Dear Singapore government, I no understand. Can make it simple or not?

The view from a public housing block in Singapore. (File photo: Reuters/Edgar Su)

After seven years of teaching undergraduates, I figure I can tell the brilliant ones from the not-so-brilliant in class. Their questions are crisp, and so are their answers. This is not because they are garrulous or speak brilliant English. They just “know” what they are talking about.

Most of the rest, including straight-A students, ask vague questions in the hope of getting the answer that they think they are looking for, or give answers that are “conditional”, depending on this or that, so that they can’t be faulted for being wrong. In fact, they would rather give yes or no answers, but they are at a loss because there are no rules or parameters to work by. I think they will become civil servants.

I am reminded of this because of a column written by my ex-boss, Mr Han Fook Kwang, in the Sunday Times. He wondered why brilliant scholars end up drafting complicated policies that are beyond the ken of the ordinary layman. He gave the example of CPF, which is “such a complex scheme … that people give up trying to understand it and become fixated with only one part of it”.

I agree. I used to be able to chart by hand the whole CPF system on the white board in the classroom, with all the contributions, different accounts and its uses. It was pretty detailed. But I’ve been hobbled since by the transition of Eldershield to Careshield and the introduction of different CPF Life schemes. I have always thought that a single policy should be deemed too complicated if it can’t be drawn up on a piece of paper from memory. (My memory is really not bad.)

Healthcare and housing just as arcane

I have the same problem with healthcare and housing. I have to keep coming to grips with the healthcare subsidies that a CHAS card or a Pioneer Generation card brings to the holder. Thank goodness it is always a straight 50 per cent subsidy for Pioneers such as my mother. (It is, in my view, the simplest and most useful of all the cards a person may have in his or her wallet.) Then again, I would have to contend with Flexi-Medisave and whether there is enough that can be used for this medical procedure, or that medicine.

I think the receptionists in hospitals are geniuses. They know what every single patient of any age with any ailment is entitled to. Most times, I wager that patients and their families depend on them to tote up the final bill correctly. We’re dependent on the system working well enough to serve us efficiently – and honestly.

Take, for example, the Community Health Assist Scheme (CHAS) IT error which affected 7,700 people in February. About 6,400 were given higher subsidies than what they were entitled to. It’s about S$2 million extra – and they will still be keeping it because the G intends to claw the money back from the NCS.

Then again, which CHAS participant even knew that this happened? Did anyone of the 1,300 others detect the shortfall? It was the Health ministry which noted the discrepancy and set about putting it right. (For that, we have to thank the honest civil servants.) The ministry had to concede that it would be useful “to inform CHAS beneficiaries of their subsidies at each deduction so that they can also verify their subsidy levels and balances are accurate and updated”. (Just think. We trusted the G so much we didn’t even think about needing to be informed of our balances)

At least, the Health ministry has a very specific agenda – keep the people healthy and make sure no one is denied medical care for want of money. This is not the case for the Housing Board, which has so many objectives that you wonder if it is a property developer which builds flats, real estate agent who sells them, arbiter of racial harmony which enforces ethnic quotas, promoter of family ties to bring different generations closer, bringer of babies for newly-marrieds who need shelter, champion of poor who can’t afford to own their homes, leader of small business owners who want their neighbourhoods spruced up, or financial adviser who maintains your housing values with upgrading schemes.

Oh. I forgot: It’s the agency that is supposed to provide affordable homes to the majority of the population. Perhaps, it’s because it sees its main objective as achieved, which is why it has so many other policy aims grafted onto the main branch. Just as people are now focused on the withdrawal age of CPF, they are now looking at just one HDB twig – the declining value of their 99-year flat leases.

No choice but to surrender to bureaucracy

It’s not as if the G doesn’t know its policies are complicated. Every year, there is some attempt announced during the Budget to streamline processes and procedures, especially for doing business or getting grants for start-ups, subsidies or research. Every year, I wonder if this is because past “one-stop” solutions failed. I won’t even start with social policies that are so calibrated and tweaked to cater to specific audiences that you can probably become a consultant to the poor – if only they could pay.

The solution proffered is always the same: Come to us and we tell you what is available or give you the help you need. So we surrender ourselves to bureaucracy and emerge relieved and grateful that someone has cut through the maze for us and given us our due. It is not a balanced relationship.

Mr Han, for example, gave the example of the Merdeka Generation package which looks like a mathematical problem people have to solve to know exactly how much they would be getting. I have a strange suspicion that the complexity is such that no one would be able to directly compare his benefits with others. It would be too taxing. But, like CHAS, who would look a gift horse in the mouth and ask too many questions anyway?

I am not sure we should blame civil servants for complex policies – they are probably working to a brief set by their political masters. It is the office-holders who should have kept their eye on whether the policies are too complex for the layman to understand. They should not presume that the system will always pan out for the layman because there is always some outlet they can turn to for help and advice. Nor should they assume that the civil service is always clean and honest enough to correct problems. The system should be simple and straightforward in the first place, so that people can consider and calculate for themselves their rights, entitlements and benefits.

I will be 55 soon and have been looking forward to taking out some CPF. Time and again, I have gone to the CPF website to see what would happen on my birthday. I have some sense of what’s available and what should be retained but I know that plenty of other decisions would have to guided by whatever advice the CPF officer has to give.

I hope he or she is a genius.

 

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