'Two Singapores' could emerge if more not done to fight inequality, warns Pritam Singh
The opposition leader describes one Singapore where high salaries and opportunities abound, and another with perceptions of slowing social mobility.
SINGAPORE: “Two Singapores” may emerge if more is not done to fight against inequality, Singapore's Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh warned on Wednesday (Feb 22).
Kicking off the parliamentary debate on the 2023 Budget statement, the Workers’ Party (WP) chief called this potential emergence a threat that has "loomed large on the horizon in the last few years", and one that may become reality.
One Singapore, he said, is connected to the world as a hub economy, where high salaries and opportunities abound.
The other is where the majority of Singaporeans live, where there are perceptions of slowing social mobility, connected to the reality of high housing prices, Mr Singh added.
“These two Singapores could easily become a reality that causes friction in society. Singapore is a tiny red dot and both these Singapores would unavoidably rub up against each other,” he said.
“There is no countryside to retreat to, where the pace is slower and prices of things are lower than in the city ... With people living cheek-by-jowl, such views can easily take root and manifest themselves in cruel ways.”
Mr Singh was expressing reservations over Budget 2023's characterisation by some as a "Robin Hood" budget - or one that takes from the rich to give to the less well-off.
He noted the Government’s moves through the Budget to "better equalise opportunities through fiscal intervention" - such as raising taxes and duties for high-end property and luxury vehicles.
But Mr Singh said commentators calling it a Robin Hood Budget would "reinforce the perception of two Singapores being created".
“Referring to it as such pits one group, high earners and the rich, against the lower and middle-classes,” he said.
“For those of us on the ground, our social trends are clear – a rapidly ageing population; a belief that social mobility for younger Singaporeans contrasts markedly with that in our parents’ generation; and a view that meritocracy has developed a perverse edge, allowing the well-off to move ahead much faster than the broad middle-class."
To combat both the perception as well as the reality in some quarters of two Singapores emerging, redistribution must be at the core of Government policies, said Mr Singh.
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JOBS AND LEAVE
While the WP secretary-general said his party supported Budget 2023, he also raised questions over specific announcements.
He asked how the new Job-Skills Integrators initiative - to help employers enhance training and placement of workers - differed from past efforts such as professional conversion programmes and SkillsFuture frameworks.
Mr Singh also asked what performance indicators would be used to determine the effectiveness of Job-Skills Integrators, as well as the fiscal outlay set aside for it.
On the extension of the Senior Employment Credit - which provides wage offsets to employers who hire older employees - Mr Singh said employers could be given more support, noting that the Government pays up to 3 per cent of wages for workers aged between 55 and 64.
During his speech, he also addressed suggestions - made in the wake of paternity leave being doubled - to excuse men from National Service (NS) duties for the year of their children being born.
“Speaking as an NSman, I would be very cautious about moving in this direction," he said. "I would suggest leaving it to unit commanders to determine how best to accommodate the specific requests of their servicemen, as they have been doing for many years already.
“If a unit is having a major exercise or conducting a critical operation, the needs of the Singapore Armed Forces or the Home Team agencies cannot and should never be compromised," he added.
RETIREMENT AND HOUSING
Turning to retirement adequacy, Mr Singh said the WP supported the rise of the Central Provident Fund (CPF) income ceiling to S$8,000, but he sought clarifications on whether the Government considered allocating a higher percentage of CPF funds to the Special Account.
This, in his view, would serve the retirement needs of Singaporeans better, due to the higher interest of the Special Account.
For the increase in CPF grants for resale flat buyers, Mr Singh raised concerns about home prices rising to match the new grants for eligible first-timers.
“This could happen as a response to the increase in grants. But more likely, price rises could happen because buyers will be tempted to bid more for a flat they want because they know have the additional grant to enhance the price they can pay,” he said.
He also called for more details on the valuation of land for public and private use, including how such sales of private land below market valuation intersected with the Government’s call that HDB land not sold at market valuation would amount to a “raiding of the reserves”.
“The Government should reply to these questions, which are asked with a view to considering alternative approaches to the valuing of land for 99-year leasehold public housing," said Mr Singh.
"These are questions that members of the public are interested in, particularly since the details and principles of this subject has not been significantly ventilated in public."
The Workers' Party (WP) sees this year's Budget as another plank of a multi-year agenda to prepare Singapore for the future, said Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh. Speaking in Parliament on Wednesday (Feb 22), he stressed that the social compact must be one where "we move forward together as one Singapore" to tackle an unpredictable and potentially disruptive future. He said Singapore must guard against a split in society where the rich and the well-off high earners are pitted against the rest. To achieve that, significant work needs to be done, he said. Noting that commentators have characterised the Budget as "Robin Hood", he warned that this reinforces the perception of "two Singapores" being created. Mr Singh said fiscal redistribution, better social protections and greater support for the most vulnerable Singaporeans must remain a mainstay of future budgets. It is imperative that policies should be continually refreshed and reviewed, including the applicability of the principles they were originally based on, he said. "Singapore, a young country where Singaporeans feel, live and experience the emotions of nationalism and citizenship, must continue to thrive in a fair, broad and balanced way so that we leave a better future for today's generation and those that come after, " he said. WP, he said, supports the Budget. He also addressed three specific areas, namely jobs and the new Jobs-Skills Integrators, CPF income ceiling and grants for buyers of HDB resale flats.