Debate on President’s Speech – Speech by Leon Perera

(Delivered in Parliament on 17 May 2018)

Mr Speaker sir, the President’s address provides a consolidated view of established and recently announced government policies.

Sir, it is important that our policies speak to the hearts and minds of all Singaporeans in their most decisive moments.

The world is changing, getting disrupted, becoming more complex and hence unpredictable. Amidst this change, do our policies speak well enough to everyone? I’ll cite a few hypothetical examples.

  • A young, low-income couple contemplating the prospect of saving for retirement in the context of an uncertain HDB flat price outlook in the distant future, who contemplate also the cost of tuition amidst the rigours of academic competition…and then decide to postpone the decision to have children indefinitely.
  • A 45 year old man who has been retrenched and is anxiously scouring the job market for any kind of paid work…probably encountering ageist prejudice along the way that is hard to complain about because it is hard to prove.
  • A 25 year old, who is working in a full-time job but driving a private hire car at night, holding down two jobs so as to afford further part-time studies leading to a professional certification
  • A 35 year-old woman who just obtained a degree from part-time study, at great cost in money and time, who finds that her employability and the salary she can command is not what she expected. In fact, a recent survey found 4.3% of graduates in full-time jobs being severely under-employed, earning less than $2,000 per month.

We can say that there are already government programs in place to address the needs of these groups like Wage Credit, PCP, WIS and TAFEP, which is true. We can also say that these problems are not unique to Singapore, many are a consequence of global trends – that too is true. We can say that these people cannot always expect the government to fix all their problems, and there is truth there as well.

But if disruptive change is going to make such situations more and more common, is there more we can do for these Singaporeans as a society?

One private university graduate made an impassioned post on Facebook last month saying: “I graduated …in the top fifteen percent of my cohort…Surely that counted for something. It should have wiped out the disaster that was my A levels. Men plan. Fate jests. I’ve sent out dozens, hundreds of resumes. Every month, every week, every day, I applied for job after job after job, hoping that someone would notice. Until then, I crunched numbers and copied clauses, wrote story after story, and picked up whatever freelance job and short-term contract job I could find. I did this for eight years. In eight years, I received nothing.”

What else can we say to Singaporeans like these?

In sketching these scenarios, I do not mean to argue that all is doom and gloom. Of course Singapore and Singaporeans have achieved much in the past, there is much to be grateful for. The glass is half full, as I’ve argued before in this House. But some of us see it as half empty. As was famously said in a scene in the movie Star Wars Episode 6, much depends on our point of view.

And not only that. Sometimes both good and bad effects come from the same system-design source. Our approach to public finances has created huge reserves for emergency purposes which help fund Budgets, but also create the need to raise costs via taxes that place pressures on our people. Our education system has produced world-class PISA scores but has spawned a massive tuition industry that may erode social mobility and students who are substantially more stressed than the OECD average.

Going forward as a country, we face a choice. Do we stick with the same policy and institutional eco-system and merely apply a plaster or bandage to control the bad effects?

Or do we take the riskier approach of reforming the underlying policy, institution or practice – risking that the new approach, in seeking to reduce the downsides of the old policy, may wholly or partly lose the benefits of the old policy?

One way to decide this lies in seeing if the deeper trends going on in Singapore and the world will make the downside worse than the benefit over time. If so, then go for reform. If not, let’s do incremental tweaks and plasters for now.

I was glad to hear references in the President’s speech to an appetite for bold reform, which of course does not mean reckless reform.

In this spirit, I suggest reforms to two broad baskets of policies where longer-term trends argue for reform. Some of these ideas have been suggested by my colleagues and I on other occasions.

Firstly, the basket of policies that relate to the cost of living, education, inequality and social mobility, which are closely tied to citizen confidence as expressed in risk-taking, entrepreneurship, innovation and indeed TFR.

If and when a Budget funding gap is imminent, rather than raise taxes, is there more scope to review our policies towards the reserves, to tap more from the NIR and/or land sales, as my Party Secretary-General Mr Pritam Singh eloquently argued? Such changes would not reduce the absolute size of the reserves per se but would slow down the rate of reserve growth.

This question is not only a technical economic question but a deep, philosophic question about inter-generational equity. And on this question I would put it to this House that there are reasonable views on both sides of the issue. After all, there was a time in the past when suggestions like spending some of the NIR or adding Temasek to the NIR framework might perhaps have been labelled as irresponsible.

NMP Ms Kuik Shao Yin made an interesting speech which asked about our reserves, how much is enough. I would build on that and ask – no doubt we need emergency reserves, but what rate of reserve growth is enough?

There are risks from reducing the rate of reserves growth. We gain additional security from a larger and larger emergency fund going forward.

But there are also risks from allowing costs and economic pressures to rise in the future, inhibiting growth in other qualities we need to optimise among Singaporeans: like risk-taking, long-termism, entrepreneurism, TFR; in a word, confidence.

