Opposition should provide concrete alternatives, not just opportunistic or populist ideas, says DPM Wong
Singapore must have a serious opposition that thinks carefully about what it will do if it forms the government one day, says Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong.
SINGAPORE: Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong on Monday (Apr 17) took aim at the opposition in parliament, saying that it should provide concrete alternatives to raise revenue and “not just opportunistic or populist ideas” to chip away at trust in the government.
In a speech during the parliamentary debate over President Halimah Yacob’s address at the opening of the second session of parliament last week, Mr Wong reiterated his stance that he does not assume the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) will win the next General Election, or that he will inevitably take over as Prime Minister.
He said on Monday that as Singapore develops into a mature democracy, it must not merely have a serious government, but also a serious opposition that thinks carefully about what it will do as government.
“Where the opposition have good ideas, or where they can make a contribution to the ideas for improving our country, we welcome them.
“But we ask that you be upfront about the realities and trade-offs we face as a nation, and be honest about your plans, policies and intentions," he added.
Mr Wong told the House that he believes the opposition – and the Workers’ Party (WP) in particular – "broadly agrees" with and supports the government's policy directions, even if they may want the government to do more in certain areas.
However, he said there was a fundamental difference – that when the PAP government plans to spend more, it “will always tell you plainly how we propose to raise revenues and ensure that our Budget remains balanced over the medium term”.
While the opposition has provided some revenue alternatives, “their sums do not add up” and none of these alternatives that WP has put forth will make up for the shortfall, he added.
“We don’t need to go through the detailed arguments again. But without the GST (Goods and Services Tax), which the WP still does not support – and I’m not even talking about the increase in GST but the entire GST, which the Workers' Party still does not support – we will face a huge funding gap,” Mr Wong said.
He added: "In this debate, and over the course of the remaining term of government, I look forward to hearing concrete alternatives from the opposition – not just opportunistic or populist ideas to chip away, bit by bit, at trust in government, but a serious alternative agenda for an alternative government."
HAS 4G TEAM SHIFTED TO THE LEFT?
Mr Wong also addressed questions on whether the PAP’s fourth-generation, or 4G, team has "shifted to the left" of the political spectrum. He said this was “not so simple”.
Mr Wong was named in April last year as leader of the 4G team, paving the way for him to become Singapore’s next Prime Minister. About two months later, he was promoted to Deputy Prime Minister.
He told parliament that the 4G team’s governing approach is “not so easy to characterise” along the traditional political spectrum of left and right.
“After all, we have always strived to appeal to a broad base of Singaporeans, and we have always taken care not to base our legitimacy on any narrow social group or class. We also do not blindly copy or replicate the models of other countries,” Mr Wong added.
The Finance Minister noted that countries with more welfarist policies, such as in continental Europe, have much higher levels of state-financed welfare provisions, with their governments typically spending more than 40 per cent of their gross domestic product.
This is compared with 18 per cent in Singapore.
These countries fund such high spending by imposing high-income taxes – usually much higher than 30 per cent, even for the middle-income groups – with VAT or GST ranging from 20 per cent to 25 per cent, Mr Wong noted.
“Some may think this is a good model for Singapore but from the government’s point of view, it is very clear. We do not intend to adopt such a model of comprehensive universal welfare,” he said.
“Instead, we will chart our own way forward, staying true to our core values.”
PLANS TO STRENGTHEN SOCIAL SAFETY NETS
He added that the government will do more to strengthen social safety nets and not end up inflicting heavy tax burdens on everyone.
It will also strive to keep the overall tax burden for the middle-income group “far lower” than other advanced nations.
“More than that, we will ensure that our programmes achieve better outcomes for our people,” Mr Wong said.
“In fact, we are already doing better than many other countries in areas like healthcare, education, and housing – doing better, not in terms of how much we spend but in terms of outcomes ... and we can keep on doing better.”
He added that this was the spirit and intent behind the shifts that the government is considering, with the changes benefiting Singaporeans from every walk of life.
Singapore is one of the few advanced nations where "people in the middle" have experienced large increases in incomes in the last 20 years, Mr Wong noted.
“We will continue to sustain real income growth for the middle. This is why economic growth is non-negotiable for us,” he said.
“We already know that our growth rates will gradually come down as our labour force expands more slowly, becomes older, but growth remains essential. If we don’t grow the economic pie, there will be fewer jobs and less scope for social support.
“So please do not be mistaken. This government will, and must, always be pro-growth and pro-inclusivity.”
The government's actions should also reinforce, not negate, individual and collective responsibility, as well as catalyse more involvement by other members of society, such as unions and non-governmental organisations, Mr Wong said.
"Then we can all chip in and do our part collectively to tackle inequality, rekindle social mobility, and move forward together,” he added.