In an article entitled, ‘Social Justice in Singapore: Some Personal Reflections’, Tommy Koh argues that Singapore is both a social just and a socially unjust society.
For Koh, Singapore is a socially just society because of the following reasons: basic human needs are met; women are not discriminated against; the rule of law is implemented with equity; the absence of racial and religious discrimination; every Singaporean has the right to education; and society is run according to the principle of meritocracy.
But these merits notwithstanding, Singapore, according to Koh, is also a socially unjust society for the following reasons: the widening inequality in income and wealth; the absence of a poverty line, resulting in some earning below a living wage; the absence of a minimum wage and the presence of poverty, especially poor and needy children in our society and schools.
Philosophers, social theorists, economists and politicians have long tried to envision and actualise a socially just world by promoting human rights (however these are conceived) and by pushing for economic egalitarianism through progressive taxation and other strategies to promote distributive justice.
For Christians, the idea of social justice is firmly rooted in the Bible. According to the Bible, the God who created the world and human beings is just (Deuteronomy 32:4). In addition, God has created human beings in his image and likeness (Gen 1:27), each of whom is equally valued by him.
God therefore clearly and repeatedly commands his people to show concern for the poor and the needy, the fatherless, the widow and the sojourner (Deuteronomy 10:18; 24:17; 27:19). The teachings of the Church on social justice are profoundly inspired by and based upon the unequivocal witness of Scripture.
According to the Christian vision, social justice has to do with much more than the possibilities of a social market economy or certain strategies in social legislation, important though they are. In the Christian account, social justice is grounded in human solidarity, a concept that captures a complex of meanings.
At its most basic core, human solidarity has to do with the indisputable fact that people are interdependent, and not only in the sense that they evidently rely on one another for their biological and emotional needs. Every conceivable human achievement – language, art, culture, education, science – testify eloquently to this interdependence.
More significantly, in the Christian account, human solidarity is seen not only as a necessary fact, but also a positive value. This paradoxically means that while solidarity is a given, an indispensable fact of human life and society, it is also something that we must work towards and cherish.
Reflecting on the significance of solidarity, the Catholic moral theologian, Thomas Massaro, S.J., writes: ‘We cannot realise our full potential or appreciate the full meaning of our dignity unless we share our lives with others and cooperate in projects that hold promise of mutual benefit’.
The virtue of solidarity begins with an inner attitude that expresses itself in concrete acts that demonstrate one’s commitment to the wellbeing of others. In this way, the virtue of solidarity is an antidote to the egoism and the selfish individualism that motivate members of modern society to obsessively pursue their own narcissistic agendas and neglect their social responsibilities.
It is only when the concept of human rights – which has become sacrosanct in modern society – is set within the context of solidarity and concern for the wellbeing of the larger community that it will not fall prey to a rampant individualism. The virtue of solidarity enables us to see that in many cases our obligations to our neighbour must take precedence over our rights.
The virtue of solidarity also disciplines the use of power. It prohibits the concentration of power in a single individual or a single group, thereby preventing its abuse.
In addition, some theologians argue that solidarity goes a long way in ensuring that the use of power is ‘rational’. As the Catholic moral theologian Bernard Häring has perceptively put it: “Solidarity, expressed by consensus on basic human rights and duties and common concern for social justice and fair processes, strengthens the rationality of the use of power.”
True solidarity ensures that power is exercised according to the principles of justice, law and order.
And finally, solidarity, with its emphasis on the concern for the wellbeing of all – including the poor, the sick and the vulnerable – will not only promote the common good, but will also ensure that the language of common good will not be used to justify a utilitarian or a ‘majoritarian’ ethics (where ‘common good’ reads ‘the good of the majority’).
Social justice is the responsibility of every member of society, not just that of the government. While policies like minimum wages will certainly go a long way in making society more just, they are not enough.