Budget 2024 Speech – by He Ting Ru

Budget Debate Speech – 27th February 2024

He Ting Ru

Mr Speaker

The title of this year’s budget statement, “Building our shared future together”, is one which all of us should strive for. In the Workers’ Party 2020 manifesto, “A Singapore For All”, we outlined our vision for a Singapore which has a place for each and every one of us. It is a positive development that we have agreement across the aisle for ideas such as supporting involuntarily redundant workers financially through a difficult period as they look to find their feet again. As a nation, we should be proud to see such good policies come to fruition because they work towards making sure that everyone benefits from our nation’s progress. 

To take the next step forward in Singapore’s development, we should work on an expanded vision of progress. And this vision can only truly and meaningfully be expanded if we have trust. In other words, we need to trust others with different views from us, that they too are acting in good faith, even though they may differ in perspective. In particular, apart from asking people to trust our public institutions, ask ourselves if we trust our people? If not, why not? How do we work to ensure that trust is a two-way street?

I will highlight some examples showing how trust is not yet a two-way street in Singapore, and try to explain why and how we should make it a two-way street. The second half of my speech will speak of how we measure the dividends we will reap if we achieve this mutual trust. And I will set out what this expanded vision of progress could look like.

First, what does the public know, and what SHOULD the public know. The yearly revenue and expenditure estimates is a good place to start. This year, military expenditure is a single line $19B expenditure without further breakdown despite making up 17% of the Budget. While official secrets are a concern whenever we talk about our military, is there really no middle ground in offering detail on this expenditure? Likewise in the case of Police expenditures contained in the estimates, where projects named Arapaima and Aegis are allocated hundreds of millions of dollars each but the public are not provided even a one-line description. How does one debate whether this spending is economic, efficient, effective or even enough? 

Furthermore, with the Enterprise Support Package and myriad other schemes announced in the Budget, would there be publicly available targets published as to how many firms are reached, how the money is being put to use? How does the public know if schemes such as these, which spend out of the public purse, are successful? Do we measure policy success by how much is spent, or is success a measure of its outcomes?

The Workers’ Party called for the creation of an independent parliamentary Budget office 3 years ago, but what is more fundamental is the willingness to publish details. In 2012, then DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam said “trust and transparency are two different parts of a system of accountability.” While there are admittedly security concerns which means full transparency is not always possible, the solutions that the Workers’ Party has brought up in the past like the independent Budget office, disclosing more information to standing select committee members with secrecy safeguards, can help negotiate this often difficult balance. The government needs to err on the side of transparency, publishing as much as is available, and it needs to agree to publish what is asked for, balanced against security interests. Legal instruments such formal ‘right to know’ legislation will help define what can or cannot be published.

But the right to know is not accountability for accountability’s sake. It helps us have debates in good faith. If the government sees that it is already being accountable, then it debates with different views in good faith, which is the second point I would like to make.  

With the Gini coefficient, for example, the government has said that there is less inequality than other countries in the OECD before taxes and transfers. But does this feel like the case when we speak to our residents? And if not, why? Perhaps it is because Singapore’s Gini coefficient cites income from work, while OECD countries count income from all sources. And commentators have also pointed out that Household Expenditure Survey data have shown that income from non-work sources has been increasing in Singapore.

Or perhaps it is because Singapore’s Gini coefficient covers only citizens and PRs unlike other countries, and does not reflect that much of our essential but lower-paid blue collar work is performed by our total foreign workforce of 1.5M individuals. With over 1 in 4 Singaporeans marrying non-residents, some of these workers are also integral parts of our families here in Singapore.

But perhaps a more significant contributor to this feeling is that there is another way of looking at our wealth, namely wealth inequality. UBS’ Global Wealth Report indicates that Singapore’s wealth inequality in 2022 is 78.8, substantially higher than Taiwan’s 69.8, Korea’s 67.9, and Japan’s 65. The OECD also states that we need to use a different measure to measure wealth inequality, and I believe that this applies here. However, data on the distribution of household wealth is not easy to come by. 

