Sunday, March 17, 2013

The budget and what matters to us

Mar 16, 2013
1: MPs get their due

IN HIS first - and famous - parliamentary speech after stepping down as Speaker in 2002, Mr Tan Soo Khoon got a hearty round of applause when he said that ministers hardly ever give a nod to MPs when suggestions are accepted.
"There is nothing wrong with a turnaround in policy... but not a squeak of acknowledgement was given to the MPs who first raised the matter," said the now-retired MP who was known for his frank and forthright manner.

His speech came at a time when it was not entirely uncommon for a minister to make a snide remark when shooting down a suggestion he disagreed with.

However, today it now seems more surprising when a minister does not acknowledge MPs in some way during a speech. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the nine-day Budget debate - ministers seemed to go out of their way to credit MPs.

Numerous policy measures were announced by first flagging the names of the MPs who had raised the concern. Some ministers went even further.

National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan got some laughs when he called Marine Parade GRC MP Seah Kian Peng the "father" of the Parenthood Priority Scheme (PPS).

"Mr Seah was the first who suggested giving housing priority to young couples with children. This was some three years ago. I would like to record his role as the father of the PPS. I am just the midwife," he said.

Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew also gave a sizeable mention to Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC MP Janil Puthucheary for a seemingly out-of-the-box suggestion to waive public transport fares at certain times.

Said Mr Lui: "Over the past week, there has been a lot of discussion on Dr Janil Puthucheary's idea to allow commuters to travel free on public transport before the peak hours... Dr Janil's idea is something that I will not dismiss off-hand."

And while ministers have been more than willing to recognise MPs' contributions in recent years, the recently concluded debate does seem to set something of a high water mark.

Observers say the tone is to be expected, given the current political climate. It is now no longer palatable for any politician to appear aloof or unreceptive to ideas. MPs also now seem more eager to push for their causes and their own brand. Countless MPs made the point of reminding the House of suggestions they had made.

Mr Seah said he was pleased that his suggestion is being taken on board, although he did not expect to be called the "father" of PPS.

"In the end, it's good for the MPs to be able to close the loop with residents and grassroots leaders who may have been the ones giving the feedback. And it helps show that suggestions are not falling on deaf ears."

2: A subdued opposition

AS HE was wrapping up the debate on the Budget announcement, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam aimed some comments at Workers' Party (WP) members.

He called out party chairman Sylvia Lim for not quoting an International Monetary Fund report in context and quipped that Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam's suggestion on getting women back to work was straight out of the People's Action Party (PAP) Women's Wing playbook. "I think Gerald can become an honorary member of the PAP Women's Wing, honorary," he said.

So when the DPM sat down and MPs had an opportunity to pose clarifications, many were expecting WP hands in the House to shoot up. Surprisingly, none did and Parliament swiftly moved on to its next order of business.

The relative silence at the end of the first three days of the Budget debate appeared to set the tone for a rather subdued performance from the WP during the following six days. None of the combative speeches or exchanges so prevalent during the debate on the Population White Paper emerged.

In fact, after the first seven members spoke, it was still not clear if the party would ultimately vote to oppose the Budget.

And unlike the earlier debate, the party did not come armed with an alternative or a clear party line. Party chief Low Thia Khiang sat out the debate until Day 5, when he spoke about technology and working at home.

All this made for a broad ranging, if disjointed, performance from the opposition camp. Speeches from the nine WP Parliamentarians and Non-Constituency MP Lina Chiam were all over the map, covering topics such as CPF Minimum Sum, maternity leave for single mothers and the country's rat problem.

Some, like opposition figure Goh Meng Seng, felt that an oppostunity was missed when they did not press the Government on car ownership restrictions. Mrs Chiam, Mr Pritam Singh and Ms Lee Li Lian did comment, but the strongest attacks against them came from PAP MPs such as Ms Lee Bee Wah.

The former National Solidarity Party chief wrote on Facebook: "I was expecting opposition MPs to raise this concern... why are PAP MPs snatching all these topics?"

The WP's subdued approach could simply be due to the fact that the Budget, with its emphasis on economic restructuring and an inclusive society, was difficult to disagree with. And with no clear sign that the electorate opposed the Budget, it could be that there was little to gain by being confrontational again.

Said opposition veteran Wong Wee Nam, 64: "For the White Paper, I think they were riding on the wave of public anger. The Budget is a much more complicated thing and they might not have a way to show their empathy to the public."

[If true, WP is cynical, calculative, and strategic. But at the same time, one can hardly fault them. They need to pick their battles.]

3: Less fear of welfarism

MOULMEIN-KALLANG GRC MP Denise Phua said in an interview last year that the Government had "crossed a psychological chasm" in terms of its aversion to entrenched benefits.

And in this year's Budget discussions, she referred to crossing the "chasm of fear of welfarism".

Indeed, it did appear in this Budget and the last that the Government had lost at least some of its long-time antipathy towards giving things away for free.

And having crossed that chasm, this year it became clear how this increased social spending would be funded: from taxes targeting the wealthy.

This year's Budget had a distinctly redistributive slant, so much so that some observers had described it as a "Robin Hood Budget" - one that took from the rich to give to the poor. It featured a significant increase in aid to the lower income, coupled with a jump in taxes on high-end property and luxury cars.

