(Delivered in Parliament on 26 February 2019)
Budget Speech 2019 – Navigating towards a Strong and United Singapore
Mr Speaker, this year’s budget caught the eye for its strategic purpose – to build a strong and united Singapore. Singaporeans from different walks of life would inevitably have different ideas on how best to achieve this with perspectives and views shaped by one’s values and sense of justice and equality. To that end, the Workers’ Party is no different. Apart from the strategic objective of budget, three statements resonated strongly for me, albeit each in a different context. These were – first, developing our people on a lifelong basis, second, taking care of not just this generation but our children and their children’s generation, and finally, that the changes ahead will be deeper and faster. My speech will use this overarching statements to cover areas where the Government should consider and reassess its approach to build the strong and united Singapore that all Singaporeans, not just the Government must navigate towards.
First, “developing our people on a lifelong basis.”
Mr Speaker, on this broad idea, I will share my thoughts about the Merdeka Generation Package. The ground feel is that even though it helps our senior citizens with their medical bills albeit less generously than the Pioneer Generation Package (PG), there are also quarters who conclude it is pungently timed with the election cycle, giving off the odour of an unfair advantage aimed at the electoral prospects of the PAP.
Another feedback I received about periodic benefits like the PG and the Merdeka Generation packages is the inherent inequity for some of our senior citizens who, by virtue of their year of birth, stand to miss out on a few years of medical benefits because of the interval between one-time packages. Similarly, senior citizens who missed out on the more substantial PG package when they were between the ages of 60 to 64 in 2014 also feel that the eligibility age of 60 for the Merdeka Package is inconsistent with the Pioneer Package.
To address such feedback, the Government should introduce a basic level of medical benefits through a universal and permanent senior citizen healthcare package from the age of 60. Quite rightly, the Merdeka Generation Package announcement has led some Singaporeans to enquire whether our budget can support such a package for our senior citizens. There is good reason to opine that it can.
Firstly, the introduction of Temasek into the NIRC framework from 2016 brings an additional $5b a year into the mix instantly and about $25b across a 5-year term starting from this term of government. Notwithstanding the greater spending needs of the Government going forward, the 35%-odd increase in the NIRC from 2016 goes some way to explain the healthy accumulated surpluses accrued to this term of government from the opening of parliament in 2016. Secondly, with the Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat’s announcement this year of new modalities of development funding through borrowing, does this development free up revenue to fund recurrent spending? If it does, it would appear that funding such a universal and permanent healthcare initiative for our seniors cannot be dismissed as dishonest, unreasonable or imprudent. Instead it can and should be viewed as the key pillar of a strong and united Singapore.
To begin with, the centre-piece of such a scheme should be aimed at alleviating the out-of-pocket expenses for primary healthcare, so as to address cost of living for all Singaporeans from the age of 60. Here, the additional subsidies for common illnesses and chronic conditions for outpatient care and meaningful discounts off subsidised bills at polyclinics and specialist outpatient clinics should be its central features.
The additional components of both the Pioneer and Merdeka generation packages such as top-ups to PAssion Silver Cards, Medisave top-ups and other specific enhancements such as the participation incentive to join CareShield Life or other unmet healthcare needs, can turn on the fiscal position of the Government. This would also provide a sufficient buffer to allow each government to look into addressing more unique healthcare needs of specific cohorts or categories of workers. They would include those that had taken up gig-economy jobs, or for example, to address the CPF shortages of workers who made sacrifices when the Government moved to cut the employer contribution of their CPF in 2003 to keep Singapore economically competitive.
In addition, it is axiomatic that immigration is a permanent feature of Singapore for the foreseeable future. A permanent and universal senior citizen medical package would also represent a critical symbol of integration between all Singaporeans who hold the red passport and it would follow that the eligibility age into such permanent schemes should be dispensed with. This is particularly so as about 20,000 new citizens are added to the pool of Singaporeans on a yearly basis.
Mr Speaker, when Minister speaks of “developing our people on a lifelong basis”, this House should not underestimate the peace of mind a permanent and universal medical package can give not just to senior citizens above the age of 60, but to all Singaporeans throughout their lives. Indeed, to be constantly reminded that a covenant exists between state and citizen vowing to assist all Singaporeans equally with their medical needs in their silver years augurs well for a confident and assured society without compromising the work ethic.
