Time as currency: will it work in Singapore?

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On a Saturday night last March, a group of middle-aged suburbans went bowling. The following Tuesday, a dozen or so young women gathered together for a class of Pilates.

Both events took place in London and none of the participants paid for the activities with money.

They paid with time- literal hours they had earned through community services.

And in the next ten years, we too may be using time as currency under the newly announced 10-year vision for infocomm and media sectors.

The committee- formed by the Singapore’s government- said they are also looking for a possible time credit system called the Community Time Exchange.

“For instance, earn two “time-credits” for helping someone with a service, such as grocery shopping. He can then spend these two credits on someone else that offers another service, such as providing tuition for his grandson,” said the community.

This idea is not new. In 1998, Martin Simon set up United Kingdom’s first Time Bank to encourage people to use time as currency.

“We are overly dependent on money for too long to purchase things, and as a way of getting what we need and want, but we do not have to rely on cash only now,” he said.

Today there are 200 local time banks in the United Kingdom (UK) with almost 20,000 active participants. A mere two hours spent on community work like babysitting your neighbour’s children can earn you a half-day at a golf course in Denver, England.

So why time credit? Many social activists in the UK have pointed out the time credit system may be the closest shot we got to a caring society.

Spice, the agency that develops time credit systems across the UK, believes it can tackle social exclusion and solve the manpower crunch in the social work sector. In the last decade, Spice said community engagement has increased by more than 100 per cent.

“We have more than 500 young people accessing time credits to run youth club and local community projects now. Antisocial behaviour has dropped by 17 per cent in some communities,” said the director of Spice, Tris Dyson.

The idea is to value people as assets, Dyson adds. By doing so, we encourage community services as a form of valuable work. The social work sector therefore need not be kept on life support through government funds. Win-win situation.

But there are problems with the time credit system.

It is a generalised time exchange. Are all hours spent equal?

If the time credit system is implemented in Singapore, the government will have to consider the value of different types of social work. Would dog siting be the same as fund raising?

Lee Gregory from Cardiff University’s School of Social Sciences said that people might be deterred from participating in time credit exchange because they feel they are not getting a fair bargain out of the hours contributed.

“[I would suggest] first to stick to activities the community were already familiar with. Gradually then introduce a wider range of people and a broader range of activities,” he said.

Time is already not enough.

In Singapore, time is a scarce resource.

A survey conducted by a global HR consultancy, Randstad, has shown that most Singaporeans complain about long working hours. Another survey by NTU’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information this year revealed that most parents in Singapore spend only two to three hours with their children a day.

So it will be a challenge for the government to entice individuals to spare time for community work when they already have little time to spend on recreational activities. Singaporeans need to find ways to allow more self-time before the time credit system is introduced.

If one were to earn $500 per hour at his or her workplace, would the time credit system still entice them?

Tris Dyson believes that time credit builds a fairer society. But if you are a globetrotter or a reputable lawyer who earns hundreds of dollars per consultation, would you still volunteer?

It is true that the time credit system will provide many underprivileged individuals extra resources and possibly enrich the quality of their lives, as Tris Dyson said. But would this project only be the common man’s affair?

The time credit system is commendable. Its benefits are well tested in many countries from Japan to UK in the last decade.

For it to work in Singapore we need to address first our issues with time, the value of social work and wealth disparity.