Ong Ye Kung rebuts opposition MPs, says government does not dismiss concerns raised in parliament
Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said the government welcomes ideas by Members of Parliament and, "where appropriate", takes them in when formulating policies.
SINGAPORE: Health Minister Ong Ye Kung on Thursday (Apr 20) rebutted comments by opposition Members of Parliament from the Workers' Party (WP) and Progress Singapore Party (PSP), saying that the government does not dismiss concerns they raise in parliament.
"Many MPs, including WP MPs, have raised many ideas in this House ... We welcome them, and where appropriate, we take those ideas in while formulating or reviewing our policies. And where we have a different view, we will explain why," Mr Ong said.
The minister was speaking on the fourth day of a parliamentary debate on President Halimah Yacob's address, which sets the agenda for the rest of this government's term. In his speech, he also outlined how Singapore is grappling with an ageing population.
On Tuesday, MP Leon Perera (WP-Aljunied) said Singapore has not done as well as other countries in "fostering a strong sense of participation in our democracy; a sense that we can speak out and if needed disagree with the dominant narrative, with our views actually having a chance to make a difference".
He also said: "In our political discourse and even in our debates in this House, we should strive to treat members' views and other parties' views fairly, and accept when there is a philosophic or ideological difference ... rather than being too quick to label the other side as disingenuous."
PSP Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) Leong Mun Wai had also said that the government "tried to paint the PSP as a xenophobic, nativist, and even racist political party" in previous parliamentary debates.
REBUTTAL TO PSP'S LEONG MUN WAI
Responding on Monday, Mr Ong said Mr Leong had alleged that the PSP's concerns and questions were often dismissed by the People's Action Party (PAP) government.
Mr Ong said the government has always acknowledged the concerns raised by various MPs, including those from PSP. This includes Singaporeans' anxieties about jobs and competition, and the affordability and accessibility of public housing.
"But I hope Mr Leong will also acknowledge the serious concern we have in the way he raises and debates issues," said Mr Ong.
He recounted a previous parliamentary debate on the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) in July 2021.
"Running up to the debate, there was much demonising of CECA, that it allowed unfettered entry of Indian nationals into Singapore. The discourse took a worrying racial undertone," said Mr Ong.
Mr Ong had delivered a ministerial statement in parliament, in which he acknowledged Singaporeans' concerns on jobs and livelihoods, and explained how CECA preserves Singapore's right to immigration policies and setting work pass conditions.
He added that he also had "a fairly long exchange" with Mr Leong at the time.
"But when Mr Leong filed a motion on foreign talent policy in September 2021 ... he continued to refer to CECA as a cause for widespread anxiety among Singaporeans on jobs and livelihoods, and did little to reduce the raw emotions and misimpressions on CECA that had been stoked.
"It was as if my ministerial statement and explanation in July 2021 did not take place," said Mr Ong.
"I recall during that motion debate, he eventually conceded that some people would think that his statements on CECA had racial undertones against the Indian community."
Mr Ong also recalled an allegation that Mr Leong made in January last year, about teachers in the Ministry of Education treating vaccinated and non-vaccinated students differently.
"Because this was a serious allegation, Minister (for Education) Chan Chun Sing stood up and asked for details. Mr Leong then clarified his information source was a Telegram chat, and there were no details," said Mr Ong.
"All of us, including Mr Leong, PSP and everyone in the House, we know that race issues can be played up, especially in multiracial Singapore," he continued.
"We can debate, we can spar, but we should not pit one group against another, over and over again, always looking to tear at the seams of our society. And if we keep doing that it will sow disunity and divide our society."
REBUTTAL TO WP'S LEON PERERA
Turning to Mr Perera's comments, Mr Ong said the MP had asserted that the government tries to push a single "dominant narrative" without regard to alternatives raised by the WP.
"I think it cannot be true. If not, we would not be having such extensive debates on so many issues in this House," said Mr Ong.
