For as long as I can remember, I had always been well acquainted with the acronym CPF. It stands for the Central Providence Fund. But till today, I know so little about CPF - it's confusing and difficult to justify.
My parents will just say that it is just "forced savings".
What is "forced savings" to us, is revenue for the government to spend, invest and in some cases of bad business decision-making, squander (it is interesting to note that the core competency of any democratic government is not to make money).
I spoke with my mum recently and she told me about this minimum sum policy, where people are expected, if possible, to "top up" their CPF to meet the minimum sum in their CPF accounts. (Well, from here on, I'll just make references to the CPF ordinary account)
The purpose for this is so that retiree citizens will be able to have a healthy monthly allowance/pay-out into old age. Family members could also contribute to "top up". Imagine taking the money you have in your hands and putting it in a safebox, the password of which is only known to the government, and you'll have no access to it whatsoever.
CPF for me is almost like a double-edged sword, because one side cuts deeper than the other. Citizens get the blunt side, of course.
The good thing, among a few, about CPF is that you can buy (you actually rent) public housing and do other investments with money you cannot already touch. The bad side of it is when you are in need of money and you sell your HDB home, you probably cannot get much out of it. You can struggle and starve until you reach the age when the government starts paying you with your own hard earned savings.
I see CPF in another light. CPF is "tough love" shown by the compassion-less state. A government's job is to take care of its people. However, since welfare is relegated from the Singaporean state to non-government organisations, CPF (and also the Ministry of Community Youth and Sports) is probably one of the few excuses of a government initiative that actually strives to look after Singaporeans.
To arrest what it sees as widespread Singaporean financial illiteracy (oweing to the Singaporean past-time of gambling, and poor individual financial management), CPF seems the most pragmatic approach. After all, by controlling the money of citizens, the government need not spend much of taxpayers' money on welfare. That way, the government can consolidate taxpayers' money do the traditional Chinese thing that is wealth accumulation, and paying top talented yes-men servants (Lee Hsien Loong does appreciate his men servants, i mean yes-men servants, doesn't he?)
The government has moved on with the times, and realised that the cost of living is up and people need to have more savings for old age. There is no denying this. This is thus translated into policy and a higher minimum sum in your CPF.
However, that only addresses the economic aspect of "the times". People are generally and increasingly financially savvy. With information going around like omnipresent aggressive pesky hardselling banking and investment representatives at MRT stations, people are in a better position today to make more informed financial decisions. We are generally more financially literate.
At the same time, there are those who are in need of money and are struggling on a daily basis. If you are struggling every day or month, would you bother more about the prospects of struggling after you retire? These are the ones who will need help and I think having compulsory savings might be harmful in the short term.
Financially literate people are the bigger losers when it comes to CPF. Retirees are not able to withdraw all of their money from CPF. I guess the government does not want people to squander their own money (and ironically, it is probably the state who would be in a better position to do the squandering). This measure minimises demand for social welfare in the event people do squander their money. However, the thought of this minimisation is unsettling, because I believe that the state is also responsible for "irresponsible" citizens. It is your right as a citizen to gain protection from the state. However, the protection that is welfare appears to be outsourced. For instance, look at our charities. They are private, although regulated/monitored.
It seems the central control of money is essential to social stability. But in a time when people are a little bit more financially literate, why can't the government allow them to access to their own money? The state should not in any way prevent any one from gaining full access to the full sum of their money, but the different policies in CPF are contrary to that.
The implementation of CPF is microcosmic of life in Singapore. There are certain compulsory things that you just cannot and do not question. There are no alternatives, and the only choices you have are the ones provided for you by the state. There is no reward for compliance, but there is punishment for non-compliance, unless you consider the absence of harassment and punishment as rewards.
I think we can do without the state paternalism, from which we have so much benefited. It is time to move on with the times and give people choices on how they would like to handle their own money.
On the one hand, the government promotes ideologies like meritocracy, and embark on different campaigns of social engineering, so that a social environment is created in which deviance and failures are isolated and reduced to individual laziness and character flaws. This is a system that protects the state, by creating distractions away from the flaws of policy and politicians. On the other hand, (and I am speculating) the state does not want people to squander their money and start seeking welfare, even though the said system is already in place.
The value in saving is the preparation for the future, where you are giving yourself an additional choice or two in the event you encounter financial difficulties or make certain financial decisions. I cannot understand why the government has to enforce the CPF policy across the nation, because people have different ways of preparing for their futures. Yes, people have different futures and more importantly, different "present"s and daily realities, especially those whose savings are far less than their CPF ordinary account.
There will be many perspectives on CPF. Personally, I would not mind having the government take (care of) my savings, because I still save as much as I can. But I would probably want to have access to all the CPF savings when I retire and do the "rationing" of allowances for myself.
I think there can be more tweaking and personalising that can be done, so that the different people can at least have some needs met. Of course, CPF is not the only issue, but it would be great if people are given more choices. After all, the PAP wants to stay in power, and to do so in a democratic country, you have to be in the business of making everyone happy, so why run Singapore like a bloody primary school?
I think life in Singapore is best summed up in the following sentence: You either get fucked or go fuck yourself.