The Government previously said in 2018 that its Gini coefficient calculation needs to reflect “the full range of Government policy interventions that are unique to the Singapore context.” This is broadly true. Singapore does have unique policy interventions given its small size and open economy. But this rationale, this focus on insisting there is a “right context”, should not be a justification to block publication of data that people would like to see.

Trust is a two-way street. And the lack of trust from the government in not providing data to debate certain topics will breed distrust in it in some quarters. On tackling inequality, aside from what specialists with an economics background tell us, I can only express what my constituents say and feel. If the public sees a gap in the information, then public agencies should fill the gap with correct information, rather than say that there is no need to fill that gap.

My third point is that the government should properly trust citizens to co-create. Forward Singapore is a good start. 

But we can take reference from the concept of Citizens’ Assemblies. A well-known example of this is in Ireland, where the Irish Parliament, the Oireachtas (EH-rək-təs), established the Citizens’ Assembly in 2016 to deliberate several socially contentious issues. 99 citizens demographically suited to representing Ireland’s electorate were chosen to deliberate the issues, with experts also brought into the forum to provide testimony and discuss case studies. Its findings on abortion helped inform a referendum on the issue, with some praising the process for being depoliticised, bringing logic to a divisive issue, and providing a space for listening, understanding, and empathy to differing opinions.   

Future exercises similar to Forward Singapore can thus bring in independent expert testimony to provide evidence to participants, and these experts can, and should, have conflicting views. Exercises could then be designed to accurately reflect Singapore’s demographics. Just as importantly, the Government should take up the task of responding directly to the findings and explaining what recommendations it would sign into policy and which it would not. There should be a periodic independent public review of the extent to which goals set out in such exercises have been met.

It is only with building our trust in the public, can we meaningfully move forward to build a shared future TOGETHER, which means proper transparency and accountability. And to bolster this, we need to properly measure our progress, and to measure things that matter to us. For many years, both within this House and without, we have heard proposals for how important it is to measure how our country is doing beyond GDP. However, periodic reassurances during Budget, election and national conversation times that we are looking at Singapore’s other factors of development apart from GDP are not enough. Measuring progress beyond GDP has to be part of our DNA. We must regularly quantify, measure and publish details on how we are doing, and to ask that our policies formally consider the impact that they are having on these indicators, and whether or not our various policies and initiatives are successful in improving our collective well-being. 

I would therefore like to reiterate the call I made two years ago for Singapore to have a dashboard with measurements of how we are doing beyond GDP measurements. This is already not a new idea, and we can take a leaf out of New Zealand’s Living Standards Framework dashboard. The New Zealand Treasury publishes details about the measurement tool used to inform ministries on priorities for informing well-being, and it is fully disclosed to the public for transparency. The indicators show trends over time, distribution across population sub-groups, and importantly give Kiwis a direct chance to view how their government is doing in improving their country’s well-being.

While the specific details of what should be included in Singapore’s dashboard would be subject to input from public bodies and the wider community, I believe the key areas that should be covered include: the measurement of unpaid work, natural resource use (specifically our people), externality costs in the form of our environmental sustainability footprint, leisure value, and our collective and individual well-being. 

Earlier this month during the motion to debate mental health, I had spoken about our collective and individual well-being and what we can do to develop our strengths to protect against ill mental health and to promote flourishing. I had also in 2022 spoken about issues relating to our environmental footprint. Thus I will focus today on the areas of unpaid work and investing in our people. 

First, unpaid work, that is, work which does not receive direct remuneration but which nevertheless has an impact on our economy. This is usually broadly divided into informal care and domestic work, unpaid reproductive labour, and voluntary work. For informal care in particular, the Forward Singapore Report states that the Government will give more assurance that Singaporeans will be taken care of. This is particularly important to properly understand the often unpaid and unsung work and needs of our carers, who are already delivering on our nation’s Collective Responsibility.

