Progressive Budget, or a different approach?

By Howard Lee

At the close of the Committee of Supply debates, Defence Minister and Leader of the House Ng Eng Hen was reported as saying that while Budget 2014 contained significant improvements to address issues such as housing needs and taking care of the elderly, more could be done to address transport, healthcare and manpower issues.

Some might wonder if Dr Ng might be a little too critical. By all counts, Budget 2014 was more than generous in terms of dishing out the goddies, despite this not likely to be an election year. Pioneer Generation Package, changes to parental support tax incentives for working adults, more buses, cheaper public housing, incentives for businesses to upgrade skills – the list goes on.

It is also apparent that Budget 2014 was meant to address most, if not all, of the pain points that surfaced among Singaporeans since the last General Elections. Housing, public transport and cost of living were identified as key pain points, and these constituted some of the major announcements coming from the respective Ministers – the government’s attempt to lower cost of public housing, an increase in the number of buses to ply our streets, and assisting the elderly with their medical costs.

In effort and resources, these are serious undertakings, and serve to demonstrate the government’s resolve to appease, at least, citizens’ unhappiness over an increasingly over-crowded island state.

Therefore, we can see that the government has learnt the important lessons since 2011. But is it doing the right thing as a result of these lessons learnt? Can we safely say that the government is starting to have a greater interest in the well-being of the citizens in what has been touted to be a more socialist outlook in its direction of governance?

The Pioneer Generation Package is a considerable slice of the Budget pie. While some might noted that it was actually an idea that originated with the Workers’ Party, we cannot deny that it was a tremendous mental effort by a government that has always preferred advocated a self-help mindset. Detractors would also argue that the scheme has an unbalanced focus on medical benefits, but such perks mean a lot to those in their sunset years.

The problem, however, is that the PGP caters specifically to the pioneer generation. Yes, it alleviates healthcare concerns for the elderly, but does not consider the “future pioneers” – the working class of today who are facing rising costs in healthcare, as much as their daily living expenses. The government has provided a relatively safer harbour for the elderly of today, but in terms of actual policy directions to address concerns of the elderly of the future, much is still hazy.

There was also much chatter about public transport. More buses to alleviate congestion until all the train lines have been completed is a commendable effort. For sure, some have noted that this merely addresses the back-log results of population growth. Some have even suggested that this is not even sufficient to cater for the population boom to come in 2030. Such views are valid, but in reality better represent a crystal ball moment.

The real issue with the tweaks to public transportation is more apparent among those who ask why the government continues to purchase hardware for the two public transport operators, who are rightly seen as private business entities that have no qualms about reaping profits as they see fit. In fact, this coupled with the dubious reward/penalty system announced before the Budget suggest that the government is still keen to give a wide berth to poor performance by the PTOs, without a clearer path to accountability.

The high cost of housing saw some relieve with the drop in cash-over-valuation prices, and the National Development Minister was quick to focus on this as a success in the changes to the nation’s housing policiesUnfortunately, few would be happy to applaud this move. COV prices, while high, constitutes only a small proportion of actual housing costs.

Indeed, what has not been addressed is the high base cost of what should essentially be affordable homes for all. There is undoubtedly a high demand for rental flats, and many more who are stretching their money over mortgages that stretch out over much of their working lifetimes. The core issue of affordable homes, caused by the unchecked inflation of property prices, remains unanswered. The properly bubble might have stopped growing, but we have yet to see it shrink, much less disappear altogether.

The greatest concern that should really be coming out of Budget 2014 should be the direction taken on manpower issues. The bugbear of foreign labour currently resides in the construction sector, and the government is happy to let the sector take it’s time to adjust, at least until 2016. In which case, the next elections could very well have passed. In political terms, this can be described as kicking the can down the road.

Instead, the Ministry of Manpower opted to take the rather vague approach of improving jobs for Singaporeans, and where there could be more specific mention of how specifically such jobs would be created, the Minister has referred, once again, on the need for a thriving economy so that investors will continue to offer jobs, and the ever-present drive for productivity. Indeed, an area that should have deserved more emphasis, workplace discrimination, has been safely handed over to the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices and employers. No new legislations were proposed to better protect workers.

In case you are missing the drift, here it is in simple terms: Budget 2014 can best be seen as an indication that the government intends to go on, business as usual, with no clear and distinct step towards a more progressive society. The focus continues to be building our economy, albeit an economy that is less hesitant to throw out a few welfare packages.

In other words, there is no real shift in policy directions. All we see are tweaks to the machine.

Of course, there might be a time in the near future where this government will finally realise that there is a need to look at the well-being (not welfare) of its governed. We do not ask for high-paying jobs, but a more equitable workplace. We do not ask for cheaper houses, but a place where home in not a distant dream tempered by the marketplace. We do not ask for cheap and good healthcare, but for our elderly and ourselves to have the final dignity at the end of days.

When the government realises this, then we will see a change in policy. Until then, as Dr Ng might have suggested without even knowing it, we still have a long way to go from Budget 2014.