Delivered in Parliament on 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 Fourteenth Parliament.
The President mentioned in her speech that we are starting a new term of Government under the shadow of Covid-19.
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 wellbeing 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 $15bn 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。
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。
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.