"Further, every political party will have its own dominant narrative based on its manifesto, based on its values. PAP has it. WP has it. It is part and parcel of political contestation."
Mr Ong said many ideas raised in parliament, including those by the WP, are not fundamentally at odds with existing policies but build upon them.
"Sometimes they are shades of the same policy, and we need not exaggerate their differences. In the case of preventive healthcare or carbon tax, WP's proposals are actually similar to the government's policies," he said.
"Very often, WP as opposition wants more of what is already being done. Whatever the government proposes, ask for more. So here is one difference between our two parties. I don't think it's a major one, and it is again part and parcel of political contestation."
But Mr Ong said that a "fundamental difference" arises when it comes to the WP's ideas on the Budget.
"Because to do more, one has to spend more, and one has to say where the money is coming from. However, the WP never supported the GST system," said Mr Ong, referring to the Goods and Services Tax.
He said that the sums do not add up without GST, adding: "You cannot give up a major source of revenue and yet want to spend more in so many areas."
Mr Ong added that he may have misunderstood the WP's position, and it may have changed to accepting that GST is needed, but objecting to the increase from 7 per cent to 9 per cent.
He said that to make up the loss of two percentage points of GST revenue, the WP had proposed drawing 60 per cent of the Net Investment Returns Contribution (NIRC) for government spending, instead of drawing half.
"The PAP government will not agree to it and this is a fundamental difference too. Because it has to do with our beliefs and our values," said Mr Ong.
He added this issue was debated in last year's Budget debate, and that Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong had explained the government's position.
"Our view is that the reserves belong to all generations of Singaporeans, current and future, even though they are not born, they cannot vote and their voices have yet to be heard," said Mr Ong.
"To achieve this, the current formula is deliberately designed to divide the NIRC equally – half for current generation to spend, and the other half adds to the savings for the future."
He described this formula as "simple", "fair" and "wise".
"It is very tempting, even seductive, to say let's shift half-half to 60-40," said Mr Ong. "But we debated and enshrined the fiscal rules in our Constitution not that long ago.
"We should not at the first sign of need, push for changes in the rules, just to take the easy way out. We should hold on to the equal apportionment principle for as long as possible. This is good stewardship."
OPPOSITION PARLIAMENTARIANS RESPOND
Rising to speak after Mr Ong's speech, Mr Perera asked the Health Minister if he could acknowledge that the WP puts forward "concrete ideas" that are alternatives, and that there is a balance to be struck between the needs of the current generation and future generations.
Mr Ong reiterated that in his view, the balance is best struck when the NIRC is equally apportioned. On the WP's ideas, he asked for clarification of whether the party is opposed to GST or includes the tax in its alternate Budget.
Mr Perera replied that the WP accepts "the reality of a GST at 7 per cent", as removing it would involve too many trade-offs, but opposes the tax hike to 9 per cent.
Returning to points he had made about good governance, Mr Ong then said that Singaporeans want strong, competent government, but also believe that there should be checks and balances.
Addressing the opposition, he said its main task was to "present alternatives so that people have a basis of decision" and comparison, and this involves putting in work to put forward credible proposals.
He said that on sensitive issues, like the repeal of Section 377A, the opposition should "take a stand and not hedge ... so that people have a measure of what the party truly stands for".
He also called on the opposition to take a "principled, consistent approach" when making alternative proposals.
"And finally, because all opposition always asks the government to do more, you also need to explain how benefits are to be paid," he reiterated.
Mr Perera then responded that the opposition has proposed differentiated alternative policies. He also said that the WP had explained how it would finance its alternative Budget.
While Mr Leong was not present in parliament, his fellow PSP NCMP Ms Hazel Poa rose and said that the party was not targeting any particular race in its motion on foreign talent policy.
"What we did was to point out that the growth rate of foreign manpower from a particular nationality is growing at a much faster rate than other nationalities and that is factual," she said.
Mr Ong responded with a reminder to the PSP NCMPs that "how we raise issues matters a great deal", and of the need to preserve a harmonious society.