In 2020, I called for, amongst others, time-use surveys to be conducted to better understand the work being done by our informal carers. Since then, NCSS has published a survey in 2022 which aimed to better understand issues surrounding quality of life for carers. This comes after the 2013 survey of informal caregiving in Singapore. While it is good that we are paying attention to the topic by having periodic in-depth surveys on specific issues relating to the provision of informal care, what these surveys do not contain is a regular and easily quantifiable measure of the contribution that is being made to our society and also indirectly to the economy. Various academic papers have pointed out that the lack of a measurement of the total value of informal caregiving in Singapore makes it challenging to inform and guide public policy, although a 2021 Duke NUS team estimated an annual cost of caregiving time of between $2.5 – $3.5 billion in informal care being provided for seniors aged 75 and above who need human assistance with daily activities. This is clearly a non-trivial amount. 

Additionally, the Forward Singapore report also lists a variety of ways and means which policy can better support informal carers, such as enhancing parental and infant care leave, allow more flexible work arrangements, and also financial support in the form of the Home Caregiving Grant and defraying early intervention costs for families with special needs children. What strikes me  is that many of these policies have an underlying assumption that informal carers want to and are able to stay in some form of paid work as much as possible. 

Likewise, there is also little public information to measure the amount of unpaid domestic labour and voluntary work being undertaken in Singapore, to formally acknowledge and incorporate the contributions that are being made to the nation. Measuring the value of voluntary work was a call made by a 21 year old undergraduate in the Forum pages, in order to, I quote – ‘give a fuller picture of how our economy is performing’. 

Having an annual figure of measuring unpaid work would also allow us to directly see if there are any effects that external shocks and events have. For example, whether and how the amount of informal care is affected by an economic downtown, which segments of the population are more affected by it, and to allow the public to measure on a regular basis the impact that our policies are having to support unpaid work. 

Moving to our people – our only natural resource. This is another way of measuring how much we value and consequently invest in our citizens. The New Zealand LSF measures this as an integral part of the Wealth of the nation in the form of ‘Human capability’, defined as knowledge, physical and mental health and cultural capability. It includes educational indicators as well as measurements of not just life but healthy life expectancy. 

In line with an increasingly VUCA world (that is, more volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity), there is now rightfully more emphasis on lifelong learning. And the enhancements to the SkillsFuture ‘movement’ are undoubtedly welcome for those who are considering pursuing mid-life or mid-career training. Increasingly, we are also hearing about how paper qualifications should and will become increasingly obsolete. However, I hope that policies to encourage ongoing training should not inadvertently perpetuate an emphasis on paper qualifications. 

Additionally, I hope that the SkillsFuture framework continues to work towards being more attractive and inclusive for Singaporeans across a broad spectrum. It is clearly an area which needs more work, as can be seen by utilisation rates of around 50% in 2022. In short, we have to address structural barriers that may be preventing Singaporeans from making use of the scheme. 

After all, many workers have cited issues such as the lack of time and opportunity costs associated with attending classes, and have expressed reservations about forfeiting annual leave entitlements or the need to forgo hourly wages to do so. Calls such as those made by NTUC for paid learning leave can go some way to addressing these structural impediments to workers taking up useful training programmes 

Additionally, there have been concerns raised about the inclusivity of SkillsFuture courses raised by NGOs such as the Disabled People’s Association, which ask that more be done to get training providers to provide reasonable accommodations to enable persons with disabilities to attend courses. There are also reservations about having courses exclusively catered to PWDs, which many in the community feel may be well-meaning but are ultimately exclusionary. 

Finally, I hope that priority will be given to sectors and areas where our social needs are strongest, when it comes to deciding where the $4,000 top-up SFCs can be spent, rather than focus only on industries seen to have strong economic growth potential. This would include care skills and training programmes in the wake of the accelerating needs of our ageing population, and also training in the fields of mental health such as psychology, psychotherapy, counselling and towards building a sustainable and strong contingent of the newly announced family coaches who MSF will deploy to work with vulnerable households. 

To conclude, I hope that more than half a century of nation building means that we have now arrived at a stage where a diversity of views has a place in our society, and that respectful disagreement is a hallmark of trust that is a two-way street. Greater transparency and more meaningful, in-depth discussion may mean that we take a more deliberative approach to public policy, which in turn should be seen as a means to improve. It is this approach to transparency and accountability, together with measuring our progress beyond GDP, that will ultimately help better inform our public policy debates and co-creation.