Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said on Monday (20 January) that the budget is a long term strategic plan for the country’s future, and not a “goodie bag”.
Mr Heng, who is also the Finance Minister, said this in response to a question raised by the director of the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) Janadas Devan. The director asked if this year’s Budget, which will delivered on the 18th of next month, will be a “General Election Budget.
“Many of the things that we invest in our Budget – whether it’s to restructure the economy, to provide better opportunities for our people – helps us to build capabilities, not just in one or two year, but over the long term,” Mr Heng said while speaking during the question and answer session at the IPS’ Singapore Perspectives conference.
He explained that the budget for economic upgrading and training for workers have increased significantly, and “we have to think of ways in which the resources of the country are put to the best use for the long-term future”.
“It is not a short-term giveaway. That would not help us to build that capability to grow and prosper and allow our people to have a better life,” he added.
Certain problems, such as the current economy affected due to the ongoing US-China trade war, call for both short and longer solutions, Mr Heng pointed out.
“If you look at segments of population that will be under stress, what else do we need to do?” he asked.
The Deputy Prime Minister also expressed in his speech that the Government is looking at ways to help the lower and lower-middle income Singaporeans. This includes the current and future seniors on how to fulfil their retirement needs in a more sustainable way, and Mr Heng noted that more details on this will be revealed in next month’s Budget presentation.
Issues raised by opposition members
During the session, Mr Heng also answered questions from opposition party members, including Singapore Democratic Party’s (SDP) Dr Paul Tambyah, People’s Power Party’s (PPP) chief Goh Meng Seng as well as the newly-appointed assistant secretary-general of Progress Singapore Party (PSP) Leong Mun Wai.
Dr Paul asked when the Government announced a GST hike last year, did it actually consider all the alternatives first. Describing it as a “regressive” tax, SDP’s chairman suggested some alternative, like returning the top corporate tax level to 20 percent.
In reply to this, Mr Heng said that the raw numbers may seem to make the GST system look regressive, but in reality, it isn’t.
“I would like to correct you on that. It is important for us to consider our tax system as a whole and not to pick on one or two pieces and say ‘this part is regressive, this part is not progressive’,” he pointed out.
He added that the collected sum from GST has to be considered with other taxes and spending.
“We have been very careful in designing the policies, to make sure that the benefits of our tax system and many of the schemes that we have, benefit the lower-income groups, the ones who need help the most,” he noted.
On the other hand, PPP’s Mr Goh expressed that a “divisive force” is coming back to Singapore and questioned if the new citizens would stand in “changing geopolitics”. He cited an example of new citizens from China who have allegiance to their home country.
“Will this affect our policies, our political direction, and the decision that we make?” he asked.
Mr Heng accepted that new citizens can be divisive force if there’s doubt in their loyalty.
However, since new citizen have left their home country and decided to live in Singapore, Singaporeans must try their best to welcome and include them in so they can be part of “our team”, Mr Heng said.
“In that regard, I must say that I am very troubled that so many people are seeking to exploite these difference,” he stressed.
POFMA does not stop different views, but to target falsehoods
Separately, the Deputy Prime Minister also answered other questions, including some which were about the controversial Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA).
Someone from the Nanyang Technological University asked if the Government will go on to use POFMA as the “antidote to problems”. He went on to ask Mr Heng on his thoughts if such laws can “widen the gap” between the people and the Government.
As an answer, Mr Heng said that POFMA does not hinder people from having different points of view, but rather it is used to target falsehoods.
“For political discourse, when you are making decision on the future of a country, all the more we need to make sure that opinions and facts that are put out are accurate and not false and misleading,” he noted.
Giving Brexit as an example, Mr Heng said that many groups looked at exploiting others by fabricating facts.
“I do not know the extent to which that influenced the voters’ decision on Brexit but these are major, major decisions affecting a country’s future and the people’s future. How can it be based on false facts?” he asked.
As such, Mr Heng said that POFMA is used “precisely” to deal with fake news that “unprincipled people” come up with in order to “get their position”.