SINGAPORE — On Wednesday (22 Feb), Mr Pritam Singh, Leader of the Opposition and Secretary General of the Workers’ Party, while supporting the Budget 2023, raised concerns about the potential emergence of “two Singapores” and emphasized the need for policies that fight against inequality.
Highlighting that the budget has been described by some outlets as a “Robin Hood” budget, Mr Singh raised concerns about the potential emergence of “two Singapores,” where one is connected to the world as a hub economy, while the other is one where the majority of Singaporeans live, with perceptions of slowing social mobility and high housing prices.
Mr Singh cautioned that these two Singapores could easily become a reality that causes friction in society and accentuates cleavages.
The WP leader acknowledged the government’s efforts to keep Singapore relevant to the world and bring new businesses and opportunities to Singapore and Singaporeans.
Noting the moves through the Budget to better equalize opportunities through fiscal intervention, such as raising taxes and duties for high-end property and luxury vehicles, Mr Singh expressed his support of the idea of a progressive society where those who earn more pay proportionally more in taxes. He also honours the centrality of a strong work ethic and the need to be empathetic and sensitive to the disadvantaged and those who need extra support.
“The interventions of the Workers’ Party for this debate would be in the spirit of this review of our social compact – envisioning how best society can position itself for an unpredictable and potentially far more disruptive future,” he said.
On the topic of jobs, Mr Singh discussed the Job-Skills Integrators pilot program for the Precision Engineering, Retail, and Wholesale Trade industries, emphasizing its potential in providing job-seekers with vital information about available opportunities, necessary skills to acquire, and the specific organizations that require their skills.
However, Mr Singh asked if the new Job-Skills Integrators have been named, and the government could provide more details on their effectiveness and the agencies that will anchor this initiative.
Mr Singh also highlighted the extension of paternity leave and the need for SMEs to adjust their HR policies and job scopes to hire seniors permanently to make up for the temporary absences of younger staff due to either paternity or maternity leave, or due to those unplanned days when young children fall ill, and parents scramble to make alternative plans.
He suggested that studies should be carried out to see how the Senior Employment Credit (SEC) could be increased to better motivate employers to hire seniors, as there must be an upside for employers as Singapore undertakes this cultural shift towards making the workplace more family-friendly.
Mr Singh added that the needs of the Singapore Armed Forces or the Home Team agencies cannot and should never be compromised regarding the suggestion that men be excused from their NS duties for the year their child is born.
Regarding retirement adequacy, Mr Singh welcomed the move to raise the Central Provident Fund (CPF) monthly salary ceiling to help middle-income Singaporeans save more for their retirement.
However, he also raised concerns that the CPF system is not designed primarily for retirement needs, as so much of the CPF funds are dedicated to housing.
Mr Singh suggested a reduction in the allocation to the Ordinary Account in favour of the higher-interest-bearing Special Account to better serve the retirement needs of Singaporeans. He also noted that the World Bank recommends a retirement income replacement rate of 53 per cent of net final year wages or 78 per cent of net average lifetime wages, which may not be met by many CPF Life payouts due to the amount of CPF funds locked up in housing.
Mr Singh called for a conversation to re-centre the CPF system towards its original purpose, especially in the face of rapid technological advancement and the cycles of job disruption, job redesign, and job obsolescence. He suggested that more affordable public housing will improve retirement adequacy.
Moving on to housing, Mr Singh welcomed the Government’s efforts to make housing more accessible and affordable, including recalibrating the building program from 2025 so that Short Wait Time flats form a larger proportion of new flat supply than before. However, he also raised concerns about the impact of higher CPF grants for flat resale buyers on house prices, as buyers may be tempted to bid more for a flat they want, knowing that they have additional grants to enhance the price they can pay.
Mr Singh called for a deep conversation to re-evaluate the principles of how land is sold for public housing and asked for an understanding of the principles and rationale behind the market discount of up to 15% of land allocated for Government Land Sales and Industrial Government Land Sales and the sale of some private land even below this market price threshold.
He raised concerns that higher CPF grants for first-time resale flat buyers could cause housing prices to rise, and called for a review of the principles of how land is sold for public housing. He also asked for more details on the differences between the valuation of land for public and private use, and called for the government to release the price of land for specific public housing projects and their associated subsidies on a Build-To-Order (BTO) project basis, to enable Singaporeans to engage more meaningfully in the Forward Singapore exercise.
Mr Singh noted that there is public interest in this subject, and many individuals are not convinced by the government’s narrative that selling land below fair market value erodes reserves.
In connection to the above points, Mr Singh once again asked for the price of land for specific public housing projects and their associated subsidies to be released on a BTO project basis, so that Singaporeans can more meaningfully engage the Government in the course of the Forward Singapore exercise. Ms Indranee Rajah, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office and Second Minister for Finance, had previously said it won’t be helpful or meaningful to do so
In conclusion, Mr Singh reiterated the importance of fiscal redistribution, better social protections, and greater support for the most vulnerable Singaporeans. He emphasized that policies should be continually refreshed and reviewed, including the applicability of the principles they were originally based on.