Why Budget 2019 may be the prequel to the real election budget

Sense And Nonsense by Tan Bah Bah

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Photo: Facebook screengrab from Heng Swee Keat

Budget 2019 was definitely a 4G show. But I do not quite think it was one tailored directly to sweeten the ground for an immediate general election. It was more like unabashedly paving the way for a later, more election-geared budget, despite what Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin said about how his long-term thinking government, in refraining from doling out goodies, was so different from others elsewhere with their short-sighted populist vote-getting policies.

Let’s talk about why the just ended Parliamentary session was a 4G show. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his senior colleagues have left it entirely to the younger leaders to debate the budget details. And so PM-in-waiting Heng Swee Keat led the proceedings. He was on familiar ground, having presented the budget three times before and also having helped chart Singapore’s economic policies through the years. He probably knows more about the Singapore economy than most others, with the exceptions of perhaps PM Lee and DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam. And he and his fellow 4G leaders know they have to live with the results of their policies.

The session ended with a rousing We-Did-It-Our-Way rounding up speech by Tan Chuan-Jin. The Honourable Speaker of Parliament could not refrain from reminding everyone in Parliament that Singapore has always been different from others. No populist policies, please, we are Singaporeans. We could almost hear the words from the Merle Haggard song which local cowboy singer Matthew Tan used to belt out nightly at a Shangri-la Hotel pub in the 1970s.:

“I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee,
A place where even squares can have a ball
We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse,
And white lightnin’s still the biggest thrill of all”.

What’s so praiseworthy about pursuing policies that inflict pain on our own citizens and deprive them of their needs and rightful place at the top of the totem pole in everything the government has been elected to provide, no ifs no buts?

I am puzzled by this, yes, we have to pay our debt to our older nation-building generations – Pioneer and then Merdeka – but, no, these are not handouts. Debts or handouts – they are substantial vote-winners. The $8 billion Pioneers programme announced before the last General Election in 2015 benefitted 400,000 Singaporeans (translation: voters) and the $6.1 billion for the Merdeka group should make another 500,000 voters if not happier than at least less angry in the leadup to the forthcoming GE.

The claim that the government can brush aside ground sentiment is nonsense. If it had not fought back hard with the right or better  policies – for healthcare, housing, ageing population, the deluge of foreign workers, transport – after GE2011, it would not have stemmed the tide in GE2015.

Now why do I believe Budget 2019 is not THE election budget? Of course, I may have to swallow my words should an election be called, say, in September. But the MGP is just a follow-up to the PGP. There is a possibility that more ground-pleasing measures are in the offing. As is also the Singapore Way, often new policies are announced outside the Budget, frequently during the National Day Rally. Since we do not know when the GST increase will be announced or will kick in, the government will have to soften the ground even further before that happens.

Singaporeans will also have to assess how the 4G leaders and their cohort perform. As it is, they do not know enough about their ability. They cannot just take PM Lee’s words that they are the best that the country has to offer.

What Budget 2019 reveals is: Contrary to what Tan Chuan-Jin seems to suggest, the government today cannot function oblivious of what people say about its policies.

Mistakes have been made in the past such as the Stop At Two campaign (to prevent overpopulation!) and the Graduate Mothers Scheme (to encourage graduate women to have children, presumably because their offspring would be smarter). When the corrections took place, they were quietly and quickly dropped, more or less behind the scene. Those were less transparent years.

Two debates during the last two weeks in Parliament tell us that the government is prepared to listen more. The scrapping of the streaming of students says all the objections to an essentially elitist programme have been justified. Streaming was the top topic besides the Merdeka package.

The debate over the tightening of the foreign workers quota went by almost unnoticed because of the preoccupation with the MGP and streaming: “Relying on more and more foreign workers is not the long-term solution — other economies are developing, too. Our workforce growth is tapering, and if we do not use this narrow window to double down on our restructuring, our companies will find it even harder in the future.”

Who said that? Not an NMP or a Workers Party MP, but Heng Swee Keat.

I can’t agree more. Singaporeans first and foremost.

Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.