We must ensure growth for all, not for the favoured few. We do not need blind economic growth, we need compassionate growth.
For a long time, the People’s Action Party government drove growth without paying sufficient attention to the adverse implications of increasing income inequality that most especially affects our poor, elderly and disabled.
In this Budget, the Finance Minister course corrected to ensure that our poor, elderly and disabled are not stuck in isolated pockets of poverty in our island of prosperity.
The Worker’s Party believes we can do more to ensure greater cohesiveness as a nation.
Empowering our poor
For the poor, the budget takes a right step in emphasizing the importance of social mobility. Our income inequality has grown rapidly; the rich have more resources to get ahead, which endangers social mobility. If not addressed, there would be two Singapores: One for the mobile and rich, and the other for the immobile and poor.
Let us all agree to never allow the formation of a permanent underclass. I am sure all in this House are affected when hardworking Singaporeans in rental housing share how they are struggling to pay bills, their spouses are in prison, and believing that their child attaining a polytechnic diploma or university degree is a pipe dream. Sadly, I have met many of these mothers.
To raise wages for our poor, all of us have to play a role. The Finance Minister is right by imploring us to bring back respect to our waiters, cooks, chambermaids, crane operators, construction tradesmen and factory operators. These are hard working Singaporeans forming the bedrock of our economy, allowing many others to work in higher income jobs.
The incentive of business owners is to lower cost, and hiring low cost foreign workers is the path of least resistance. However, compassionate growth means we have to bite the bullet to improve productivity by being wise about number of foreign workers invited into Singapore.
Continuous education and training (CET) has to improve the productivity of our workers to command higher wages. However, are there more success stories such as the private security industry? Even for that industry, will it remain a low wage sector despite some improvement in wages?
The Workforce Development Agency should share more details with the public about the impact from its substantial training investment, especially how these have benefited our lower skilled and low-income workers.
Securing our senior citizens
Our elderly built the Singapore we have the privilege to enjoy. Many had raised, cared and sacrificed for us. Let’s honour them with a dignified life.
The Special Employment Credit and raising CPF rates are encouraging steps for older workers.
However, affordable health care is at the top of the minds for our seniors, especially those in the lower to middle income groups. This Budget acknowledges that affordable long term care is the government’s responsibility, but we must do more.
Mr Inderjit Singh before me shared how Singapore’s total expenditure on healthcare as a % of GDP was far lower than international standards. More importantly, the government or public expenditure on healthcare is also far lower than elsewhere. Singapore’s government expenditure on healthcare is about 1.6% of GDP; nearly 4 times lower than the 6.1% global average in 2009 (World Health Organization). In addition, the Singapore government’s contribution to total health care expenditure has fallen from 51% in 1995 to 41% in 2009. This is much lower than over 60% in many other middle and high income countries.
Therefore, the government is rightly catching up by doubling yearly healthcare expenditure from $4 billion to $8 billion over the next five years. However, this may work out to an end point of 2+% of GDP after 5 years, which is still much lower than the 6% global average.
I affirm the government focus in addressing the unaffordability of intermediate and long term care. We know that Medisave, Medishield and Medifund provide only limited coverage for long term care which involves recurring expenses over an extended period of time. Unfortunately, the government had taken the back seat and pushed VWOs (voluntary welfare organisations) and commercial providers to take the lead in providing long term care.
Many organisations had to raise charity dollars to subsidize bills of patients so that their families could afford care. Affected family members have been under financial strain due to substantial monthly nursing home bills. Some resorted to placing their elderly family members in institutions at Johor Bahru. This situation is untenable.
We must do more.
We must ensure that the long term care subsidies factor in medical inflation. Tower Watson, a professional service firm, found that Singapore experienced 8.4% medical cost inflation in 2011, higher than national inflation and wage growth. The higher growth of medical inflation is a worldwide trend.
We must also explore how we can leverage on social risk-pooling to meet the high costs of long term care. For a start, how can Eldershield insurance be expanded to help foot the cost of step down care?
Our current Eldershield payout provides minimal coverage for long term care needs. Viable insurance for long term care will require higher premiums that may not be affordable for the less well-off. The government should study having better insurance coverage for long term care, and help Singaporeans pay or co-pay the higher premiums which will be needed.
We must also rebalance the need for family responsibility in our approach towards health care financing.
I agree that family must be the first line of support, but many of us will not agree that all the children must deplete their Medisave accounts to pay for their elderly parents’ medical bills before the government intervenes. Given the longer life spans now, it has been noted that having a 60 year old withdraw his Medisave savings to pay the bill of an 85 year old parent is a reality in Singapore. Is this sustainable? This may in fact entrench intergenerational poverty, which would be more costly to society in the long run.
Integrating our disabled
Our nation’s cohesiveness is also reflected in how we care for the less fortunate, especially the disabled. We must help to integrate the 3 of out 100 Singaporeans who are affected by disabilities.
Besides financial measures, can we do more to etch into the national consciousness that the disabled are one of us, with their hopes and dreams?
Can we teach children from a young age that the disabled are part and parcel of our society? For example, how far do our school textbooks and children’s TV programs include disabled characters?
Dare we consider incorporating disability as one of the admission factors for our institutions of higher learning, to recognize the more difficult circumstance disabled Singaporeans have to overcome?
Staying the course
One of the great American Presidents, Franklin Roosevelt, in the depth of the Great Depression said this:
“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”
We must have compassionate growth.
We must be in the same ship. We must not be in separate boats where the rising tide of growth lifts some so high while others sink.
The Workers’ Party will work with the government to build a more just, more equal and more caring society; because our nation cannot prosper if only the prosperous prosper.