SINGAPORE: A "universal and permanent" healthcare package with "basic level of medical benefits" should be introduced instead of one-time packages like the Merdeka Package, said Workers' Party (WP) chief Pritam Singh in Parliament on Tuesday (Feb 26).
Mr Singh was responding to Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat's Budget statement, and said that he had received feedback from some senior citizens who missed out on a few years of medical benefits because of the year they were born.
"Similarly, senior citizens who missed out on the more substantial Pioneer Generation 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," the Aljunied MP said.
Mr Singh said there was "good reason" to believe that Singapore would be able to support such a healthcare package.
Since the incorporation of Temasek Holdings into the Net Investment Returns Contribution (NIRC) framework in 2016, the company has contributed a sizeable S$5 billion yearly.
This comes up to about S$25 billion across the five-year term, starting from the current term of Government, Mr Singh said.
The 35-odd per cent 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, Mr Singh said.
With new modes of development funding through borrowing announced by Mr Heng earlier this year, Mr Singh asked if revenue could be freed up to fund more 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," Mr Singh said.
Such a scheme should focus on alleviating out-of-pocket expenses for primary healthcare to address the cost of living for all Singaporeans from the age of 60.
"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," he added.
"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."
The Workers' Party on Tuesday also called on the Government to auto-enroll seniors into the Community Health Assist Scheme (CHAS) when they turn 60 years old.
Currently, only lower-income Singaporeans and those who come under the Pioneer Generation and Merdeka Generation packages get to enjoy CHAS benefits.
WP Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) Daniel Goh said that with those under the Pioneer and Merdeka Generation packages enjoying CHAS, a precedent has been created and there is now an expectation that future generations will be auto-enrolled into CHAS and receive outpatient subsidies when they reach their 60s.
"Future governments will be hard-pressed into denying future generations of this benefit, not just because of the political cost but also the sheer logic of the justification," Dr Goh said in Parliament.
"If the Pioneers had worked hard to make Singapore what it is today, if the Merdekas had worked hard so that Singapore stands tall and proud today, who is going to deny that subsequent generations also worked hard to contribute to building a Singapore for future generations?" Dr Goh added.
Mr Singh said that a scheme like that can also benefit Singaporeans under 60 and give them "peace of mind".
"As all Singaporeans commit their best years and pay taxes like the Goods and Services Tax 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," he said.
REVIEW CPF PAYOUT AGE, CONTRIBUTION RATES
To ensure retirement adequacy, Dr Goh asked if the Government would consider making tweaks to the Central Provident Fund (CPF) system by lowering the payout eligibility age from the current 65 years old to 60 years old.
This is so that Singaporeans have the option of an additional source of supplementary income, he said.
"Of course, if there is no need for CPF Life payouts to act as supplementary income, seniors should have the option and be encouraged to leave their monies in their CPF account to accumulate interest and get larger payouts later," Dr Goh said.
Dr Goh also called for the restoration of CPF contribution for older workers to help "strengthen their socio-economic well-being and age with independence".
Currently, CPF contribution rates by both employers and employees start at 17 and 20 per cent respectively for those under 55, and tapers off to 5 and 7.5 per cent for those above 65.
TAKING CARE OF THE FUTURE GENERATION
As Singapore moves into and beyond its bicentennial, Mr Singh said the challenges ahead 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, he added.
As such, the Government must be prepared to do more to support businesses as they go about redesigning jobs for older workers, offer more part-time, half-day or work from home opportunities for mothers, and help gig-economy workers.
This can be done through tax relief or rebates so that the economic transformation many businesses are undertaking is directly dovetailed to jobs for Singaporeans, Mr Singh said.
In his speech, Mr Singh sought to clarify whether borrowing from the market for ongoing and if upcoming infrastructure developments would impact the future generation.
These include the expansion of Singapore's MRT lines, regional development including the Jurong Lake District, Punggol Digital District, and Woodlands North Coast, the rejuvenation of Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats and its associated infrastructure, as well as Changi Airport Terminal 5, the Tuas Megaport and the now-postponed High-Speed Rail.
"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," Mr Singh said.
READ: Budget 2019: Building a 'strong, united Singapore'; Merdeka Generation Package, healthcare take spotlight
He asked if the borrowing is only limited to Changi's expansion or if it is extended to other long-term infrastructure plans, and whether the differentiated approach will impact future budgeting and more specifically, revenue available for recurrent spending.
Turning his attention to the future environmental challenges, Mr Singh asked if Mr Heng could share the estimates for the spending of infrastructure upgrades to tackle climate change and rising sea levels. This includes raising Singapore's roads and building flood prevention dykes against climate change and rising sea levels.
To get drivers to shift towards cleaner sources of energy, Minister Heng announced during Budget an increase in diesel fuel tax from S$0.10 to S$0.20 per litre.
NCMP Dennis Tan said that while there were positive responses to the announcement, he is concerned with whether these costs would be passed down to commuters and businesses. Diesel is the most common fuel for most taxis, public and private buses, delivery vans and other types of heavy vehicles.
"My concern is that while we care about environmental resiliency, we may be doing this at the expense of economic resiliency," Mr Tan said.
He added that while road tax rebates may help, these are "short-term measures" and ultimately operators will face the full effect of the price increase on their businesses.
EMPOWERING CIVIC PARTICIPATION
Mr Singh, in his speech, said that 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," Mr Singh added.
READ: Living costs deserve ‘closest scrutiny’; share information about Government spending: Pritam Singh
To facilitate conversation, the Government could share more information through some form of freedom of information law which is present in about 80 countries in the world, he said.
"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," Mr Singh said.
"The bicentennial offers us an opportunity to imagine the richness and breadth 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."