This is especially so as living in a developed country with one of the highest per capita GDP in the world comes with costs, particularly for the sandwiched middle-class. As all Singaporeans commit their best years and pay taxes like the GST to the state throughout their working lives, a permanent package that helps our seniors manage their cost of living issues in their golden years will inject a powerful message of unity into Singaporeans of all ages. My colleagues Dr Daniel Goh, Mr Faisal Manap and Mr Dennis Tan will speak more on the Merdeka package in the course of this debate.
Secondly, I seek to share my views on Minister’s exhortation that the Government seeks to “not only take care of this generation but our children and their children’s generation.”
Mr Speaker, there is little to quarrel with such a statement. It coheres with the values many Singaporeans hold dear, regardless of race or religion. But looking after the next generation puts the question of inter-generational equity on the table. During the course of his speech, Minister confirmed the Government’s intention to pursue a differentiated fiscal strategy – one for major infrastructure investment and another for recurrent social and security spending. But this strategy also implies that there is a limit to how much the current generation should pay for the benefit of our children and their children too.
To this end, when speaking of specific infrastructure investments envisaged, Minister only spoke of funding Changi Airport’s expansion through borrowing, while speaking more generally about how the Government funded our first MRT line through borrowing as well. In comparison, at last year’s budget, four separate infrastructure prongs were highlighted (page 40), and these include the expansion of our MRT lines, regional redevelopment including the Jurong Lake District, Punggol Digital District, and Woodlands North Coast, the rejuvenation of our HDB flats and associated infrastructure and finally, Changi Airport T5, the Tuas Megaport and the now postponed HSR.
I have a few clarifications in this regard – first, can the Minister clarify if borrowing from the market for infrastructure development is only limited to Changi’s expansion or does it extend to the other long-term infrastructure plans shared by Minister last year? Secondly, and as a consequence, how will the differentiated approach announced this year impact future budgeting and more specifically revenue available for recurrent spending?
Mr Speaker, leaving a sustainable Singapore for our future generations would mean planning infrastructure for climate change and rising sea levels, a subject Minister Heng spent some time on.
At the Committee of Supply debate in 2016, I filed a cut on rising water levels and shared with members a video of waves breaching the foreshore along a beach at the East Coast Park, flooding the back shore. The prospect of raising our roads, port areas amongst others, sounds like a massive undertaking both in effort and expense particularly when one doesn’t just imagine raising road levels, but thinks about building kilometres of dykes and so forth. Minister shared that while it was difficult to project such spending, some preliminary estimates had been carried out – could Minister provide a sense of these estimates, the financing approach and the infrastructure required for this purpose?
Continuing on the effects of climate change, how little is recycled and how much food waste is generated in Singapore, it is apparent that the conversation Singaporeans need to have on conservation has to be elevated. This objective should be an explicit goal of the Waste Masterplan. I look forward to the Masterplan and hope Singaporeans are sufficiently moved to action by it. In fact, like the Government’s successful water story, closing the waste cycle would be a significant chapter of the Singapore story and provide a blueprint for other cities to consider.
Minister also mentioned in his speech that greening is an important public policy given our dense urban environment. A few weeks ago, Channel News Asia ran a one-hour documentary on the effect of rising temperatures in Singapore with an emphasis on not just climate change in general, but the perils of greater urbanisation identifying the urban heat island effect, with the loss of open areas and secondary forests like Tengah likely to have an immediate impact on the liveability in future. Researchers posited that greening, it and of itself, contributes little to mitigate the urban heat island effect. How does the Government and the upcoming URA Masterplan accommodate the drawbacks of greater urbanisation particularly rising temperatures, and how does it gel with our desire to leave a liveable Singapore behind for our children and their children’s children? If the Government is not finished building Singapore, how will it ensure that this effort will not come at the expense of our green spaces? I hope the Government addresses this matter clearly and actively welcomes a future where we place far greater emphasis on environmental impact assessments and its attendant social issues with a view to leave a sustainable Singapore for future generations of Singaporeans.
Finally Mr Speaker, Minister shared that the “changes ahead will be faster and deeper”.
