As the dust from General Elections 2020 settles down and as Singaporeans turn to their daily grind, one does have a question: How will Singapore progress henceforth and in light of post Covid-19?
The immediate economic prospects look gloomy, but as they say, there is always a silver lining in every cloud.
The world is at a crossroads of economic conflict, battled between United States of America (USA) and China, with other players, including Singapore, holding their baited breath on the outcomes of regional trade and economic interests. The choice has not always been easy, especially so for Singapore, with its longstanding history of commercial interests as an international port of call, having one of the highest trading volumes in the world, as well as being a financial hub for regional and international trade. Boasting a lassie-faire and offering tax holidays, Singapore attracts investments and capital from the world over.
Singapore’s position as a neutral player and a US ally puts it in conflict with its role as the gateway to China and North Asia. With increasing globalisation and the rise of China as a superpower, the call for middle ground has been difficult, now exacerbated by the polarisation and grinding of teeth between the superpowers. Players are increasingly forced to choose sides, especially with the escalating trade war and deteriorating economy. The USA, unlike in the past, is less inclined to defend the economic interests of its allies with its US-first posturing.
So, how does the trade war affect us, Singaporeans have often asked?
Singapore has an international port and the earnings have a ‘trickle down’ effect sustaining big businesses, SMEs and local players down the value chain. The same goes with the financial hub and various sectors of the external economy in the hopes that such trickle-down-effect of the economy will generate taxes, public and private sector earnings that will benefit the common man on the street.
However, while in the past such a system would naturally would have worked like magic, with increasing globalisation and intense competition, this system seem to work less and less for the common man and SMES and more for global corporatism. Using Singapore’s capital tax free system, many companies have set up bases here, which led to a boom in the early days of Singapore’s growth. But, in recent years, due to rising costs of setting up business and costs of living, salaries, and high rental, we have seen an exodus of many businesses relocating to ASEAN hinterland and other countries. The simple solution has been to mass import foreign labour, which might not translate to talent, but rather a cheap source of labour with sizeable revenues from foreign-worker-levy for the government.
This has been the root cause for some of the economic problems and hence social problems for Singapore even prior to Covid19. Understanding this is crucial to our analysis – COVID-19 hardened the situation, exacerbating and extenuating the downward spiral.
The first wave of COVID-19 arriving in Singapore in Jan 2020, followed by early containment and subsequent outbreaks in following months played into the fear of Singaporeans. Hence, when the general elections were held with the consternation of opposition parties offering Singaporeans a myriad of choices often with conflicting and confusing messages played was once again into the hands of PAP, giving them a winning hand.
Remarkably, I find myself contemplating, is the opposition truly without solutions and hence less credible? I do find myself pouring through various opposition-party manifestos and ostensibly there are some interesting solutions which can be looked at.
Of late, I wrote a book called ‘Love Singapore, Vision 2020 ‘ in which I laid out possible proposals and considered myself to be a patriot when writing this in 2019 and hoped to present to both Proposition and Opposition alike. There are many prominent politicians featured in this election, including the stalwart bulk of the PAP politicians like Lee Hsien Loong, Chan Chun Seng, Dr Chee Soon Juan, Tharman, Paul Thambiyah, Lim Tean, Dr Tan Cheng Bock, Jamus who have interesting solutions to the fore.
Politically, Singapore continues to be ruled by the dominant People’s Action Party, which under the same system, clearly needs reforms, with its centre right positioning and championing for big businesses and trade alike. Going forward, the other opposition parties may possibly merge or form up for survival to 2-3 parties as a natural course of evolution. Lessons have been learnt here, and general acceptance from both sides seems to acknowledge the ongoing situation.
Economically, Singapore has fared no better thus far despite concluding the elections, despite the handouts which relieves the plight of the people temporarily, it does not solve the ticking time bomb. Singapore needs a new plan, a new vision. For that to happen, restructuring of its policies and the way things are done need to take place .Firstly to generate jobs for the people, and to make sure the benefits flows down to the people, instead of just a trickle.
Socially, some of the solvable problems and the way we used to do things cannot be as before. Going to Churches, places of worship, nightclubs places of entertainment or even usual business hangouts has become more restrictive and regulated. Crowded places where people used to hang out together have dropped in terms of numbers, and businesses, especially small ones are affected.
Not all of it is the government’s fault per se, but rather to the general global trade outlook and to the COVID19 situation. Sure it could be handled better, but blame game does no one any good, especially post elections. What Singapore needs is a 5-10 year economic plan and to gradually relieve its addiction to cheap foreign labour for replaceable service and white collar jobs, to return these jobs to Singaporeans and retrain the local workforce seriously, instead of just paying lip service. If Hong Kong or other countries can do it, why lose faith in our own Singaporeans?
In addition, costs of living must also go down. With the rising costs of living, aggravated by the high GST rates, comes the high salary requirements and hence the switch from local companies to an addiction to cheap foreign labour. Hence the saying, ’Singaporeans just refuse to work’, not because they do not want to, but because the high costs of living are prohibitive in nature. Hence the way we collect taxes in the form of Goods and Services tax (GST) needs a rethink. We must ask ourselves, ’Look, is there a better way to collect tax than to add on to the basic costs of living?’
There we will find the answer to increasing Singapore’s competitiveness and making life better for everyone.
Sure some might protest, ‘but we collect a lot of taxes from foreign work levies,‘ but the question is, can revenue be collected in a better way to free up ways to improve the livelihood of people and from there, better revenue from tax collection?
Remember when the People live better lives and are wealthier, they break out of the poverty cycle as well and generate more income on the whole. If the People are poor, there is generally less of a tax base to collect. Wealth in the hands of the People leads to a strong economy, as it affords people better choices to make their living.
Relying on the influx of foreign capital based on capital gains free taxation and low business tax rates can only be a quick fix temporarily, these investors also look for ways to make money and can shift their capital base easily.
Hence the first path to an economic future for Singapore entails painful reforms; starting with the pattern the Singapore government collects its revenues and identifying potential growth sectors. Changing the ways of collection may be different, but it might not mean less revenue collected overall. Like for example taxes collected on petrol/fuel might be the reason why oil companies in Singapore may not be decreasing their prices, but from another perspective, if oil taxes are reduced, but the general local economy improves as a result of cheaper fuel costs ,would the tax revenue generated for the government be more than or less? It would result in a greater benefit for the People. The oil companies also have to pay at a lower tax rate and demand is increased. The fear and reluctance to change has costs us, and local Singaporeans. This is but one way Singapore can explore to improve.
So, perhaps the call for proposals or ideas by the Government to Singaporeans is not lost, after all. With a wry smile on this National Day, 9th of August, Majulah Singapura!
Dr Michael Fang Amin (方爱民 ) has written ‘Love Singapore, Vision 2020’ ,a book to share with Singaporeans ,and likes to debate and discuss ideas with fellow Singaporeans in his past time on how to improve Singapore and the way forward.