SINGAPORE: Workers’ Party (WP) chief Pritam Singh on Friday (Feb 28) called for the Government to make public the projections on revenue and expenditure so that Singaporeans can judge the need for a GST increase.
He also reiterated the opposition party's position against the increase, as he spoke in Parliament during the Budget debate.
Mr Singh noted how Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat had said in his Budget speech that the Government put off a planned GST hike until after 2021 after reviewing the revenue and expenditure projections.
In his 2018 Budget speech, Mr Heng - who is also Finance Minister - had said that the GST would be increased to 9 per cent sometime between 2021 and 2025 to raise revenue to meet Singapore's growing recurrent spending, particularly for healthcare.
However, in this year's speech, Mr Heng said the hike would not happen in 2021.
WP had objected to the GST hike in 2018 on account of a lack of information about alternate revenue streams, among other things, Mr Singh said. Mr Heng's position at the time was that "one did not need to have information on everything to make a decision on anything", Mr Singh added.
However, Mr Singh noted that from Mr Heng’s announcement not to raise the GST next year, “it is obvious that the Government relies on revenue and expenditure projections to make this decision”.
“Would the Government make public these projections so that Singaporeans can critically evaluate the necessity of a GST hike?” Mr Singh asked.
“I believe this openness would contribute to a more substantive conversation and understanding of our fiscal trade-offs. This can only advance and mature conversations that take place in Singapore.”
The WP position has not changed, he said.
“We cannot support the GST hike, especially since the tax is to be raised in advance and before the Government projections have been put to this House,” he said.
Notwithstanding the offsets announced, the GST is a regressive tax that will hit the low and middle-income retirees seniors particularly hard as they would have to manage their expenditure more frugally because offsets do not last forever particularly for the middle class, he added.
QUESTIONS OF TRANSPARENCY ON RESERVES
Mr Singh also noted that the package to support the economy in light of COVID-19 was not drawing on country’s reserves, unlike the support package during the global financial crisis about a decade ago.
He questioned the lack of transparency on the reserves and said that a previous reply by Mr Heng about why the dollar value of the reserves could not be disclosed remained "unsatisfactory", particularly when the same argument could apply to an overwhelming majority of other democratic societies who nonetheless err on the side of fiscal scrutiny and accountability.
Mr Singh also pointed to media reports showing that Singaporeans wanted a greater discussion on the reserves.
“These calls for greater transparency are not out of place and they will continue in years to come. They run in parallel with the Singapore Together spirit, with Singaporeans taking ownership, exploring fiscal solutions, seeking to co-create not just today’s Singapore, but a sustainable and equitable tomorrow that future generations of Singaporeans will inherit,” he said.
TRACKING OUTCOMES OF SKILLSFUTURE
While the WP supports the move, Mr Singh also urged the Government to track closely the use of SkillsFuture special credit top-ups for Singaporeans between the ages of 40 and 60 with regards to job and employability-related outcomes.
Speaking generally about the SkillsFuture scheme, he also said that it "does not bode well" if taxpayers' money is spent on courses that are under-weighted in terms of real skills improvement, job prospects and employability of workers, in view of the workplace disruptions to come.
“An audit of the courses our people are taking up, particularly younger and middle-aged Singaporeans must be reviewed every so often in consultation with input from the Industry Transformation Maps stakeholders so as to even as the best outcomes possible for our workers in the medium term,” he said.
STRONGER CLIMATE CHANGE-RELATED INCENTIVES
Mr Singh said he expected some strong incentives or subsidies in this year’s Budget on climate change outcomes, particularly in the aftermath of the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources’ (MEWR’s) efforts towards greater climate change awareness over the last few years.
“To this end, I would urge the Government to move more decisively to incentivise changing behavioural norms to reduce the overuse of plastic bags,” he said.
He gave the example of giving a transitional subsidy of S$20 to households to subsidise the purchase of plastic bags, which could be considered as a bridge for Singaporeans before a charge is levied for every bag by all retailers.
Incentivising the reduced usage of plastic bags is not just about over-consumption of plastic bags, but also about the amount of waste Singapore generates and disposes, he said.
“A plastic bag charge is far from representing mere climate change symbolism. It is a clarion call to us all to alter social norms equally if not more importantly reduce the amount of waste we generate,” he said.
This is a pressing issue as there are infrastructural constraints on the amount of space we have to dispose of incinerated waste on Pulau Semakau, which is expected to be filled by about 2035, he said.
Citing the more than 300,000 pledges on the MEWR website to fight climate change, he said there is a window to move more decisively and “we should move fast”.
In concluding his speech, Mr Singh said that Singapore’s diversity is its strength.
Singapore is a democracy where alternative views, criticism and disagreements shape the outcomes that give meaning to the phrase “one united people”, united in a vision for a better and more confident Singapore no matter what their political beliefs, Mr Singh said.
“As long as our people, youth, businesses and individuals engage the issues of the day civilly in our democracy, and treat their fellow Singaporeans and foreigners within our midst with dignity and empathy, and endeavour for a more caring society, the best years of Singapore, a Singapore for all, are ahead of us,” he said.