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IN FULL: New MP Louis Chua calls for policy reform to protect workers and families

Sengkang GRC MP: Base policy decision-making on maximising overall well-being of all Singaporeans

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Singapore — Workers’ Party MP Louis Chua, in his maiden speech on Thursday (Sept 3) during the debate on the President’s Address, highlighted how the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the weakness in the country’s economy and how hard the underprivileged have been hit by the complete loss of livelihoods.

The Sengkang GRC MP detailed measures needed for reform in the specific areas of workers’ protection, housing affordability and lease decay, support for families in the form of progressive HR practices, and a thorough evaluation of untapped revenue sources to support the growth of national reserves. Read his speech in full here:

Parliamentary Speech by Chua Kheng Wee Louis, on the Debate on the President’s Address at Opening of Parliament

Chua Kheng Wee 蔡庆威 Louis began his maiden speech in Parliament with the recognition that Covid has exposed the weakness in Singapore’s economy, as the underprivileged grapple with the complete loss of livelihoods. Kheng Wee appealed to the Government to evaluate the success of policymaking on a holistic and multi-dimensional yardstick that accounts for maximizing the overall well-being of Singaporeans and the vulnerable amongst us. Kheng Wee detailed measures needed for reform in the specific areas of workers’ protection, housing affordability and lease decay, support for families in the form of progressive HR practices, and a thorough evaluation of untapped revenue sources to support the growth of national reserves. (3 September 2020)Read his full speech here https://www2.wp.sg/debate-on-the-presidents-address-at-the-opening-of-14th-parliament-speech-by-chua-kheng-wee-louis/Vid Credit: CNA

Posted by The Workers' Party on Thursday, 3 September 2020

“Mr Speaker, it is my honour to address this House in support of the motion of thanks to the President, which she delivered at the opening of the 14th Parliament. The President mentioned in her speech that we are starting a new term of Government under the shadow of Covid-19.

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Indeed, Covid-19 has created unprecedented challenges to the lives and livelihood of people around the world, and Singapore is unfortunately not spared from this global crisis. As pointed out by the President, we are facing our worst recession since independence, and we have already seen Singapore’s GDP shrink by 13.2% on a year-on-year basis in the second quarter, with total employment seeing the largest quarterly decline on record at 131,500 workers.

Yet despite the devastating headline economic statistics, I have no doubt in my mind that Singapore will weather the Covid-19 crisis, and our economy will continue to grow again. But the bigger question to me is: What does it mean for us to emerge stronger as a nation, and how do we define our success?

It is unfortunate that it takes a crisis such as Covid-19, to expose the weakness in our economic structure, and our lack of social protection for the vulnerable. To the lucky few amongst us, Covid-19 is just a passing storm, or the proverbial rainy day, where we can rely on our past savings to tide us through. But to the less privileged Singaporeans who are struggling to make ends meet on a daily basis, Covid-19 is a tsunami which threatens not just their livelihood but even their lives.

Today, Singapore is already one of the wealthiest countries in the world as measured by GDP per capita. Yet, we are also often perceived to be an unequal society, where the benefits of growth are not evenly distributed, with widening inequality weakening our social fabric. It is perhaps time for us to have a rethink of what we value as a society, and who have we left behind in our pursuit of headline economic growth.

I call on the Government to evaluate its success not just purely based on a narrow set of economic terms, but to take a more holistic, multidimensional approach in measuring the progress of our nation. We should base our policy decision-making on not just maximising financial value, but on maximising the overall well-being of all Singaporeans, particularly the most vulnerable among us.

To this end, I note that New Zealand embarked on its first well-being Budget in 2019, recognising that economic growth, while important does not guarantee improvements to living standards. Bhutan, too, has a Gross National Happiness Index, which captures multiple indicators across nine domains. While these may not be directly replicable in the context of Singapore, it is imperative for us to start assessing how each and every Singaporean is doing, and how best to address the unmet needs of our people in a sustainable and equitable manner.

Mr Speaker, Covid-19 has been a catastrophic crisis, and we must not let the lessons from this go to waste. And on that note, I would like to highlight four areas for reform, to build a stronger and more resilient Singapore society post the current pandemic-induced crisis.

The first area of reform is in relation to workers’ protection.

Covid-19 has undoubtedly been an unprecedented healthcare crisis, leading to a simultaneous demand and supply economic destruction. Yet, with the shortening of business cycles and hastening of technological disruption, the threat of widespread job losses and rapid job irrelevance is only going to rise in future.

Direct assistance to companies such as the Jobs Support Scheme, could arguably provide indirect support to employment. As we have seen in the second quarter employment change numbers, subsidies to companies and the past approach of moral suasion cannot prevent job losses. The ratio of job vacancies to unemployed persons reached a historical low of 0.71 as at March 2020. With the demand outlook remaining poor, and the worst of retrenchments and unemployment ahead of us, many more workers will be without a job, despite their best intentions to be employed. Rather than providing blanket wage subsidies across companies, it is perhaps the workers themselves, that are most in need of direct support, and financial buffers in the event of unemployment.

