Written by: A J Jennevieve and Aretha Chinnaphongse.
Singapore — The 2020 General Elections saw the incumbent conceding yet another Group Representation Constituency (GRC) to the Workers Party. Some have gone so far to deem it as a “Watershed Election” noting how the party’s 61.24% of the popular vote happened to be the second-lowest percentage since independence. Now, out of the 93 seats in parliament, 10 are in the opposition’s stronghold. Similarly, for the first time, two members of Progress Singapore Party (PSP) have managed to clinch Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) seats.
There has also been conversation going on amongst the opposition parties calling on the Government to have better transparency in order for them to come up with more concrete alternate policies.
With more opposition members in Parliament than ever before, this begs the question: What are some national issues that the Government has to release more information about in order for the new opposition members in Parliament to produce credible alternative policies?
Combatting poor job outlooks
Right now, many skilled jobs are being occupied by PMETs and other foreign skilled workers, especially in nascent industries such as AI. In order to combat the poor job outlook, members of the opposition will have to be armed with sufficient knowledge about the current workforce and how many jobs are being reserved for Singaporeans. A good way for the opposition to craft appropriate schemes to ensure a larger share of jobs are reserved for Singaporeans would be to procure exact denominations of how many Singaporeans and foreign workers are being hired.
Speaking with regards to the current economic situation brought about by the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, it is safe to say that a major concern faced by Singaporeans is the prospective job outlook. According to the latest labour report released by the Ministry of Manpower, Singapore’s unemployment rate has been shown to be at its all-time highest in a decade, with many clamouring for potential job opportunities in these unstable economic conditions. In fact, it was a major point of contention during the recent elections with many asking how the prospective candidates planned to improve the shoddy economic outlook.
Schemes such as the India – Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) have come under fire for their perceived lack of fairness towards Singaporeans. If the opposition had more information, they would be able to ensure Singaporeans owned more skilled jobs as opposed to PMETs.
Additionally, they would be able to tweak current policies in favour of local workers. For example, instead of continually bringing in PMETs to fill jobs that can, in actuality, be held by Singaporeans, would it not make more sense to bring them in for a limited period of time, e.g. 5 years, to train existing local workers?
In WP’s manifesto for the 2020 General Elections, it was written how one of its main goals is to ensure a home for all. The main method in which WP aspires to achieve this is through the controlling of HDB Build-To-Order (BTO) prices by pegging them to household incomes.
In the past decade, HDB price increases have far outpaced wage increases and people spend extended lengths of time paying off these exorbitant fees as opposed to having more disposable income to spend on other necessities.
In order to map out proper measures to combat the rising prices, if the opposition were to have concrete figures as to the profit earned by HDB, it will be able to craft more comprehensive policies to make housing more affordable for the younger generation. Currently, it is assumed that most of the profits earned by HDB go into the Singapore reserves but there has been no hard evidence of this. Furthermore, in WP’s manifesto, it is stated clearly that “HDB should also give each buyer the breakdown of land sale costs, developmental costs and subsidies for them to better understand the price of their flats.”
As easy as it may seem to simply state that it plans to lower housing prices for aspiring homeowners, the nuances of such a measure will definitely be cost- heavy and time-consuming. Therefore, to maximise efficiency whilst simultaneously minimising costs, the best way for the opposition to attain this goal would be to have a proper breakdown of HDB’s finances.
Singapore’s national reserves
Singapore’s national reserves have been a hot topic in this General Elections and coronavirus pandemic after Singapore unleashed four budgets from February to May amounting to S$92.9 billion. However, opposition parties during the campaigning period have constantly been asking the government to declare how much Singapore has in its national reserves.
Secretary-General of PSP Tan Cheng Bock made a speech on 10 July stressing the measures that have been put in place to tackle Covid-19. He claims that the “Government is refusing to answer” to questions asked about the reserves and that the government “needs to be transparent and accountable to the people.”
However, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat has constantly re-iterated that the size of the reserves cannot be disclosed due to economic and financial security. Secretary-General of WP has also spoken about the size of past reserves during a debate in Parliament whereby Mr Heng said that these funds serve as a “strategic defence” to protect the Singapore dollar from speculative attacks and to increase the confidence of investors and citizens.
He rebutted Mr Pritam by saying, “It is neither in the interest of Singapore, nor Singaporeans to repeatedly ask about the size of our reserves. We are in the middle of a storm, and I am very disappointed that Mr Pritam Singh has used this occasion to raise this question again.” He was summing up the debate on the Supplementary Budget to fund support measures to deal with Covid-19.
WP, who after this general elections have attained five more seats, making it 10 seats in parliament, said that WP seeks figures on the reserves because “when the Government introduces policies where reserves have to be employed, the question we have to ask ourselves is, is it enough, or is it too much… or is it too little.”
The question thus begs if opposition parties in the newly-elected Parliament will be able to debate fairly against PAP on policies pertaining to tackling Covid-19 as they are not kept in the loop on the number of national reserves that Singapore has. This will thus hinder their ability to come up with just policies where the Government budget is needed.
Cost of Living: GST Hike
On that same financial note, this General Election also saw opposition parties manifestoes addressing the cost of living in Singapore and calling for the government to put off the planned GST hike. This was after Heng Swee Keat announced on 18 Feb that the planned GST increase from seven per cent to nine per cent will happen by 2025 instead of 2021.
Opposition parties such as Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), Singapore People’s Party (SPP) and PSP have also called out the Government for the GST increase. For example, Jose Raymond of SPP maintained that the GST hike is “a sore issue of public concern.” Similarly, SDP member Alfred Tan also railed at the Government to “stop the GST hike”, stating that it will be foolish to raise the GST in the near future when it is still uncertain when the Covid-19 outbreak will end.
The issue also concerns the lower-income as SDP Chairman Paul Tambyah also chimed in and argued that the GST is highly regressive and “makes the poor pay a far higher proportion of their income in taxes than the wealthy”.
Mr Heng, however, has replied to this saying that “What we collect in GST has also to be seen against other taxes and also against spending. And in fact, we have deliberately been careful in designing policy so that the tax system benefits those who need help the most.”
This shows how the GST increase has been the main source of concern for most of the opposition parties, and with more opposition members in Parliament after this general election, the question therein lies with how the opposition members in Parliament will be able to argue against a GST hike at all given that the PAP still has a supermajority percentage of seats. The opposition parties will also have to come up with more concrete solutions as to how they would like the Government to fund spending if not for the revenue attained from GST. -/TISG