by Joshua Chiang
The measures that the Government plan to undertake to ‘strengthen society’ will be overwhelmed by the countervailing forces of the liberal foreign worker policy and the casinos, said Mr Tan Jee Say.
He was one of the three panelists speaking at The Online Citizen’s Budget Forum on Saturday. The other two panelists are Ms Braema Mathi and Mr Leong Sze Hian.
Mr Tan, 57 who was principal private secretary to then-Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong from 1985 to 1990, and a former government scholarship holder who graduated from Oxford University, was referring to the Budget speech by Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam in which the Minister said the Government would strengthen society by taking further measures to ensure an “inclusive society – where everyone can contribute and share in the country’s progress, regardless of where they start from.”
According to Mr Tan, the foreign workers policy and the two casinos in Singapore are the mainstays of the Singapore economic policy under the current administration.
“They will continue to allow foreign workers to come in,” he said, adding that even though the Government had taken measures to curb the influx of foreign workers, “After the elections, I’m not so sure.”
He was quick to point out that SIngaporeans are not averse to foreigners, but they came too fast, and their quality is suspect. Also, while they were largely employed in the construction sectors in the past, they had now gone into the other sectors of the economy, such as the service sector.
“That will be a destabilizing factor in our society,” he cautioned.
As for the casinos, Mr Tan recalled a trip to Las Vegas where he was told that one in five families have a problem gambler. He asked if Singapore was moving in that direction.
He estimated that currently 45-50% of visitors to the casinos were locals, far more than the estimated 10% when the levy was introduced, (Singaporeans had to pay $100 per person to enter the casinos) a clear sign that the levy isn’t working.
Responding to a question about the economic gains from the casinos and boost they gave to the retail and tourism industries, Mr Tan did not deny there is a multiplier effect. However he asked if Singapore should go into something that is not “morally good” for society.
“Economic development is about having wholesome jobs that can go on in a sustainable basis,” he said. He cited the example of Hong Kong which he said is “more calculating when it comes to money.” And yet despite the success of Macau’s casinos, Hong Kong is able to resist the temptation of having a casino, and it’s economy has nonetheless done very well. The Singapore Government has enough surplus to undertake other industries apart from the casino, he added.
Healthcare: A Social indicator of developed society
Mr Tan also touched on another aspect of the Budget speech, in which the Finance Minister said the Government is taking “major steps to enable Singapore to be a first-rate developed society a decade from now.”
“He said we are not yet first-rate. So where are we? Are we a third rate society?” Mr Tan asked.
He pointed out that for a high-income country, Singapore still lagged behind in key indicators compared to other countries in the same category. According to the World Health Statistics, Singapore has 32 beds per 10,000 population, below the average of 58 per 10,000. Singapore also has only 17 doctors for every 10,000 population. The average is 28 per 10,000 population.
Singapore is also allocating a much smaller percentage of its Budget to heathcare compared to even some developing countries.
According to Mr Tan’s soon-to-be-published paper on how to regenerate the Singapore economy:
Total expenditure on healthcare in Singapore has hovered around 3% of its GDP, below the average proportion of 5 % in low income and lower middle income countries i.e. the poor and developing countries. High income countries (of which Singapore is one of fifty countries classified as belonging to this category by the World Health Organisation or WHO) spend a much higher percentage of about 11%. The bulk of the expenditure in Singapore is borne by private individuals and organisations, and only about a third is accounted for by Government compared to the average figure of 61% in high income countries.
“Why should we wait another 10 more years before we enjoy even this status?” He asked rhetorically at the end of his speech.
More reports on TOC Budget Forum soon.