slope. And very twisted.

Self Deception said...

To my mind, the REAL underlying reason to make PRs/foreigners pay more for all such services/fees is to entice PRs/foreigners to become citizens. Everytime a PR/foreigner has to pay more for any of these services, etc, some may feel that it might be better to become a citizen and enjoy lower charges or what have you (baby bonus, tax reliefs, etc) that only citizens are accorded. So the philosophy behind it was never REALLY meant to show appreciation or gratitude.

Sau Sheong Chang said...

If we step back and think a bit more about Hri Kumar's suggestion, it doesn't even make economic sense. While I'm no economist, making PRs and foreigners pay more taxes result in the said PRs and foreigners requesting for higher salaries. Which means increasing the cost of manpower for companies in Singapore (assuming that it's true that foreign manpower is required). Increasing costs for companies usually means the costs would be passed on, in one way or another, back to the consumers. This means the tax basically FALLS BACK TO US.

Reddotsg said...

There are some things you can't put a price on, loyalty is one of them. If you want the PR/FT to pay pay NDD, then might as well convert army to become Singapore Foreign Legion.

The said...

Better still - outsource our defence to the Gurkhas. Have divisions of Gurkhas instead of the current strength.

B. said...

I think it's fruitful to frame it from an equality perspective.

I think Singaporeans (like most people) are quite agreeable to inequality of outcomes, but are uncomfortable with inequality of opportunity. (Lots of good research on notions of fairness emerging from anthropology, evolutionary psychology, etc nowadays...)

And this clearly is inequality of opportunity. The PR and foreigner gets ahead (outcome) not because of his skills, abilities, or attitudes but because he has fewer obstacles to success i.e. NS, reservist, (opportunity).

It matters because you put these PRs and foreigners into the same labour market as NSmen, to compete "fairly" for the same jobs.

I don't know what a better solution would be, but using this as a solution would just violate our notions of fairness and generate even more outrage.

I suspect carrots would work better than sticks in general though. Instead of making foreigners pay more to work in Singapore, just provide more social support to NS-serving Singaporeans. We can fund it stealthily by raising taxes on everyone but just redistributing it back to NS-men. Probably less administrative hassle too. And it avoids the nasty and stupid business of putting a price-tag on loyalty (best way to cheapen priceless things - putting a price tag on it - just think of the difference between true love and visiting a prostitute).

Ivan Lim said...

Dear Kum Hong,

You put all my heart's feelings into exact words......cos I am very poor at writing.

I used to be very proud of my country Singapore and during that time; should anyone even tries to thumb us down, I will be the first to shoot down any remarks or criticism but that's the past and that's the era of the 1st Generation of PAP Leaders.

My views and feelings started to change mid-way through the 2nd Generation of PAP Leaders because my country has turned into a place as COLD as ICE.....all matters and things are measured in dollars and cents regardless of it's intrinsic value...or was there any residual value in these Leaders' eyes?

Now, with the 3rd Generation of PAP Leaders at helm, when anyone criticises the policies and visions laid out by these leaders; I joined in and added fuel to the fire!!

Will the 4th Generation of (not necessarily PAP) Leaders be able to change cause? My hopes looks and rest upon HSK and TCJ........would me, this old man, lives to see the day when I am (again) damn proud of my country Singapore?

I don't know........even right now, History has not finished her last page yet.

Regards,
An Old Man

Lim Soon Chung said...

Hri Kumar was just trying to score points. The NS tax for PRs has about zero probability of becoming reality. It doesn't make any economic sense. The tax will actually make Singaporeans even worse off, by discouraging the best foreigners from moving to Singapore and increasing the cost of NS on the economy. It is only useful as a framing device to help us understand part of the problem - how would one quantify the NS contributions of a Singaporean.

Larger discounts and free public transportation and stuff like that are all fine and actually very workable. The sums of money are small but the bigger effect is a Pat on the Back from the govt for NS service.

But can that make up for the very real disadvantages in the workplace? Many countries have pro-local employment/ recruitment laws. That could be one way to make up some of the difference.

They (the PAP) could implement incentives through the corporate tax code, to level the field a little more. Maybe better tax rebates to offset the cost of NS service incurred to firms and encourage firms to keep hiring Singaporeans. You can never replace an absent worker who's gone off for reservist but the effect can be mitigated so that Singaporeans will be less disadvantaged.

We should also be asking PRs and new citizens to contribute to national defence more. Contribute certain amount of time every year, like Singaporeans do. That will also help to balance out the scale not only at a personal/ financial level, but also at an emotional level. We might stop hating on foreigners if we see them running around in camou PT kit, touching trees for no good reason.

Xtrocious said...

Or are they also opening the door for RICH SINGAPOREANS to pay NS Duty for their sons in lieu of serving?

Maybe that's their motive...food for thought

thequietthings said...

Hi,

I think you've missed the point that the NS tax will operate as an additional penalty on top of the existing penalties faced by NS evaders. The current penalties include monetary penalties (in the form of the bond forfeited and fines), jail terms, and the inability to work and study in Singapore. In other words, the tax will penalise PRs even more should they evade NS. Surely you don't think that the existing penalties are sufficient?

You also lament that instead of making foreigners and PRs pay more, the government should instead give NS men (or Singaporeans in general) more benefits. But this money must come form somewhere. Why not from taxes collected from foreigners and PRs who benefit from our safe environment?

jem said...
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jem said...

I agree with you on how life is not a matter of transactions. But this proposal is not a transaction either.

I think some commentators have pointed out (and having read his post myself), I think you may have misunderstood his proposal. It is not about quid pro quo - tax for NS. It operates more of a penalty, on the family whose child decides to evade his NS obligations. On that view, it does not seem so transactional, does it?

It is one way of sharpening distinctions. You have proposed carrots, and this acts as a stick. We have to be practical about things, not all carrots work, some a little bit of stick to prod people along is necessary.