Singapore – On June 1, Mediacorp hosted a GE2020 political debate with the four parties that are fielding the most candidates for the coming election: the People’s Action Party (PAP), Progress Singapore Party (PSP), Worker’s Party (WP) and Singapore Democratic Party (SDP). Their respective representatives were: Vivian Balakrishnan, Francis Yuen, Jamus Lim and Chee Soon Juan.
The first segment of the debate involved the participants answering questions posed by the moderator. In the second segment, Dr Balakrishnan posed questions to the other participants and the other participants also had the opportunity to ask Dr Balakrishnan a question each.
- Foreign PMETs and Employment
One major issue that arose was over job opportunities and job creation in Singapore. Both Mr Yuen and Dr Chee especially picked on the issue of foreign PMETs. The two explained that with the influx of Foreign PMETs into Singapore, local PMETs are the main group of individuals who are suffering because opportunities that could have been given to them are lost to these individuals.
Mr Yuen was especially passionate on this issue, and reinforced that the Foreign PMETs should only supplement the local workforce. He stated that the government should restrict the number of foreign workers, be it S-pass holders or employment pass holders, to protect Singaporeans. He also proposed that foreign companies in Singapore should be localised, and this could be done in two ways: either by giving them incentives to hire locals or to use the “stick method” of setting a quota.
To this, Dr Balakrishnan responded that the PAP’s goal or focus at the moment is “jobs, jobs, jobs”. He specified that all the schemes and job creation opportunities that the government has come up with are meant for Singaporeans. For instance, the SGunited Jobs and Skills Package have been formulated with the goal of ensuring both short-term and long-term employability for Singaporeans, stressed Dr Balakrishnan.
Dr Balakrishan also quoted some statistics regarding foreign workers in Singapore. For example, that for every one foreign employment-pass holder, there are almost seven locals holding PMET jobs. Another one that was quoted was that in the first five months of the year, 50,000 foreigners have lost their jobs in Singapore.
Dr Lim did not comment much on foreign PMETs, but did stress that the his party’s concern with employment in Singapore was that it is not enough to just create jobs. It is more important to create jobs that would enable “workers to work with dignity”.
- Bolstering SMEs
In line with bolstering employment and bolstering the economy, SMEs were identified as a key area by the participants which they found important to strengthen.
Dr Lim emphasised that it is important to encourage “vibrancy” in the SME sector, and therefore it is important to have proposals that focus on uplifting these enterprises. He stated that it is important to ensure that there is sufficient financing for SMEs to expand both regionally and globally. Another idea was to look out for costs incurred by local businesses, for instance, to ensure that rental costs are capped for SMEs.
Likewise, Mr Yuen agreed that the long-term viability of SMEs need to be encouraged, even though they “are in ICU now”. It is important that SMEs are given sufficient aid to reinvent themselves and have their own eco-system, and to also gain opportunities to get government contracts. This is vital in encouraging them to be “regional giants” in the business world.
Dr Balakrishnan whole heartedly agreed with both, and explained that the importance of SMEs to employment and the economy was why the government has been putting in a large proportion of aid to bolstering the SMEs during this time. Rental wavers, extending credit, digitisation and rebate on foreign workers were some examples Dr Balakrishnan gave in showcasing the party’s efforts in aiding SMEs.
- Education and Social Mobility
Both Dr Lim and Dr Chee highlighted how the education system has perpetuated the gaps between the haves and have-nots.
Dr Chee noted that Bukit Timah has essentially been designed as an area for “elite schools”, citing how schools like Swiss Cottage have been moved away from the area and schools like SCGS and SJI have been moved into the area. This is problematic because of the balloting system, where priority is given to those who live near these schools. Dr Chee questioned, “How many people can afford living in the Bukit Timah Area?” He emphasised that this system has negated education as a crucial platform for levelling society.
Dr Lim agreed. He stated that when he was younger, he experienced an education system with equal opportunities, something he does not see now. He suggested two ways to remedy this, by ensuring a higher allocation of resources to non-elite schools and to decrease class sizes. For the former, he explained with larger class sizes, those with the resources are able to attend additional classes.
Dr Balakrishnan agreed that education was indeed an important leveller. However, he explained: “For schools, it’s not a question of brand name or whatever. It’s a question of making ‘every school is a good school’. Not as a slogan, but looking at the real investments which we’ve put into schools”.
4. Tensions between Dr Balakrishnan and Dr Chee
There were several points of contention between Dr Balakrishnan and Dr Chee that were rather heated.
The first was surrounding the budget of SDP’s policies. Dr Balakrishnan asked Dr Chee to reveal the total bill of the schemes his party intends to roll out, and who has to bear the cost of these schemes.
To this, Dr Chee said that an estimate of five billion dollars a year was the estimate needed for their policies that involved retrenched workers and the elderly. He compared this to the ruling party’s signing of nearly 100 billion dollars in the first half of the year, explaining that it would take “20 years for us to spend all the budget that you have allocated for the next year or so”.
He also looked back at history, citing how SDP was accused of being a “tax and spend” party. However, Dr Chee stated that after 2015, the ruling party had increased taxes on a whole range of goods and services. Moreover, Dr Chee said that the ruling party had blew their budget on the Youth Olympics and that they had not practiced “frugal spending”. This, makes Dr Chee believe that the ruling party should have the title of being a “tax and spend” party.
Another major source of tension during the debate involving the entrance of foreigners, was when Dr Chee mentioned that DPM Heng Swee Keat had set a goal for the population to increase to 10 million. He then asked Dr Balakrishnan if he could “categorically tell Singaporeans right now that Foreigners will make up the 10 million”.
Dr Balakrishnan quickly shot Dr Chee’s statement down, claiming that this was a “falsehood” and that this was a “cheap shot”. He explained that Singapore will “never have 10 million. We won’t even have 6.9 million…What we want is a Singapore core that is demographically stable, able to reproduce ourselves, able to create jobs and opportunities for ourselves and able to stay as a cohesive whole.”
- Encouraging alternative views
In the closing statements, a consensus was reached that there should be more welcoming of alternative voices in parliament.
Dr Lim said that with the elections, the PAP is seeking a mandate from the people to bring the country out of crisis. However, he reinforced that “what we are trying to deny the PAP is not a mandate, but a blank cheque”. Mr Yuen agreed, reinstating that alternative views was welcomed by the PSP, that it is clear that all the parties have identified the same issues but looked at from different dimensions.
Dr Balakrishnan made clear that no matter the outcome of the elections, there will most definitely be more alternative voices in the new parliament. There will at least be 12 NCMPs, who will have equal voting rights and say in parliament. /TISG