The measures were well received in the House. If anything, MPs from both sides of the aisle wanted the Government to do even more. Calls for prudence, once a staple of debates on welfarism, were largely absent.

Only two MPs - Sembawang GRC MP Ong Teng Koon and Nominated MP Eugene Tan - sought to issue warnings about what the impact might be of this shift towards taxing the rich to fund social spending.

Mr Tan urged the Government to "keep redistributionist tendencies to a minimum", a call that few have had to make before. "Redistribution tends to harden class distinctions. A class war between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots' is debilitating," he said.

Mr Ong, in turn, warned that bumping up taxes on the rich did not come cost-free. He questioned if the overall tax pie would in fact increase when higher taxes are imposed on the mobile rich.

"The marginal increase in taxes from a higher rate might not be more than the marginal decrease from an exodus. We might end up with a smaller tax pie instead, and in the process also succeed in decreasing the incentive to work," he said.

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam did acknowledge the Government was increasing its social spending, but he made it clear that the move to have a more progressive tax system was not for the purpose of making the system look progressive. "The litmus test is whether it will truly help lower- and middle-income Singaporeans have better lives," he said.

Mr Tan told Insight that though he is ultimately in favour of redistribution, his concern was whether the tenor of the debate had shifted too far. "I am concerned this might be an over-correction to make up for the past where we might have been too tight-fisted. And if we do too much, we might actually be stoking the fires of envy."

4: More in tune with people

ONE blew up into a debate debacle. The other was a debate decoupled from drama.

The relatively subdued Budget debate that concluded this week was a contrast to the angsty outpourings over the White Paper on Population. It seems the Government has learnt a valuable lesson in communicating its message to people.

That is: While it is all well and good to plan for the future, the needs of the present must be met first.

It is difficult to get buy-in for a solution in the future, when problems of the present remain unsolved. Hence numerous Parliamentarians such as Dr Teo Ho Pin (Bukit Panjang) and Nominated MP Tan Su Shan suggested then that the Government break up the population discussion into different parts.

Deal with the current infrastructure problems first, and then talk about the future population.

And while those suggestions came too late to trigger a change in the White Paper, they do seem to have influenced how ministers pitched the Budget.

For ministries such as housing and that are going through long-term fundamental reviews, the ministers were deliberate in laying out all the solutions to current shortfalls first, before even venturing to cast a vision for the future. This was in sharp contrast to the White Paper which focused mainly on what Singapore would be like some 17 years ahead.

During the debate on the Health Ministry's spending for the year, its minister Gan Kim Yong delivered two speeches under the theme "Better Health For All - Peace of Mind for Today and Tomorrow".

In his first speech, he announced the construction of six hospitals and 14 polyclinics to meet the demands of Singaporeans.

It was only in his second speech that he set his sights on a fundamental review of health-care funding in Singapore.

National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan took very much the same approach. He first set out to announce policies that would deal with Singaporeans' main grouses about the high cost of property, before moving on to deal with the important questions about the future direction for his ministry.

The approach certainly appears to pay dividends. The ministers did not face any blowback for their future plans, having made sure to first defuse any unhappiness in the present.

Said Ms Tan Su Shan: "Compared to the White Paper, I think the presentation has definitely improved and the Government is more in tune with the people.

"There is still a groundswell of unhappiness on things like the foreign workers but if you look at blogs talking about the Budget, there are those who complain but there are also those who say the Budget is fair."

5: Keeping the views going

TALK about a seachange. Many can remember when the Government appeared reluctant to solicit public feedback. Now, it cannot seem to get enough of it.

Throughout the nine-day debate, numerous ministers called on Singaporeans to offer feedback on policy changes. Some were invited to Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) sessions. Others were told that working groups would canvass widely for views.

At the heart of this shift towards increasing consultation and conversation is that the nature of the policy changes being sought have changed.

The ministers are not seeking feedback for a small tweak to solve a problem or plug a loophole - they are conducting a fundamental review of key policies.

National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan was looking to review housing policy as a whole, Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew wanted to reconsider the approach for the Certificate of Entitlement for cars, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat wanted a rethink of the Primary School Leaving Examination and Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen was conducting a comprehensive review to strengthen National Service.

But what is eye-catching is how the Government is not rushing to prescribe conclusions. Rather, ministers are asking Singaporeans for their answers to key questions on broad principles.

For example, Mr Khaw issued this call: "I invite concerned Singaporeans of all ages to mull over these issues with us. Share with us your worries, your fears, your hopes and your dreams. We hope to hear many views and many ideas so as to better inform our housing policies."

This stronger-than-normal emphasis on consultation might have its roots in the Population White Paper. It was not clear at the beginning if the White Paper was a work in progress or a final version, but most people, understandably, took the projections such as the population figure of 6.9 million to be a fait accompli.

Several quarters, including opposition parties such as the National Solidarity Party, reacted by calling on the Government to put the White Paper to a referendum.

During the Budget, there was little danger that the long-term policies were deterministic. The narrative here was clearly: This one will be up to you.

Ms Denise Phua (Moulmein-Kallang GRC), who is an OSC committee member, said that much goodwill garnered during the first phase of national conversation had been lost by "hasty introduction and less than perfect communication of the White Paper".

But she felt the Government was back on track and it was thus natural for ministries to get back to the ground and seek views. "Seek first to understand, then to be understood. I believe this must be the new norm of policy-making."

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