Confidence that the future could be better than the past, confidence that the deck is not stacked against me, confidence that I need not run faster and faster just to stay in the same place.

Spending more on the current generations and reducing the cost burden may affect TFR. As Mr Pritam Singh said, TFR is an existential issue facing Singapore.

There is some evidence that anxiety about the cost of living and academic competition contributes to a low TFR, and indeed our TFR is one of the lowest in the world.

As our reserves grow and the need to promote confidence among Singaporeans grows, the case for reform to this basket of policies strengthens.

The fact of HDB flat lease decay is rightly a part of this basket of issues. The possibility of HDB resale prices in the future performing poorly as more BTO flats are built, resale demand remains soft and more flats get sold on the market places pressure on the goal of monetizing one’s own HDB flat for future retirement income or even emergency or supplementary income. This is a large and complex issue which The Workers’ Party intends to study in the months ahead, with a view to make constructive suggestions.

At the same time, can we not review our education system, which was originally designed, we are told, such that tuition is unnecessary?

Can we not review the balance between content mastery and time for non-cognitive skills development or even time for leisure, hobbies and family pursuits which aid healthy character formation?

No doubt content mastery has been pared down over the years, but do exams test the pared-down content taught in the standard curriculum or do exams test for content that goes beyond, thus acting as a sharper stratification instrument whether intended or otherwise? One letter published in the Straits Times Forum said, “The textbooks recommended by the ministry and used in schools offer basic information. Yet, when it comes to examinations, the questions asked are often way above the level of the information in the textbooks. This is the main reason students seek tuition..”.

Is this a valid perspective? If so, is there room to rebalance further between developing cognitive skills on the one hand and non-cognitive skills and leisure time on the other? Amidst the relentless advance of AI and robotics, as simple tasks become automated and a higher and higher premium falls on skill-sets like creativity and leadership, the case for education reform grows.

Can we not review our class size, to take advantage of falling enrolments while leaving the teacher population stable, as I argued in an earlier motion? Smaller Learning Support Program classes for weaker pupils could stigmatise weaker pupils.

Moreover smaller general class sizes could reduce the number of pupils falling behind that necessitates those smaller LSP classes to begin with.

There is evidence that smaller class sizes can yield significant education, non-cognitive skill and social mobility benefits. Our general class sizes are well above the OECD average.

The question of class size at least warrants research in the form of a large-scale randomised trial to help quantify benefits versus costs, so that as a country we can debate this issue with all the facts on the table.

And can we regularly measure and debate social mobility, as my Party Chairman Ms Sylvia Lim eloquently argued for?

The second basket of issues is institutional and political.

Our system has many devices that favour stability. To be sure, stability is a good thing. But with such a framework are we not sacrificing diversity?

Does our institutional eco-system do enough to promote diversity of ideas in the public square?

Can we not scale back the extent, if indeed there is any, of the “influence, resources and enforcement powers” of the government being brought to bear on the way news is reported by mainstream media outlets, such that MSM editors and journalists report the news as they see fit, within broad regulatory parameters pertaining to sensitive issues like race and religion, as I suspect most journalists would want to do? The quote comes from a recent MSM newspaper editorial which called for “a state that does not use its considerable influence, resources and enforcement powers to box the local media into a corner.”

Can we not have an independent Ombudsman to review complaints about executive decisions without the complainant being faced with the costs and limitations associated with seeking judicial review? An Ombudsman may uncover policy gaps or institutional shortcomings that are not related purely to corruption or finances as dealt with by the CPIB and AGO.

And is our model of leadership future ready?

Traditionally many national leaders have emerged from government scholarship holders, some of whom go on to populate the top rungs of the civil service, GLCs and the Cabinet.

This tends to reduce the pool of talent available to the private sector and civil society and it is important for both of these sectors to be strong.

Moreover this pattern can produce political and GLC decision-makers who lack private or not-for-profit sector experience.

Many Singaporeans were very surprised when the new incoming CEO of SMRT was another former General.

Did our pioneer generation Cabinet have such a high proportion of ex-civil servants?

To manage this, can we not consider a time bar for civil servants entering politics, as I have argued for earlier? And can scholars not only be given the option of serving part of their bond in the local SME sector or civil society sector, but also be encouraged to do so? If necessary, we can ramp up the scholar cohort size to ensure sufficient scholars remain for public service needs.

In addition to these points, the other huge part of the equation is how to generate economic growth, to grow the size of the pie. I have not touched on that subject in this speech, but my colleagues and I have made many suggestions on this subject in the past, from harnessing ASEAN disruptive industry growth to a dedicated bank for SME globalization, to name two.

In conclusion sir, none of these suggestions are silver bullets. But giving serious thought to such suggestions can contribute to a more liveable, more future-ready, more democratic and more diverse society that will be a stronger and better home, built to last.

Thank you.