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Subtle but significant shift in government’s stance

By Andrew Loh

If you were in Parliament, as I was, when the Manpower Minister, Dr Ng Eng Hen, delivered his ministerial statement on the changes to the CPF, you might have noticed a very telling omission.

It was also a very significant one.

What am I talking about? Dr Ng never once, as far as I can recall, mentioned the word “compulsory” when he spoke on the newly renamed “Longevity Insurance” scheme – which itself was previously called the annuity scheme.

So, one would notice two significant shifts in the government’s position. One, no longer is the word ‘compulsory’ used and two, the scheme is now called “Longevity Insurance” instead of “the annuity scheme”, which was poorly received by the public due to its perceived low rates of returns.

Indeed, the minister said (link) : “We should be flexible in accommodating the different circumstances of CPF members..” which some have taken as an indication that the scheme may not be made compulsory for some people, besides the chronically ill which has already been mentioned by other ministers.

The minister more or less confirmed this when he said: "So long as he has provided for his old age, and will not run out of savings prematurely, we should be satisfied." (Straits Times, "Room for flexibility, option to stretch Minimum Sum", Sept 18, 2007)

Why the changes?

There is little doubt from those I spoke to that these two subtle but significant changes resulted from the rather intense disquiet on the ground. This is in spite of the mainstream media painting – or trying to paint – a picture of widespread acceptance of the scheme. (If you’d been reading the news reports of the local media you might agree with me.)

Having said that, kudos to the government for listening and paying attention to ground sentiments.

Several other factors for the changes in stance

One reason why the minister backtracked from using the terms “compulsory” and “annuity” could also be because of several other factors.

Some have wondered if “Black September” had anything to do with the changes.

(Black September was the event organized by netizens, calling for Singaporeans to “go shopping” wearing black at Centrepoint as an expression of protest against the annuity scheme.)

I am not sure if the incident had anything to do with the omissions by Dr Ng. But perhaps, as Seah Chiang Nee said, “it is likely to have weighed strongly on its mind. Therein lies its achievement.”

Another reason could also be that the government would risk alienating itself and creating even more discontent among Singaporeans – especially with the just-announced hike in transport fares and the recently released figures for the Consumer Price Index which showed that inflation in Singapore jumped 2.6% in July this year, the highest in over 12 years. (link)

Such news no doubt has caused quite a measure of anxiety and unhappiness among the populace. Couple this with the impending second upward adjustment of ministers’ salaries by the end of this year (as announced by Minister Teo Chee Hean in April 2007) and you see why the government had to backtrack from its insistent stance on the compulsory aspect of the annuity scheme.

Aftermath

Parliament is still in session, with MPs giving their views and suggestions on the CPF changes. What we can expect in the days and weeks ahead, when the government – and grassroots organizations and the media – begin to explain and educate the public on the intricacies of the scheme, is that words and phrases will be carefully selected when doing so.

One lesson the government should take from all this is that when it comes to a person's money, the government needs to tread very carefully - including how it names its policies.

Nothing is more sensitive, and important, to a Singaporean than what's inside his bank account - and in his CPF.

In the meantime, we have 6 months to wait – until the newly formed committee announced by the minister, which will be chaired by National Wages Council Chairman Professor Lim Pin, completes its study of the National Longevity Insurance Scheme.

That would be in March 2008 – just in time when the government will announce its budget for the new year.

One other thing to take note as well: Even though the minister or the government may omit using the term "compulsory", that does not mean that it won't be, for the majority of Singaporeans.

It seems, therefore, that more questions will be asked and more answers need to be given.