SINGAPORE: Describing living costs in Singapore as the issue that deserves the “closest scrutiny”, the Workers’ Party’s (WP) secretary-general Pritam Singh on Monday (May 14) called on the Government to share more information about its “current estimates and underlying basis” for higher expenditure projections.
While the need for increased spending in areas like healthcare “is not unexpected” given the country’s ageing population, this information “needs to be shared so that the public are clear-eyed about the sufficiency of the Budget at the Government’s disposal to help Singaporeans with the cost of living today,” he said in Parliament.
The Aljunied GRC Member of Parliament was the first opposition MP to speak since the opening of the second session of the 13th Parliament. This was also Mr Singh’s first parliamentary speech since taking over Mr Low Thia Khiang as WP chief last month.
He devoted his speech to rising living costs in Singapore, noting that this is the issue that has dominated recent headlines and “deserves closest scrutiny for the remainder of the term and beyond”.
Mr Singh raised several examples, ranging from last year’s announcement of a hike in water prices, the planned increase in the Goods and Services Tax (GST), possible rises in public transport fares to concerns faced by young couples when planning for a family.
On the issue of likely increases in public transport fares on the back of a growing network capacity and ridership, Mr Singh noted that members of the public had questioned if the cost of running and improving the transport system should “just be seen through the eyes of fare revenue”.
Citing calls made to a local radio station, he said: “Many questioned if there ought to be some scope for other segments of SMRT’s business to subsidise train operations too, such as advertising and revenue from other investments, to lessen the effect of any fare increases on the general population.”
To that, Mr Singh added: “The question of the quantum of surpluses and prospect of alternate revenue streams in future surpluses of many government-linked companies and statutory boards to better cushion price hikes on Singaporeans needs to be looked at very closely and debated before prices go up."
In another example centred on the water price hike, Mr Singh asked how “future capital investments in water supply and transmission cohere with the large capital reserves” of PUB, Singapore’s national water agency. He added that PUB’s reserves have “increased consistently from around S$3 billion in 2007 to more than S$5 billion in 2016”.
“Getting into the details of such matters will represent the unique partnership with the people,” he said, adding that it will represent “bold leadership”.
“Such an approach will also come with an upshot. Price hikes are likely to be better understood and contextualised to the benefit of the policy discourse in Singapore,” he added.
Mr Singh also said that while Singapore's fourth-generation leadership is coming into power when expenditure will rise in concert with the changing demographics of Singapore, "that is only half the story".
Mr Singh said the inclusion of Temasek Holdings into the Net Investment Returns Contribution (NIRC) from 2016 has “also put more money, and by extension more political capital, in the hands of the current Government and 4G leaders than any generation of PAP leaders”.
“This is without having even to call on the President to unlock the reserves,” he added.
He cited how the overall Budget surplus for this term of Government for both FY2016 and FY2017, after taking into account transfers to endowments and trust funds, stands at S$15.7 billion.
“(This) could potentially cover two more Pioneer Generation packages of about S$8 billion dollars each, covering almost an additional one million more elderly and this is only taking into account the accumulated surplus out of two of the five years of this Government’s term.”
The “first and only draw-down” of the reserves in 2009 requiring Presidential approval amounted to just S$4.9 billion, he added.
“With S$15.7 billion in hand today, and given the putatively stable formula for NIRC withdrawals in spite of market fluctuations, the picture for the immediate future does not appear to be one of a Government needing money to stay afloat or needing to tax the population and as a result, raising the cost of living,” said Mr Singh.
“We are told more money is needed for healthcare and other areas in years to come. This is not unexpected given our demographic transition … but what are the Government’s current estimates and the underlying basis for its projections of higher expenditure coming on stream in the future?
“This information needs to be shared so that the public are clear-eyed about the sufficiency of the budget at the Government’s disposal to help Singaporeans with the cost of living today,” he emphasised.
GOVERNMENT SHOULD INVEST ENERGY TO ENGAGE, EXPLAIN: PRITAM SINGH
Referring to President Halimah Yacob’s address, Mr Singh noted that remarks referring to how the 4G leaders cannot take the people’s trust for granted, the need to resist temptation to avoid bold changes, and how the 4G leadership must fire up and mobilise the spirit of young Singaporeans “shone through” in particular.
But “one threat that binds these three directives is the ability and willingness to listen to the people”, he said.
Societal norms and political expectations of political leadership have evolved, Mr Singh added. He said that alternative views “will have to be addressed, and accommodated and considered thoughtfully”.
As such, the Government should not “close the door or resign itself to the politics of majoritarianism when a sensitive or difficult subject comes along”.
Instead, it should “invest a lot more energy to engage and explain”, said the opposition chief.
“If the approach of the 4G leaders is to ignore, silence or ridicule alternative ideas, they will fail to galvanise and spur all Singaporeans to greater heights. Or worse, they may even engender a divided society, rendering the message of inclusivity hollow and without substance,” he said.
“This would be an untenable outcome for the continued success of a small country like Singapore that needs to pursue innovation and excellence, and to conceive new ways of doing things with greater vigour than ever before.”
Lastly in his speech, Mr Singh acknowledged Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing’s tribute to Mr Low.
“The Workers' Party will always bear in mind the national interests in our deliberations and endeavour in the interest of Singaporeans and Singapore,” said Mr Singh.
MAKE CONVERSATIONAL MALAY PART OF PRIMARY SCHOOL CURRICULUM: CHEN SHOW MAO
Meanwhile, fellow Aljunied GRC MP Chen Show Mao said an increased focus in teaching the Malay language in local schools could help the Government attain the five priorities laid out in the President’s address.
He suggested making conversational Malay classes part of the local primary school syllabus to help all young Singaporeans to attain some basic level of proficiency and fluency in the language.
However, he stressed that this should be done without giving students the additional pressure of exams.
Being Singapore’s national language and a regional language, learning Bahasa Melayu will “protect and preserve (Singapore’s) multi-culturalism and promote national integration”, said Mr Chen.
It is “also important to securing (Singapore’s) future in the region and sharing of the growth of the region,” he added.