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Budget 2023 debate: Lawrence Wong, Pritam Singh spar over WP’s 2019 paper on housing policy

The Workers’ Party says the People's Action Party has taken its housing paper out of context, while the PAP says the WP should acknowledge that its position was wrong. 

Budget 2023 debate: Lawrence Wong, Pritam Singh spar over WP’s 2019 paper on housing policy

Finance Minister Lawrence Wong (Left) and Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh speaking in Parliament on Feb 24, 2023.

SINGAPORE: A working paper by the Workers' Party (WP) on Singapore's housing policy, published in 2019, was the subject of debate in Parliament on Friday (Feb 24).

Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong said the WP had suggested cutting back on building new Housing Board (HDB) flats in 2019 and should acknowledge that it was wrong in its assessment, while WP Members of Parliament said that the Government's interpretation of its position in the 2019 paper was taken out of context.

The issue stems from a Facebook post by PAP website on Feb 8, which referenced the WP's 2019 working paper on HDB resale prices.

The post said WP MPs called for fewer HDB flats to be built back in 2019.

“But now, its MPs suggest that the PAP Government had underestimated demand and under-built the supply of flats," the post stated.

“It's hard to predict property demand and even the best models cannot fully account for black swan events like the COVID-19 pandemic."

Since the post was published, both sides have gone back and forth on the issue on social media platforms as well as the Straits Times forum.

It was brought up again during Mr Wong's round-up speech for the Budget 2023 debate on Friday, when he addressed concerns from both PAP and WP MPs about soaring property prices.

"In the last three years, we had a pandemic that disrupted our Build-to-Order building programme and when that supply was disrupted and waiting times became longer, people felt anxious and more started applying for BTO flats earlier," Mr Wong said, adding that other home buyers decided to get a resale flat instead.

"We had a confluence of both delayed project delivery and increased demand, contributing to the situation that we are in now. Who could have anticipated and predicted this?"

“If we had ... heeded (the WP’s) advice - since they don’t want to call it a proposal - and if we had done so and cut back on the building of new flats and their subsequent proposal to allow singles under the age of 35 to buy new flats, we would be faced with a much bigger supply-demand imbalance today,” Mr Wong added.

“Let's all show some humility in this. What happened could not have been predicted and let's refrain from passing judgment of the benefit of hindsight."

Mr Wong, who is also Finance Minister, added that the WP should acknowledge that it had been wrong, adding that there was "no shame" in doing so. 

However, WP chief and Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh rebutted by reiterating that his party's housing paper had been published in response to the Government’s Voluntary Early Redevelopment Scheme.

“Naturally, the housing paper looks at a longer-range forecast of the housing sector and that was the context which I have not heard any PAP MPs speak about. In fact, they seem to be quite silent about it,” he said.

“On this note, of course, I have to, then, come to the irresistible conclusion that it is a convenient distraction because if indeed the point that was raised in the housing paper was critical, then the PAP would have raised it last year when the WP called for more HDB housing for singles,” he added.

MP Leon Perera (WP-Aljunied) also weighed in, saying that while the paper had highlighted a risk of BTO vacancies if the Government continued to build in the same pattern, it did not attach a specific timeframe.

“The whole context of our argument and focus on this paper is longer-term housing dynamic trends,” he said. “If we had meant to say that BTO projects should be cut back, we would have said that.”

“I really hope that People's Action Party will stop propagating this falsehood that our 2019 paper called for a cutback to BTO supply in 2019 and if it does not do that, I would really question if the People's Action Party has become a party that propagates falsehoods to gain political mileage.”

Mr Wong said that the WP was not the only one who had expressed concerns about a short-term "overhang of supply" of BTO flats at the time, adding that he had been under a lot of pressure at the time - when he was National Development Minister - to cut back on BTOs. 

“All we are highlighting is, let's be upfront and honest that the assessment made at that time was not right. Like I said, many people didn't get it right," the minister said.


Earlier in his roundup speech, Mr Wong also addressed other issues and suggestions raised by the Workers' Party. 

In speaking about public housing affordability, Mr Wong said that the way Government land is priced cannot be changed to bring down the selling price of flats, saying that trying to artificially "reset" the housing market in this way would risk destabilising the entire property market. 

He mentioned a Facebook post by Jamus Lim (WP-Sengkang) which asked what the implications might be of such changes for people who bought HDB flats under current terms. 

"He said that with the proposal by the Workers’ Party to reduce the land price, some homeowners who have bought their flats under current terms and subsequently wish to sell their flat for various reasons, quote, 'may go underwater' or quote, 'have to stomach a loss'," said Mr Wong.

"Is this what the Workers’ Party wants to do – to arbitrarily wipe out a significant chunk of the value of Singaporeans’ hard-earned properties?"

Mr Wong also challenged Mr Singh on his Budget speech, in which he spoke about not allowing "two Singapores" to emerge.

"This has in fact been the PAP Government's steadfast approach for all these years, so I thank him for agreeing with what we are doing," said Mr Wong.

The Deputy Prime Minister also said that he agreed with Mr Singh's remarks that fiscal redistribution should not be about pitting one group against another.

"But the irony is this: The Workers’ Party shares the Government’s view that those who earn more should pay more in taxes; yet it consistently refuses to acknowledge the unique way the PAP Government has implemented our GST system, which requires the well-off to contribute more, and does not hurt the poor.

"And I can’t help but feel that it’s because the WP thinks that there is political mileage perhaps in pushing for ideas to soak the rich, and maybe political advantage to reject the GST, despite everything we have done to implement it in a way that is fair, and that doesn’t hurt the poor."


Progressive Singapore Party's Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai also rose to seek clarifications following Mr Wong's round-up speech.

In particular, Mr Leong questioned why his party's proposed affordable homes scheme was less equitable to the current BTO system, and whether the Government had considered his proposal given its “overwhelming” advantages.

Mr Wong said in response that the Government had studied it but assessed that it would be a “raid on the reserves”.

“It will not be good for Singapore and Singaporeans and that's our conclusion. In the end, Singaporeans can judge for themselves," he added.

Source: CNA/vl(gs)


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