In this regard the Bicentennial offers a unique opportunity to reflect on the colonial experience, both the good and the bad, the choices made, and where we are headed as a people. As Singaporeans of the Pioneer Generation grew up through the 1950s and as the Merdeka generation grew up in the years after self-government, the colonial masters in the UK had earlier taken a leap of faith, ambitious and bold even if imperfect – implementing a universal healthcare system for about 50m people as the flag of the empire was lowered across the colonies. The 50-odd years since decolonisation saw newly independent societies and governments fashioning their countries to improve the lives of their peoples. Not all succeeded to the same degree – the vast majority had to contend with extreme poverty and problems on a far greater scale and with a much larger population than Singapore’s.
As we move past the Bicentennial bonus and into unchartered terrain, our challenges will be far more unique and complex than before. The availability of good jobs for Singaporeans first, will be at the heart of many conversations. Employers and SMEs, many of whom have delivered phenomenal economic success to Singapore in the past, will have to adjust and effect real change at the workplace for the benefit of Singaporeans. This would include redesigning jobs for older and more experienced Singaporeans, more part-time or half-day or work from home opportunities so as to better support our workers from mothers to senior citizens and gig-economy workers. On its part, the Government must be prepared to do more to support businesses that do so with tax relief or rebates so that the economic transformation many businesses are undertaking is directly dovetailed to jobs for Singaporeans. My colleague, Workers’ Party Chair Sylvia Lim will speak more on the employment landscape tomorrow.
The faster and deeper changes premonitioned by the Minister would no doubt include the irreversible advance of the smart nation, the rapid evolution of technology and its disruptive and dislocative effects on jobs. But what this prospect also means is that Singaporeans must commit themselves to participate in so in civic affairs if we are to be united and strong. Mr Speaker, Singaporeans have been referred to as champion grumblers. I disagree. Singaporeans criticise because we care about the country, and we care about the direction it is headed. But we also care about ourselves and our families and friends and do not want to be short-changed.
A strong and united Singapore will not be built with some Singaporeans being made to feel that they must conform or support the Government’s narrative with little room for alternative views. This is a sure way of heralding not just a divided and insecure population, but a divisive conversation about the choices we have to make collectively.
Increasingly, as we move into the future, the Government will not have all the answers. Since the days of decolonisation, numerous countries have introduced some form of legalisation that promotes greater transparency and accountability. If fact, out of the 110 or so countries in the world today which host some form of a freedom of information law, about 80 introduced such legislation only in the last thirty years or so. While such laws are no panacea or silver bullet they are but one piece of a larger citizen-centric ecosystem, which move the needle forward on civic participation. If change is indeed going to be faster and deeper, then Singaporeans must be ready to become active participants of this process with the Government facilitating conversations by sharing more information. For example, insofar as the budget is concerned enough well-meaning Singaporeans do not just want to take the Government at its word, but want to crunch the numbers themselves and better understand policy trade-offs – but they are not necessarily able to do so today.
Last year, an article in the Business Times put this quandary in stark perspective – it was appropriately titled, “Lack of data on Singapore’s reserves limits discussion on its use”. With about 20% of our budget financed by proceeds from our reserves, one can understand why this issue is a relevant one. Mr Speaker, there are many well-meaning Singaporeans who want to consider different roads for Singapore, without losing sight of the hard truth of being country without any natural resources and with our human resource of fellow Singaporeans as the only substantive competitive advantage. The bicentennial offers us an opportunity to imagine the richness and breath of conversations about the Singapore we are entering into in the years to come – a Singapore that is not just economically successful, but socially and culturally confident too with Singaporeans of all stripes proud to call it home.
In conclusion Mr Speaker, many of the values that we hold dear – the importance of family, prudence, hard work and discipline are all-weather values and must stand the test of time. These values must run through whatever future we envision for our children’s generation, wherever the winds of Global-Asia lead us and wherever we lead them. They must stand the test of time even if change comes thick and fast. They are at the foundation of the Singapore we all want.
But each generation must also be given the freedom to shape the future they seek and to feel that they are an integral part of the country. The budget should reflect and facilitate this. The need for a confident population as opposed to an insecure one will be the “X” factor that determines how united and strong the Singapore of tomorrow will be – A confident population being one with more choices to determine its destiny; a society that accepts that it is only as strong as its weakest links and its most vulnerable; and a people – both employers and employees – all rooted to the Singapore that will always be home for us as we transit into our golden years.