(Delivered in Parliament on 14 May 2018)
Introduction: Thrust of the President’s Address
Mr Speaker, in addition to laying out the Government’s plans for the rest of the term, the President’s address this year was note-worthy particularly for the upcoming transfer of power from the third (3G) to fourth generation (4G) of PAP leaders.
Three remarks in particular shone through. Firstly, the new PAP leaders cannot take the people’s trust for granted and assume that the right to lead will automatically pass from one generation to the other. Secondly, the 4G leaders ought to resist the temptation not to go for bold changes. Thirdly, the 4G leadership must fire up and mobilise the spirit and energy of young Singaporeans.
One thread that binds these three directives is the ability and willingness to listen to the people. This trait can be understated especially in light of the dominance of the PAP and its electoral success over more than five decades of uninterrupted rule. However, societal norms and expectations of political leadership have evolved. Alternative views will have to be addressed, accommodated and considered thoughtfully so as to allow us to move forward as one Singapore.
What the Government should not do is to close the door or resign itself to the politics of majoritarianism when a sensitive or difficult subject comes along, but instead invest a lot more energy to engage and explain, for our people have more than their fair share of good ideas. If the approach of the 4G leaders is to ignore, silence or ridicule alternative ideas, they will fail to galvanise and spur all Singaporeans to greater heights or worse, they may even engender a divided society rendering the message of inclusivity hollow and without substance. This would be an untenable outcome for the continued success of a small country like Singapore that needs to pursue innovation and excellence, and to conceive of new ways of doing things with greater vigour than ever before.
I will focus my speech on the cost of living, a topic which the Workers’ Party believes deserves closely scrutiny by the Government for the remainder of this term and beyond. The remaining Workers’ Party MPs will address other issues as covered in the addenda to the President’s Address.
Cost of Living
In the last few years, cost of living issues have dominated the headlines and more price rises are on the way with a prospective hike in the Goods & Services Tax in the near future raising anxieties further.
More than one year ago, in the wake of the announcement of a hike in water tariffs, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean sought to assure the public that the price of coffee should not go up in the aftermath of the water hikes because the cost of water in a cup of coffee is “much much less than one cent”, and that the public should not be scared of untrue stories about coffee prices. While this is true in a mathematical sense, just a few days ago, a Zaobao report confirmed that one of the largest coffee shop chains had increased the price of coffee citing rising overheads.
One response to pre-empt cost of living concerns by the Government at Budget 2018 has been to enhance the GST U-Save Voucher, with each eligible household standing to receive $5 more every three months between 2019 and 2021 to compensate for the recently announced carbon tax. The PAP Government’s philosophy has always been to target assistance.
For those who govern, the fear of overly generous welfare pay-outs for the able-bodied comes with a warning – the message that can be inadvertedly sent is that a person is not able to look after himself, severely undermining the work ethic. Singaporeans should not dismiss this concern.
Explaining Price Hikes
But parallel expectations and considerations apply equally for the Government too.
At the Committee of Supply (COS) debate this year, the Transport Minister confirmed that Singaporeans can expect to see a rise in transport costs in the very near future too, to reflect growing network capacity and ridership. But as many callers to a local radio station commented not too long ago, the operating costs of running and improving the transport system cannot just be seen through the eyes of fare revenue. Many correctly questioned whether there ought to be some scope for other segments of SMRT’s business to subsidise train operations too, such as advertising and revenue from other investments to lessen the effect of any fare increases on the general population.
Mr Speaker, the question of the quantum of the surpluses and the prospect of alternate revenue streams and future surpluses of many Government-Linked Companies and statutory boards to better cushion price hikes on Singaporeans needs to be looked at very closely and debated before prices go up. For example on the 30% water hike, how do future capital investments in water supply and transmission cohere with the large capital reserves of the national water agency which have increased consistently from around $3b in 2007 to more than $5b in 2016?
Getting into the details of such matters would represent a unique partnership with the people. It would represent bold leadership but such an approach would come with an upshot. Price hikes are likely to be better understood and contextualized to the benefit of the policy discourse in Singapore.
Cost of Living and the Total Fertility Rate
Mr Speaker, the President correctly pointed out that that young Singaporeans want to feel a strong sense of nation. Raising our Total Fertility Rate (TFR) is an existential issue for our nation. We know from a recent Government survey that many married Singaporean couples actually do wish to have three or more children.
