by Kok Ming Cheang

The Straits Times (ST) published an article last Wednesday (20 February) titled “Budget addresses cost of living concerns, says Heng Swee Keat.”

This statement by Finance Minister and PM-Designate Mr Hen Swee Keat cannot be further from the truth.

In the “Ask The Finance Minister programm” televised over Channel Newsasia (CNA), Mr Heng fielded questions from a panel of participants concerning the 2019 Budget he has just announced (on 18 Feb) in Parliament. Besides not answering any questions directly, he even claimed the “BUDGET ADDRESSES COST OF LIVING CONCERNS” which cannot be substantiated by the budget proposals he put forth.

To an average citizen, COST OF LIVING simply means the daily living cost incurred in keeping pace with the purchase of goods and services with the money he earns from his salary or enterprise. For those citizens who do not have a monthly income like the many senior citizens and housewives and even middle class citizens who have lost their well-paid jobs, to keep pace with the daily living cost is a struggle.

Mr Heng’s claim can only be justified if the 2019 Budget offers measures to reduce the cost of living in Singapore or offers meaningful financial help to the average citizens. Frankly, I cannot find anything in his Budget Statement that substantively helps the average citizens to cope with the current cost of living in Singapore.

Even the Singapore Stock Market gave a lacklustre response at best. As on 16 Feb, ST reported “Slowdown in final quarter of 2018 may set the tone for this year” was already a signal that the party is over and more is expected from the Finance Minister.

Only two products stood out in the Budget Statement 2019: Bicentennial Bonus and the Merdeka Generation Package.

1. The Bicentennial Bonus

The bonus is a package of gifts put together to say they cost $1.2 billion but actually, the beneficiaries don’t get much help to cope with the cost of living in Singapore such as:

  • to help with daily living expenses , they will get a GST voucher of UP TO $300, depending on their assessable income and annual value of their homes (means you have to meet certain conditions to get this one- time payment);
  • lower income workers will get cash of an additional 10% of their workfare income supplement payment for work done last year, with minimum $100 (one -time payment);
  • middle income earners will get a 50% personal income tax rebate, capped at $200 for YA 2019 (one-time rebate with a low max which means little savings from income tax payment);
  • top-ups of between $300 to $1000 to their Special Accounts and Retirement Accounts in CPF for older citizens who do not have $60,000 retirement savings. (The money is locked up in CPF and not immediately accessible for daily living).

2. Merdeka Generation Package (born in the 1950s)

  • $6.1 billion set aside at this year’s Budget (looks like a huge fund for the older citizens);
  • Medisave top-ups of $200 a year for 5 years (2019-2023), in addition to GST Voucher. (Medisave account is used to pay citizens’ own medical bills in polyclinics and public hospitals; the money going back to the government);
  • one-off $100 top-up to the citizens Passion Silver Card for transport, etc (how many trips will this last?)
  • Special Community Health Assist Scheme (CHAS) subsidies for common illness, chronic conditions, dental procedures (such subsidies are difficult to quantify and unsure if they are correctly given);
  • An additional 25% off their bills, on top of prevailing subsidies available when visiting polyclinics and specialist outpatient clinics (difficult to quantify and determine if the additional 25% off prevailing subsidies is correct because few people know what these subsidies are);
  • MG seniors will get additional 5 to 10% additional subsidies for their MediShield Life premium for life (this looks generous but the sum is small in comparison with the premium sum they will be paying, and more deductions from their Medisave accounts);
  • Give a total of $4000 each to persuade MG seniors to transit into the new CareShield Life from ElderShield (CareShield premium is going to be payable from age 30 to 67; ElderShield premium ends at 65).

I am writing this with my experience as a member of the Pioneer Generation. Since the introduction of the scheme in 2014, I have not felt any real effect of the various subsidies promised under the PGP but I do know exactly the amount being deducted from my Medisave account each time I visit the polyclinic or public hospital. The billings method adopted by polyclinics for PGP members is very complicated and it is very difficult to determine how much the government is really sharing my medical bill.

So, does the 2019 Budget really addresses the concerns of cost of living for our citizens, young and old?

I doubt it.

There are enough signals to tell the PAP government and Minister Heng that the cost of living here is unaffordable and becoming unbearable. Its common to find families making weekly trips to Johor Bahru to buy and stock up their weekly food supplies. Why?

The healthcare cost is very high in comparison to even first world countries. Costs of medications in Singapore are considerably higher than Malaysia, Thailand and even United Kingdom. Purchase of medications in public and private hospitals and pharmacies in Singapore are approximately 2x to 3x the prices in other countries for the same medicine, brand name and dosage.

For example, Fexofenadine Hydrochloride Telfast 120mg (manufactured in UK costs $0.498 per tablet in any pharmacy in London and Cambridge. In Singapore, the cost for the same tablet (manufactured in Indonesia), with the same brand name and dosage, is $1.05 each after seniors’ discount in a local pharmacy. The actual price is $1.30 each , the same price as charged in a private hospital.

More residents are giving up their vehicles lately due to the high cost of COEs and ERPs. The high cost of private and commercial vehicles undoubtedly add up to the cost of doing business and living in Singapore.  However, “sales of high-end cars soar but sink for general market“. Super-luxury car sales went up 13.1% (Lamborghini +111%) while the general market cars went down 12.7% at the end of 2018. This shows the common man in the street is unable to keep pace with the cost while the super rich has no problem at all. Even the small man, the motorcyclist is not spared – he has to pay $0.25 to enter Orchard Road ERP from Scotts Road at 4.15 pm.

There is a full range of tax increases and new levies coming up in 2019 from diesel tax, carbon tax, Netflix tax, excise duties on tobacco, foreign maid’s levy, higher tuition fees for polytechnic and ITE students from 2019, etc.

Based on Mr Heng’s Budget Statement 2019, it is evident that he is reluctant to look at the practical ways to lower the cost of living in Singapore.

Ask any man in the street and he will get the answer.

This was first published on Kok Ming Cheang’s Facebook page and reproduced with permission.

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