Budget 2019 did not quite turn out to be Heng Swee Keat’s Budget. Maybe the next one would be his defining show. But that Budget cannot be more of the same, it must be an exceptional one.
Because Heng has been identified as Singapore’s next Prime Minister to succeed Lee Hsien Loong, the latest Budget was half-expected to be an opportunity for him to quickly make his mark. And when PM Lee announced at the 2018 National Day Rally that there would be a Merdeka Generation Package to help with the medical expenses of some 500,000 Singaporeans born in the 1950s-60s, pundits could not be blamed for speculating that Budget 2019 was going to be an election budget. After all, the $8 billion Pioneer Generation Package for an earlier cohort of 400,000 Singaporeans (multiplied by the number of relieved family members looking after PGPs’ healthcare) played a huge part in swinging the electoral tide back to the ruling People’s Action Party in the 2015 general election. It will continue to have an effect because some of the PGP top ups are for life. Incumbents have the advantage of holding the purse strings to deliver on bread and butter issues.
The Merdeka package completes the national debt to an exceptional group of Singaporeans who have helped make Singapore what it is today. Before PGP and MGP, the general feeling had been that in its effort to push the country up the economic ladder, the older Singaporeans had been taken for granted – or even abandoned – as the government focused on younger and more productive Singaporeans.
And that was almost the self-fulfilling scenario until the 2011 general election. The loss of Aljunied GRC to the Workers Party and defeat of a strong PAP team helmed by two ministers including Foreign Minister George Yeo in a 6.46 per cent vote drop from the 2006 results to 60.14 per cent, its lowest since 1965, meant that a big vote bank of older Singaporeans who had supported the early leadership was turning against the party. I see no better manifestation of this continuing disappointment even today after the 2015 swing back for the PAP than Dr Tan Cheng Bock’s Progress Singapore Party (PSP). There is a group of former PAP supporters in the PSP who are unhappy with what’s going on in the country.
Because the PGP obviously hit a sweet spot in the battle for hearts and minds, MGP seemed like a good followup idea and will, indeed, prove to be a winner for the government.
But they will not necessarily be or should be the signature contribution of the 4G leaders. Heng’s team needs something more forward-looking and more lasting.
The 4G team leaders have their work cut out. With much of the infrastructure, systems and financials in place (or at least not in jeopardy), they can do no better than work at creating a better, thinking Singapore society. The 4Gers’ challenge is to make sure they can carry the ground and grow with the voters.
I have been following their political careers and noticed that, apart from Heng who had been with the Monetary Authority of Singapore, all are involved in people areas.
Heng himself, who was Education Minister, has spent time tinkering with the education system and would have a fair idea how to get the best out of our students. Ong Ye Kung is the current Education Minister. Chan Chun Sing, Minister for Trade and Industry, has been with the trade unions and is Deputy Chairman of the People’s Association. He was also Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports, and the Minister of State at the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts.
The trio deal directly with people of all ages, especially the young. If their hearts are in the right place, the 4G leaders should realise Singaporeans must be their priority and foreign talents a distant second. Their challenge is, from now until the next Budget, to produce the definitive Budget which will restore an early programme which envisioned Singaporeans getting the best education in Asia, emerging with the best skills and landing the best-paying jobs. Any system which has our youths and citizens playing second fiddle to transients must be thoroughly rejected – together with any political leaders who cannot deliver.
After the passing of the Pioneer and the Merdeka generations, young Singaporeans should turn down Budget handouts. They should instead demand a clear vision from the 4G leaders of where they will be in a First World city-state. Not as appendixes to foreign or local elites but as fully-functioning citizens with a say in the lives they lead and the way the country is run.
Can Heng Swee Keat and his team deliver? We have had enough of cookie cutter budgets devoid of any dynamism. Time for an inspirational blueprint.
Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.