By Andrew Loh
“If I’m discussing whether to raise taxes or not, I think I will never finish that discussion. So, one day when we have to raise taxes, the government will just have to make up its mind and say, ‘ok, I have to decide, I have to do this, I have to persuade people’, because otherwise it’s not workable.” – Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
The PM’s remarks have sparked quick reactions from the public. Many criticise him for several things – wanting to (presumably) raise taxes, and for wanting or preferring to push things through without consultation or dialogue.
Yet, in recent times, especially the last two years, PM Lee’s government has promised more consultation, more engagement, more discussions.
Speaking in Parliament in October 2011, some 5 months after his People’s Action Party (PAP) suffered its worst electoral results, PM Lee was reported to have said that “the government will share more information… welcome different views, reach out to diverse groups including critics, hear them, exchange with them, pick up ideas from them, persuade them.”
“We need to engage citizens more in the decisions affecting them,” PM Lee said. Juxtapose these remarks with the one on raising taxes he made on Friday and you can understand the outcry from the perceived reneging of a promise to engage.
This broken promise is not the first. For example, the government’s presentation of the White Paper on population was met with very sharp and shrill resistance, resulting in thousands of people turning up at two public protests. Even in hushed circles among some in the civil service, there was shock – first at the way the Paper was presented, and second, at the backlash and outrage from the public.
The public perception was that the potential increase of our population to 6.9 million, a figure mentioned in the Paper, had not been discussed publicly and the people consulted. The PM will likely pay a political price for it, in terms of an erosion of trust in the ruling party.
And then there were the new Internet regulations by the Media Development Authority (MDA). The new rules were pushed through without much consultation either. In fact, it is believed that not even the 21-member Media Literacy Council, let alone ordinary Singaporeans and netizens, was informed or consulted about the changes before its announcement.
It left a bitter taste in the mouth for many. This is especially so when several ministers tried and failed to explain convincingly that the regulations were not to stifle free speech online.
Perhaps the PM does have a point – a country cannot be run by being stuck in quagmire, or in long drawn-out discussions indefinitely. We would indeed get nowhere but more than just being frustrated, there would be serious consequences as well.
So, it is a balance which needs to be struck – and as Prime Minister, it is PM Lee’s job to make that call. Sometimes he will make the right one, and other times when citizens feel he has missed the mark, his call will be questioned. Indeed, he should not expect anything less for the proposals he made during the National Day Rally.
In his speech, PM Lee laid out what have been described as “epochal” new directions for Singapore, specifically in areas such as education, healthcare and public housing. His speech was praised, mostly by the government mouthpiece – The Straits Times – and his supporters for being “brilliant”, a “landmark” speech which attracted “positive” response.
Yet one must remember that some of the major changes PM Lee announced were broad statements, the details of which are yet to be worked out, and the consequences of which are still unknown.
The changes may not necessarily turn out to be good ones. It would be folly to see too much “brilliance” and allow that to be blanket approval for the policies to come.
The changes to the PSLE grading method and the Direct Schools Admission scheme will take several years to implement, as PM Lee himself said. Already, there have been many – and valid – concerns raised by parents, teachers and schools about these. The jury is still out on whether these changes are for the better, or for the worse, or even whether they are the changes need for our education system. Need the PM listen to his citizens on these issues?
Another change is to the Medishield scheme, now renamed Medishield Life. It is now a compulsory scheme for everyone, and will include those 90-years old and above, who were previously excluded. No one can opt out of it, unlike previously. PM Lee also said premiums for the insurance scheme will be increased. By how much? It is still being worked out. The only assurance given so far is that the premiums will be “affordable”. Meanwhile, do we still make those 90-and above pay for healthcare? Need the PM listen to his citizens on these issues?
The relocation of the port, the new “Marina Bay 2” at Tanjong Pagar, and the construction of Changi Terminal 5, will take years to realise. How all these turn will out is left to be seen. For example, how would we cope with an increase in tourist numbers in time to come? In 2012, S’pore received almost 14.5 million tourists. This would likely increase substantially by 2020 or 2030. Add in the projected increase in resident population to 6.9 million by 2030, and we can imagine how crowded this island will be. Need the PM listen to his citizens on these issues?
And at the end of the (less than) rosy picture, we finally get a hint of how these might be paid for – through raising the Goods & Services Tax (GST). Is this the best solution? Have other alternatives been considered? And it is not always true that a greying population means a proportionate increase in healthcare spending, particularly if more effort is put into preventive care and healthy living. Need the PM listen to his citizens on these issues?
So, let’s not get carried away and laud these as “epochal”. They’re not. They are, in fact, mostly administrative changes – allowing more school places to be opened to more students, an extra grant to younger people buying HDB flats, tweaking the grading system of our primary schools, including everyone in an insurance scheme, etc.
PM Lee said some of these changes have come about from the recently concluded National Conversation initiative. And he is right in saying that there are some issues which we can take our time to discuss and come to a consensus on, and implement these subsequently; and that there are some other issues which do not grant us such luxury of discussion with the wider public.
In the end, he and his party has to make the call on these things, especially whether the government needs to consult the people – and bear the (political) consequences resulting from their decisions.
So yes, the Prime Minister is not wrong in saying that on some matters, “Ok, I have to decide, I have to do this, I have to persuade people.”
It is what he is elected to do. That’s what leaders are expected to do, in fact. But he and his party alone do not decide if these are the right decisions.
It is ultimately voters who will decide if he makes the right decisions. And the more he thinks about consulting his stakeholders, the better his chances of getting it right.
Read also: “Healthcare safety net — improvements long overdue” by Alex Au.