SINGAPORE: Troubled by the arguments he has heard in recent days, on issues ranging from elderly suicides to Government reserves, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam has called out the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) and its chief for “willfully spreading fear and alarm”.
“I’m troubled because the way they are going about what they call policy proposals, is in fact the politics of spreading fear and alarm and the politics of populism,” said Mr Tharman, calling this the “wrong way” to advance Singapore’s democracy.
Speaking at the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) second and final rally of the Bukit Batok by-election, Mr Tharman prefaced his comments by noting that he had never been against a healthy Opposition in Parliament. In fact, he had encouraged the Opposition to stay active following the 2015 General Election.
But, he noted, he had been studying the SDP’s proposals in the last GE and this by-election, and was troubled. For instance, SDP chief Chee Soon Juan at one rally spoke about S$800 billion “gone missing from our reserves” and cited an academic.
“Absolute rubbish,” said Mr Tharman. “I know these theories and analyses. The Ministry of Finance has patiently addressed all of them, it's all on the Internet … Anyone can see it if they want.
“Dr Chee himself says, ‘I don't understand much of what I've just said'. Then why do you spread fear?”
Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Chan Chun Sing also said at the rally that Dr Chee wanted to give the impression that “we are cheating Singaporeans”. But the market was not stupid, he said.
“Why is Singapore one of 11 countries in world that has triple-A ratings from all three credit rating agencies?” he pointed out.
On the issue of jobs, Dr Chee had described the Government as having created only 100 jobs last year for Singaporeans. He was referring to data from the Manpower Ministry (MOM), which on Wednesday came out to say had been misunderstood by the SDP candidate.
Mr Tharman called Dr Chee’s claim “crazy”. “Have a sense of reality. If you’re on the ground you'd know people are losing jobs, we try and help them, we get them new jobs.”
The Employment and Employability Institute (e2i) and the Singapore Workforce Development Agency created 17,000 jobs, while the Economic Development Board alone added some 20,000 jobs last year, he said.
He added: “Either you don’t know, in which case do the homework - or you know and you’re willfully spreading fear and alarm. Bad, bad politics.”
MOM late Thursday said Dr Chee continued to misrepresent employment data after its clarification.
SPENDING ON ELDERLY WAS "LARGEST INCREASE IN BUDGET"
Dr Chee also knew “how to target emotions”, said Mr Tharman.
The SDP candidate had raised the issue of elderly suicides and portrayed the Government as heartless and uncaring. He also said he would keep raising the issue until the Government increased spending on the elderly.
“Where has he been? Look at what we've been doing in the last five to 10 years,” said Mr Tharman, citing the various schemes that included the Pioneer Generation Package, Community Health Assist Scheme, increased subsidies and more places in nursing homes and care services.
“Spending on elderly - it’s the largest increase in Government Budget compared to any other item, including defence. The largest increase,” he emphasised.
For each retiree household, this added up to about S$4,000 in benefits per retiree last year, after deducting taxes paid. This was “twice as much as” benefits received 10 years ago, after adjusting for inflation, said the Deputy Prime Minister.
"LAY OUT THE COST, DON’T BLUFF PEOPLE"
Mr Tharman also said it was the SDP’s style to engage in populist politics.
On the SDP’s healthcare policy proposal, Mr Tharman noted how the party talked about universal free or close-to-free healthcare. “They don't tell everyone at the rallies how much it will cost.”
While the SDP cites France as having a good system, it is also “extraordinarily expensive”, said Mr Tharman, with the ordinary person having to pay 20 per cent of his or her income in taxes “just for healthcare”.
This was equivalent to a median income earner in Singapore paying S$800 out of their S$4,000-a-month earnings for this benefit.
“So this is how we have to discuss policy, lay out the benefits, lay out the cost. Don't bluff people,” he said.
Similarly on the SDP’s proposal for unemployment insurance, if the day came that Singapore had high structural unemployment and had to consider it, “we have to be frank about the cost,” said Mr Tharman.
He noted how Dr Chee had mentioned the cost as a “small part” of one’s salary with the Government paying the rest.
Having read through the SDP’s research paper, Mr Tharman highlighted that this policy would cost S$2 billion “for all our Singaporean workers, that's about S$1,000 per year”.
“Tell people that's what it'll cost. And then we can discuss the best way to shape this policy,” he said.
"DON’T NEED TO AGREE WITH PAP TO GO FOR CONSENSUS"
Advancing Singapore’s democracy, Mr Tharman said, was “about developing a consensus in society”.
“We must never end up where the United States is today, and several western European countries, fragmented and divided,” he said.
“You don't need to agree with the PAP, but discuss things openly, tell people the truth,” he added. “Always go for a better consensus. That's how we advance democracy, that's the track I hope SDP gets on to.”
Should Mr Chee win at the polls this Saturday (May 7), Mr Tharman said he would wish him well. “If he loses, I’ll advise him to reflect and ask - how can things improve? This is his fifth constituency, what should change?”
Mr Tharman said the PAP’s candidate, Mr Murali Pillai, was precisely the kind of good man that residents could trust.
“You can trust Murali to serve you because it's you. Not because you're part of his political journey,” he told Bukit Batok voters at the rally.
“You can also trust him to help you when no one is looking, when the media is not around.”
"STEADY ROCK FOR BUKIT BATOK"
Mr Tharman cited the story of how, following the death of former Bukit Batok MP Ong Chit Chung in 2008, Mr Murali had rallied the team and given the community hope. For that he was nominated for the PAP’s highest award for activists.
“PM said yes … Murali said no. No award for me. That’s the man, no credit for himself. Give the credit to the whole team,” said Mr Tharman.
At the rally, other PAP colleagues raised a consistent refrain about Mr Murali’s qualities – he was committed, sincere, consistent, would deliver what he promises and mean what he says.
Ms Low Yen Ling, Mayor of South West Community Development Council, spoke of Mr Murali’s 16 years of committed service to the ward - that’s “one-third of his life” she noted - as a grassroots activist.
She described him as a “steady rock for Bukit Batok”. “What you know and see in Ah Mu is what you get,” she said, describing how he “cares deeply about people, especially the elderly, the less able and disadvantaged”.
She added that his “experience and deep knowledge of Bukit Batok will ensure a successful estate upgrading”. Jurong GRC MPs Rahayu Mahzam and Ang Wei Neng also spoke out for Mr Murali's clear vision and substantive programmes for Bukit Batok.
Minister Chan described Mr Murali as having “guts and gumption”, saying: “When he didn’t agree with me, he will tell it to my face.”
He also noted how, despite losing in Aljunied GRC in the last GE, Mr Murali continued to serve residents there over the last six months. “He means what he says. On the other hand, you can compare who has come before here, made all kinds of promises, never to be seen again until the next election,” he added.
"POLITICS NOT A CAREER BUT A CAUSE FOR ME"
Mr Murali meanwhile took the opportunity of his last rally to announce that having received feedback from residents, he would set up a Helping Hands Fund to render assistance to residents in the sandwiched middle class.
He went on to reiterate that he had strong programmes on the ground in Bukit Batok – not just those recently proposed, but also others that had been carried out over the years with volunteers and partners, such as a free legal clinic and bursaries for students.
Being under the Jurong-Clementi Town Council also made a “huge difference” in the implementation of programmes for Bukit Batok, he noted, as the town council had the capability, track record and economies of scale.
He added that residents did not need to worry “whether or not I will push hard for your interests in Parliament”. “Politics is not a career for me, it’s a cause. I will not be muzzled, and we must do more than the Government is doing in some areas,” he said, citing for instance his push to preserve Singaporean jobs.