The Singapore Government has taken pride in creating a pro-business environment, through its economic and manpower policies. It is now time in my view, however, to strengthen our employment laws to better support and protect workers, and raise the standard of work for all.

The global financial crisis in 2008 and 2009 saw the introduction of Kurzarbeit in Germany, a short time work programme that has been a key feature of the German safety net since, providing employment support during this crisis, and a template for many countries to model on. Building a more resilient workforce and society starts with strengthening social safety nets for workers, and we now have an opportunity to do just that, without impairing the incentive to work hard.

The second area of reform is in relation to housing.

In his addendum to the President’s Address, the Minister for National Development wrote about taking care of Singaporeans’ housing needs, such as ensuring that public housing remains affordable especially for young families, while enhancing schemes to help our seniors tap on their flat’s value to supplement their retirement adequacy.

However, it is precisely our flat’s value that is in question, where the HDB resale market has been affected by concerns over lease decay in the past few years. This has serious implications for the retirement adequacy of Singaporeans, as much of Singaporeans’ assets are being tied to their primary residence, which is their HDB flat.

The Government has said earlier in 2019 that it will consider all alternative suggestions and ways to manage the expiring leases of HDB flats. We cannot continue to ignore the elephant in the room, and this is an issue which I firmly believe should rank high on our national agenda.

Ultimately, more than 80% of Singaporeans live in HDB flats, with the overwhelming majority relying on their CPF Ordinary Account balances to pay their mortgage. With many Singaporeans entering their golden years, the knowledge of their HDB flats steadily losing value, as they approach the tail end of their leases, can become a significant source of mental stress and insecurity.

The third area of reform is in relation to support for families.

Our houses may be built from bricks and mortar, but the family is the basic building block of our society.

Singapore’s total fertility rate stands at a record low of 1.14 in 2019, and many couples could be further delaying their marriage and parenthood plans amidst the economic uncertainties brought about by Covid-19. I believe that sustainable growth is not only defined by fiscal sustainability and balanced budgets, but by the future sustainability of our people, our human resource.

We need to recognise that family-friendly policies boost, rather than reduce productivity, and reject the notion that dedicating time for our care-giving responsibilities, hurts the employment prospects of workers.

The silver lining to the Circuit Breaker period was that it institutionalised flexible work arrangements at workplaces, and showed us that economic competitiveness need not come at the expense of our families. On a personal level, I started working from home even before phase 1 of the Circuit Breaker measures were in place. As a father to a newborn baby, I am thankful to have witnessed his various development milestones over the past year, and partake in the joys of parenthood, while continuing to stay productive at work.

I recognise that the Ministry for Manpower will support employers to offer flexible work arrangements and work-life harmony initiatives, and promote greater awareness. Yet there is so much more that we can do. We need to give employees the legislative right to flexible working arrangements, rather than simply non-legally binding advisories and recommendations. We need the Government to lead by example, and demonstrate to companies what progressive HR practices look like. And more importantly, we need to devote greater resources to families, to support their parenthood aspirations.

Mr Speaker, we cannot expect incremental efforts to result in extraordinary results. We need to take bold and decisive steps and provide greater financial and non-financial support to Singaporean families, recognising that the stresses on families and our low fertility rate, if not urgently addressed today, would have significant long-term socioeconomic costs on Singapore.

The last area of reform is on the use of reserves.

I agree with the Government’s fiscal prudence and policy that our expenditure levels cannot, and should not be more than our revenues for long-term sustainability. However, national policy proposals that tap the reserves must be seen in the context of Singaporeans’ growing needs across healthcare, ageing and retirement adequacy. As such, there needs to be a thorough evaluation of alternative sources of revenue that remain untapped.

Currently, some government revenues including land sales are excluded from the official budget. However, capital receipts from land sales represent strong, recurring cash revenues that are actually received by the Government — particularly with land being sold on a leasehold basis. As such, one of the ways that the revenue shortfall can be met is by tapping no more than a fifth of the approximately $15 billion per year in land sales that the Government typically collects.

The other area that can be looked at as an alternative source of revenue is to increase the Net Investment Return Contribution by up to 10%. While we would need to safeguard our reserves for potential contingencies, let us also acknowledge that increasing the percentage of returns generated from the net assets will only vary the pace of the reserve growth, but will not cause the reserves to fall. Arguably, deploying our reserves into more productive uses by investing them into our people, our human capital, could generate far superior returns in the long run, and boost the future sustainability of our nation.

Mr Speaker, let me now say a few words in Mandarin.

