05 March 2006

On Workfare

The Curious Incident of the Workfare Budget in Parliament

On 1 March, Minilee announced in Parliament, near the end of the Budget debates, that the much-hyped workfare component is not meant to be a permanent fixture; having it every year will lead to welfarism, which is bad for Singapore. To clarify, the workfare component in this year's Budget should be viewed as a one-off, infrequent, occasional bonus.

Contrary to Straits Times headline of Minilee conclusively refuting opposition criticisms, the declaration that the workfare idea is just a one-off only serves to highlight the fact that since it's not permanent, it's not a shift, then it has to be an election goodie.

I do not begrudge the fact that Singapore's current Parliamentary acts as a rubberstamp for whatever policy directions and final decisions its Prime Minister ("the Princeps") decides upon. Ministers and backbenchers debate the Budget for 2 weeks, then regardless of the criticisms and points raised, vote to pass the same Budget in a ritual vote afterwards. Outwardly, the forms of democratic rule are observed.

Real transparency and open government, however, depends not on the destination that Minilee selects, but the journey and the process by which he arrives at his decisions. On the 17 Feb, on the opening of the Budget debate, Minilee unveiled the workfare component as a major shift in thinking, to focus more on the poor and the elderly in the long term.

Workfare, he declared, is not welfare. It will not lead to welfare. Minilee even made the same declaration during last year's National Day Rally Speech. Throughout the month of January, in the runup to the Budget session of Parliament, Minilee had continually played up the role of workfare and promising a permanent shift in Budget.

Even the Straits Times, on 25 February, after the first week of the Budget session, issued a 6-page feature in its Insight pages, proclaiming that "Budget 06 marks shift in thinking" with its new workfare component. Its top political operative, Chua Mui Hoong (the Maureen Dowd of Singapore), cheered on the creation of a "Kinder, gentler rat race". The efficient press regulatory framework ensures a tight coordination between the state and the news media, especially for major features analysing political events like these Budget reports.

At this moment, for example, in March 2006 (if it is March 2006), workfare will lead to welfare. In no public or private utterance will it ever be admitted that the two concepts had at any time been grouped along different lines. Actually, as everyone well knows, it was only 1 week ago that workfare was not welfare, would never lead to welfare, and had the backing of Minilee, who introduced the idea himself. But this is merely a piece of furtive knowledge which we happen to possess because our memories are not satisfactorily under control. Officially the change of relations had never happened. Workfare will lead to welfare: therefore Workfare had always led to Welfare...

That Minilee made the reversal in such short notice that it took the Straits Times in surprise isn't as shocking as the blase acceptance of the new state of events by his 80+ colleagues in Parliament. No one took a minute to address the plothole or request the Princeps to account for the sudden and complete demolition of an ideological point he built up so painstakingly since last year.

Minilee first unveiled the workfare idea last August. His million-dollar ministers and elite backbenchers have had more than 6 months to do their homework on workfare. It appears they didn't, or didn't bother to. At no time during the Budget session did any minister or backbencher actually do a presentation of the implementation and philosophy of workfare as it exists in other countries. Perhaps if they had done so, we would come to the embarrassing realisation that workfare:

1. Is not an original invention of Minilee
The media kept putting quotation marks on workfare last August, to make it seem this was new term coined on the spot by Minilee.

2. Actually exists in other countries
Google is your best friend.

3. Is a full-fledged, theoretically sound (although widely criticised) concept

4. As it exists in Singapore, has completely zero relation to workfare as it exists in other countries, and as it exists as a theoretical concept.

Appropriation and bastardisation of existing concepts has long being the modus operandi of the new crop of ministers; see Khaw Boon Wan's excreable appropriation, reinvention, and bastardisation of Bourdieu's "cultural capital", but surely, one expects better from the Prime Minister of Singapore.

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