SINGAPORE: Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh on Wednesday (Sep 2) debated with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong over the use and size of Singapore's reserves, as well as the reasons Singaporeans vote for opposition parties.
During his speech, Mr Lee spoke about Singapore's response to COVID-19 and life beyond the pandemic, touching on the issue of social safety nets and keeping programmes fiscally sustainable.
“As a matter of principle, our social safety nets should be paid for out of current revenues. We should not draw down on what we have inherited, nor should we mortgage the future of our children,” he said.
Mr Lee also criticised the opposition for having the “attitude of inheritors who think they have come into a fortune".
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“Now the opposition says: 'Show me how much we have in the reserves, before I decide whether to support your Budget and tax plans' ... Basically they are asking: 'I have something in the bank already. How much of that can I touch?'” he said.
“This was not the attitude of our forefathers, the founders who were building for the future. But the attitude of inheritors who think they have come into a fortune, and want to consume the fruits of their predecessors’ labours.”
In response, Mr Singh said it was important that he clarified the framing of the opposition’s suggestions when it asked about Singapore's reserves.
“When we talk about the reserves, we are not talking about raiding them. It's about slowing the growth slope of the reserves, so the principal is not touched," said Mr Singh.
“And there is nothing unusual about this, because the PAP do it too. How so? In 2016, this House, including members of the Workers Party (WP), we agreed to include Temasek in the NIRC formula. Does that not reduce the growth of the reserves? It does."
“So the argument cannot be that when the opposition tries to put that proposal forward, somehow we are engaging in some sort of chicanery to steal what previous generations have toiled and perspired over to bring us here,” added the Workers' Party (WP) chief, in the debate that was broadcast "live".
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He said the opposition has asked about reserves because they are "looking for alternatives to better consider the welfare of Singaporeans”. Parliament provides them the "opportunity to do so".
In response to Mr Singh’s statements about reserves, Mr Lee said that he was not arguing about the “technicalities of percentages, draw downs and NIRC”.
"We do draw from the rainy day fund a certain stream of income to spend," explained Mr Lee.
"We thought this over carefully, we debated this in the House, we agreed upon a rule, which we felt was a fair distribution between our present and future generations which is that of the expected earnings, half will be taken to spend, half will go back and be reinvested and will be for the future."
He suggested that the "fundamental mindset" should be that Singapore pays its way forward.
"And we do not depend on another little bit from the reserves, another little bit from the reserves, another little bit from the reserves each time,” said Mr Lee.
Singapore should be thinking for the future and the next generation, to help to "provide for them". This is the mindset that has brought Singapore thus far, and will "serve our children and grandchildren well", he added.
Later in the debate, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat said that as someone who has been directly involved in using the reserves twice - during the Global Financial Crisis and COVID-19 pandemic - he is grateful to the country’s founders’ approach towards the reserves.
He compared Singapore’s ability to draw S$52 billion from the reserves to tackle the COVID-19 crisis to how other countries have to borrow to bankroll their stimulus packages.
“A lot of them have funded it through borrowing and somebody has to pay for those borrowing. Who? Future generations,” Mr Heng said.
Because of the reserves, Mr Heng and his team could “focus fully on what would best serve the interest of Singaporeans” and he did not have to worry about the terms he might otherwise have had to negotiate with lenders and how the loans will be repaid.
OPPOSITION VOTERS ARE ‘FREE RIDERS’?
Mr Singh also questioned what Mr Lee said in his speech about Singaporeans voting for the opposition while expecting the incumbent People’s Action Party (PAP) to remain in power.
Mr Lee said in his speech that the WP had campaigned on this platform, before citing an anecdote told to him by Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean, who said a resident was “perturbed” because her friends told her it was fine to vote for the opposition because "the Government would still be in charge".
“If you say vote against the Government because somebody else will look after getting the PAP Government and you just become a free rider, and you vote opposition, no harm, the PAP will still be there, then I think the system must fail," Mr Lee said in his speech.
"Because the system can only work if people vote sincerely, honestly, in accordance with what they really want, and to produce the result, which matches their true intentions, and if they vote tactically, the consequences must be one day, they will get the result, which they mark the x for, but which they did not intend."
He said this was the wrong thing to "teach people".
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Mr Singh said people who voted for the opposition are not "free riders".
“I don't think the residents of Aljunied, Hougang for 30 years now, and even Sengkang, as a result of the results of the last election, would appreciate being called free riders,” he said.
"We are not just doing nothing, having been voted in. We are not just letting the other guy, the government of the day, do something," Mr Singh added.
"We've got to do what we have to do, we got to run the town council which is why Mr Lee Kuan Yew conceived of the town councils in the first place. Because if you want to move forward in the system as an opposition member of parliament, you’ve got to prove your worth in the town council."
Those who voted for the opposition did so because they "know an opposition in Parliament is ultimately good" for Singapore.
In response, Mr Lee said he did not undervalue Mr Singh's "motivations, his passion, his desire to do right by Singapore".
"I think it is good for Singapore that you have honest people in the opposition, people who believe in what they are trying to do. People who will stand up and fight for their ideals and, from time to time, disagree very strongly with the government. I think that is entirely reasonable," said the Prime Minister.
He said it was also good to have an opposition who takes town council responsibilities seriously and who look after their constituencies "assiduously, conscientiously".
“But if you say, vote for me, somebody else will vote for the PAP, and therefore the PAP will be the Government, that the economists will call a free rider. It means that you are taking advantage of somebody else who is doing their duty of electing a government for the nation,” Mr Lee said.
If everyone takes that attitude, voters will end up with a government they do not want, he added.
NCMP Leong Mun Wai said that some citizens knew they could vote for the opposition because the PAP controls the vast majority of seats in Parliament.
“In the process of the last one year, when I interacted with (voters) ... I felt that Singaporean voters are really, really very smart. They know how to control the process,” said Progress Singapore Party’s Mr Leong.
“There is no question that at the moment, everybody wants the present Government to continue, but that doesn’t mean if going forward the performance of the Government does not improve, the electorate is going to sit by, okay, but that is going to be very, very long down the road," he added.
In response, Mr Lee said that Mr Leong’s argument did not add anything new to the debate and rather “reinforced the problem” he just described.