SINGAPORE: Addressing Parliament on day two of the Budget debate, Workers’ Party chairman Sylvia Lim urged the Government to delve deeper into the sources of inequality in Singapore, saying the issue is a threat to the solidarity of the nation.
The first of her fellow opposition members to speak on Wednesday (Feb 28), Ms Lim questioned, after all the initiatives by the Government throughout the years to mitigate inequality, how much it really knows about its successes in reducing inequality and how much more needs to be done.
She said Singapore’s Gini coefficient, which highlight’s a country’s income distribution, stood at 0.459 before Government transfers in 2017, and 0.402 after transfers. Quoting Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s words in January, Ms Lim said while this is an improvement from 2013, it is still higher than many developed countries.
Other data also point to high levels of income inequality in Singapore, Ms Lim said. Beyond numbers, Ms Lim said this level of inequality is affecting poorer Singaporeans in their daily lives.
“While better off parents are busy at weekends sending children from one enrichment activity to another, poorer parents ... spend it working and worrying about whether their unsupervised children will fall into bad company,” Ms Lim said.
“Many of our lower-income residents work hard and even (hold) two jobs, but may still be unable to pay their bills."
She said there are serious questions that deserve serious study, such as whether the situation that poorer Singaporeans find themselves in is “due to their lack of ambition or talent or does the system itself inadvertently make it difficult for them to succeed and thus perpetuate inequality?”
“Does our education system penalise those who did not have a leg up in pre-school? Do housing policies unjustly discriminate against those whose marriages failed? How have children been impacted by their parents' circumstances and were they supported or facilitated to break out of the poverty trap?”
Ms Lim questioned if the Government had commissioned independent studies on social mobility using longitudinal data, based on a 2013 announcement that it would do so.
“Why is it so important to show commitment to a goal of reducing inequality and increasing social mobility? Because it is vital to our very existence as a nation.”
“We recite words of our Pledge daily. How can we say these things about justice and equality … happiness, prosperity and progress for the nation, if we are perpetuating a society in which citizens are not equal, where some are seemingly having little hope and doomed for failure while others zoom ahead?”
REVIEW MEDICAL INSURANCE SCHEMES TO BE MORE EQUITABLE
Still focusing on inequality, Ms Lim gave the example of some practices in the healthcare industry that may inadvertently perpetuate inequality of access. She said that MediShield Life, which is the Government’s insurance scheme for hospital bills, “understandably” has deductibles and co-insurance to avoid overconsumption.
But she pointed out discrepancies in the scheme in which “the most senior of people, aged 81 and above, who have the least income and the most health problems have to foot bills with higher deductibles before MediShield Life will kick in”.
Ms Lim noted that the annual deductible for a person aged 80 and below is between S$1,500 and S$2,000, while the annual deductible for those aged 81 and above is between S$2,000 and S$3,000.
“Has the Government analysed how this increased deductible has affected the consumption and delivery of medical services to our most senior citizens?”
“Premiums are already higher for older people. Why are deductibles also higher when in general, the older people have less financial ability to pay? Why this reverse discrimination for our older citizens?”
Ms Lim also touched on the differences between the coverage of private insurance plans with that of MediShield Life. She said some insurance policies provide full coverage for hospitalisation bills and pay for surgeries as long as it is done as a day surgery or if the patient stays at the hospital.
Such policies also do not require a patient to pay any deductible or copayment. Ms Lim asked if the Government has studied the effect of full coverage policy and its implications on patients, such as unnecessary surgeries or a waste of resources.
“When a person has to undergo a minor surgery, which can be done at an outpatient clinic, does he choose instead to do it as a day surgery or an inpatient in a hospital so as to be able to tap on the insurance policy for full coverage?”
She also urged regulators to direct their attention to this issue, saying there should be deductibles and copayments for all medical insurance schemes.
GIVE PRIORITY TO ELDERLY CARE IN POLICIES: DENNIS TAN
Non-constituency MP Dennis Tan spoke about the Government’s enhancement to the Proximity Housing Grant, saying he was glad it had now been extended to singles. But he pointed out that while it is good that the Government recognises that singles are often a key source of caregiving support for their elderly parents, in some cases, they may also end up taking a “larger role in caregiving support” than their married siblings.
Mr Tan urged the Government to consider providing them an equal grant as married couples under the scheme.
“Ultimately when you make things easier for the caregiver, single or otherwise, the ultimate beneficiary is or are the elderly parents of the caregiver,” Mr Tan said.
“We should always take care that our policies, however well-intentioned they are, do not become too rigid that it becomes a burden or a source of stress for our elderly and seniors or their caregivers.”
Mr Tan also brought up recent changes to the Foreign Domestic Worker (FDW) scheme, where the levy for a second helper without levy concession will go up to S$450 - from the current S$265.
He said there might be some households which employ two helpers while their adult children are at work: One to care for elderly parents, who may be bedridden or require constant care, while another handles the housework.
He asked if the levy increase can be exercised more equitably in favour of families needing two helpers.
“Can the Government not distinguish the example I mentioned from the situation of say a wealthy family living in a big house requiring more than one FDW?” Mr Tan said.
“Again, I hope the Government will regard enhancing elderly care efforts in priority to other considerations on this issue.”