Noel Pearson delivered the 2011 Sir Robert Menzies Lecture, on the Classical Liberal theme of helping the poor and weak without generating a culture of welfare dependence. A shortened version of the text appeared in The Weekend Australian today.
I should preface this report by saying that the Singapore approach is very much second best, behind the laissez faire approach of voluntary saving and voluntary redistribution through private charities. It just beats the western welfare state approach that breeds dependency.
In his fascinating memoirs, former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew says he and his fellow leaders aimed to create for their country “a fair society, not a welfare society”. Lee recognised from the beginning the form of welfare provisioning the advanced Western nations were implementing would produce problems, and his country explicitly pursued a different philosophy and a different path.
He writes: “Watching the ever-increasing costs of the welfare state in Britain and Sweden, we decided to avoid this debilitating system. We noted by the 1970s that when governments undertook primary responsibility for the basic duties of the head of a family, the drive in people weakened.
“Welfare undermined self-reliance. People did not have to work for their families’ wellbeing. The handout became a way of life. The downward spiral was relentless as motivation and productivity went down. People lost the drive to achieve because they paid too much in taxes. They became dependent on the state for their basic needs.”
The great difference between the Singaporean approach and that of the welfare states of the Western world was, as Lee writes: “We chose to redistribute wealth by asset-enhancement, not by subsidies for consumption.”
There is in fact a great deal of redistribution in Singapore: it is just that it is strictly aimed at the asset and wealth development capabilities of its citizens.
More about the Sir Robert Menzies Lecture and a list of speakers, including Margaret Thatcher.