While 39% felt this was an ideal outcome only 18% were able to actualize it. Similarly, while 53% of couples ideally wanted two children only 37% were able to actualize it. 61% of respondents raised financial cost as their first out of three reasons for not having more children followed closely by the stress of raising children in Singapore at 56% and the difficulty of managing work and family demands at 33%. If indeed the cost of living is a major impediment to having more children, what can we do to address this issue? How will we create a strong sense of nationhood when our Singapore core and the values internalized over 50 years of nation-building are progressively hollowing themselves out with the population not replacing itself?
Sir, immigration cannot be the long-term solution to our TFR woes. Immigrants will grow old too and we cannot be encouraging even more immigrants to set up home on our shores without a robust strategy to raise our TFR. Not to do so would severely impact the quality of life in Singapore for our future generations in view of our limited size.
The problem is a structural one and structural changes are necessary and bold thinking is required to break with the orthodoxy of the past. Is there scope to make HDB flats more affordable by pegging prices to income levels? Can flexible-work arrangements become a compulsory option for new parents from employers? What can we do to make the education system a reason for parents not to panic about having children? Is there scope to introduce more child support tax credits for low and medium income parents which can be scaled back progressively as household income increases?
4G Leadership and Budgetary Surpluses
Unlike their predecessors, the 4G leadership are coming into power when expenditures will rise in concert with the changing demographics of Singapore. But that is only half the story. On the question of finances, the inclusion of Temasek into the Net Investment Returns Contribution (NIRC) framework from 2016 has also put more money and by extension more political capital in their hands of the current Government and 4G leaders than any other generation of PAP leaders.
This is without having to even call on the President to unlock reserves.
To put this in perspective, the overall budget surplus for this term of Government for FY2016 and 2017 is currently at $15.7b and this is after transfers to endowments and trust funds like the GST voucher fund. The $15.7b could potentially cover two more Pioneer Generation Packages of about $8b each covering almost an additional one million more elderly and this is only taking into account the accumulated surplus of two out of the five years of this Government’s term.
In comparison, the first and only drawdown of the reserves in 2009 requiring Presidential approval amounted to $4.9b for the Jobs Credit scheme which extended a cash grant for every local worker on a qualifying employer’s payroll, with a smaller amount allocated to financial institutions for the Special Risk Sharing Initiative.
With $15.7b in hand today, and given the putatively stable formula for NIRC withdrawals in spite of market fluctuations, the picture for the immediate future does not appear to be one of a Government needing money to stay afloat and needing to tax the population as a result, raising the cost of living.
We are told more money is needed for healthcare and other areas in the years to come. This is not unexpected given our demographic transition with our elderly population expected to grow to 900,000 by 2030. But what are the Government’s current estimates and the underlying basis for its projections of higher expenditure coming on stream in future? This information needs to be shared so the public are clear-eyed about the sufficiency of the budget at the Government’s disposal to help Singaporeans with the cost of living today.
Conclusion: A Confident People
In conclusion Sir, the President’s call not to eschew bold changes is not one that should not only preoccupy the 4G leadership alone.
The leadership transition from the 3G to 4G leaders also presents a unique opportunity for each Singaporean to question what we can do to make Singapore a better home for all of us. The leadership team is no longer just the political leadership. Singapore needs a special breadth and depth of leadership if Singapore is to succeed – leadership in every field of industry from trade and industry to sports, arts and culture.
If Singapore is to thrive as the immediate geopolitical situation shifts – and separately, the challenge of an aging society, inequality and an extremely low TFR confronts our small country – boldness should be a part of our national character too.
At its core, the transition from the 3G to 4G leaders must be accompanied by a transformation of our society which creates the conditions to engender a confident people.
The impetus and authority behind a new boldness in Singaporeans should harken back to the title of the President’s address – a call for a strong people-government partnership to build our future Singapore. A people who exercise independent judgment and who are empowered to support Singapore and to move forward together.
Finally Mr Speaker, I would like to put on record my thanks for Minister Chan Chun Sing’s words on the Workers’ Party and Mr Low Thia Khiang’s contributions over the years. The Workers’ Party will always bear in mind the national interest in our deliberations, and endeavour in the interest of Singaporeans and Singapore.