新加坡是个富裕的国家,全球人均 GDP 排名第 8。但是我们也时常被评论为一个不平等的社会,财富差距和收入不平均的问题,逐渐削弱社会的凝聚力。

现在或许是我们重新思考的时候,反思做为一个社会,我们应该重视的是什么? 在追逐经济增长的同时,我们是否忽略了社会中的某些群体?

我呼吁政府不能继续仅是根据经济数据来衡量施政的成功,而是采取更整体性的做法,由多方面衡量国家的进步。在制定政策时不能单纯考虑经济层面,而是将所有国人的福利放在优先的位置,也着重注意社会中的弱势群体。

议长先生,2019 冠状病毒疫情带来了危机,但也带来了改变的契机。今天我要提出四个可以改进的地方,让我们在冠病疫情结束之后可以建造一个更强壮、更坚韧的社会。

首先,我们必须让工友更有保障

全球需求趋软,许多企业不得已纷纷宣布裁员,有许多国人必须面对失业的问题。对企业来说,一再延长的雇佣补贴计划或许可以帮助他们生存,而企业也不需要提出任何的申请。但是失业的国人就算能申请其它一次性的援助计划, 有些人在繁琐的申请程序之后,最终还是被拒绝了。

与其继续补贴企业,本地员工更需要的是直接的补贴和援助,帮助他们缓冲失业与经济衰退带来的冲击。有许多年长的国人,无论如何辛苦工作,如果一旦生病或被辞退,都没有足够的保障。直接的补贴和援助,对国人来说才是最需要的帮助。

新加坡政府一向引以为傲的是通过经济与人力政策所塑造的亲商环境。但是我认为,现在我们应该加强我们的雇佣法律来更好地保障工友的利益,借此机会进行持久性,结构性的改革,以确保本地工友们能享有更完善的经济保障。

第二个应该改革的,是我们的组屋政策

国家发展部长曾经提到要照顾到新加坡人的居住需求,比如确保政府组屋的可负担性,让年轻家庭更早拥屋,也加强各项计划帮助年长者利用组屋的价值来补充退休所需。

然而,问题就出在我们的组屋的价值。屋契将满的问题,最近几年都影响到政府组屋转售市场价格。许多国人的主要资产就是他们的组屋,把毕生大部分的积蓄用来购屋。但如果国人在步入黄金年华的同时,眼看着转售价格,随着组屋年契即将归零而渐渐减少,这不但不能确保国人能有足够的退休金,更会让他们饱受精神上的压力、失去安全感。

第三个要提出的,是对家庭的支持

家庭是构建社会的基石,我们必须认识到亲家庭的政策不但不会削弱,反而可以提高生产力。认为员工播出时间,照顾家里的小孩与长者,就会影响员工的就业前景的这种观点,也是不正确的。

我们要大胆与果断地采取措施,为新加坡家庭提供更多的金钱与非金钱援助,

因为我国家庭面对的生活压力以及我们的低生育率问题,若是不尽早解决面对, 将对新加坡的社会经济有长远的影响。

最后要提出的,是如何对待国家的储备金

我同意政府谨慎理财,确保财政收入与支出平衡,以实现长期可持续性是非常重要的。但是,考虑到国人的医疗和生活费逐渐攀升,导致退休金不充足,我们是否应该更全面地评估我国尚未开发的收入来源?比如说,我国每年平均赚取 150 亿的土地转让金,但这些收入并不包括在政府的财政预算里。

在这里必须强调的一点是,我们工人党主张的不是盗取储备金,而是放缓储备金的增长速度。我们要做的不是砍伐代表着储备金的这棵树。而是让站在烈日当空下的新加坡人,能在这片储备金的森林里遮荫。

Mr Speaker, to conclude, Covid-19 will not be the only challenge for Singapore and Singaporeans in future. There will be many more foreseeable white swan events such as Covid-19, and unpredictable black swan events which we may not be fully prepared for.

To build a more resilient society, we need to foster a culture of open-mindedness, where dissenting views are not only accepted, but are actually encouraged, and where bold, innovative ideas are championed instead of being squashed.

I believe change has to come from the top, and it starts from the conduct of Parliament and the Government of the day. And to this end, I am comforted by the President’s assurance that the Government will be open to constructive criticism and rational debate, and to new ways of doing things.

As a first time MP, I am honoured and privileged to be a member of this House, and I believe voters have put their faith in us because of their desire for greater diversity in Parliament, more robust parliamentary debates, and a bigger say in Government decision- making, to achieve the best outcomes for all Singaporeans.

We must continue to be the voice for our constituents, but beyond mere words and statements of intent, it is our actions that define us. I sincerely hope that the Government will have the courage and political will, to translate the breadth and depth of ideas that members bring in this House, into concrete policies to take Singapore forward.

A united Singapore Together is not one that speaks with one voice. A united Singapore is one with a diversity of voices, sharing our common belief for a better future and working together as one. Thank you.”

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