“The most striking thing was how Singaporeans will continue to be dependent on government handouts for even basic things like housing and health care,” I told the Wall Street Journal, which asked me for my views on the Prime Minister’s National Day Rally speech.
“Singaporeans should ponder this: Why do we have to continue stretching out our hands to the government, even though we are supposed to be one of the world’s wealthiest countries, with one of the world’s highest savings rates?”
While some have apparently got carried away and praised and used superlative adjectives to describe the speech – “brilliant”, “landmark”, “epochal” – I can’t help but notice that the rally speech is not unlike the Budget speech. And that in effect, each year, we have two – what I would call – “handouts” speech.
At the Budget, the government announces an entire slew of initiatives, whereby invariably the handouts take the limelight. Increasingly, under PM Lee Hsien Loong, the National Day Rally speech is a second Budget speech of sorts as well – with him announcing handouts too.
In his speech on Sunday, he revealed extra grants/subsidies for the younger ones intending to purchase HDB flats, and subsidies for health insurance premiums for the older folk.
What these show is that Singaporeans will continue to have to depend on government handouts for their basic needs, unless you’re one of the better-off ones. It is a sobering thought, especially if you consider also that S’poreans work the most number of hours in a week in the world, have the highest (forced) savings rates in the world, that Singapore is the wealthiest country in the world, that we are always ranked at the top in various economic indicators.
Indeed, PM Lee quipped during his speech that “even the poor are not really poor, by international standards.” But even so, the question remains on why S’poreans have to be so dependent on government subsidies, grants, rebates, for their basic needs.
GST vouchers, subsidy for wages, subsidies for healthcare, subsidies/grants for housing, rebates for utilities, vouchers for transport fares, handouts for pocket money for our kids, etc.
I am thus a little bemused and puzzled why some would call the NDR speech an “epochal” or “brilliant” or “landmark” one. It looks like any other speech to me, to be honest. The government is giving out some goodies and continuing to build more shopping centres, basically.
There are so many more things I wish the government would do – things which have nothing to do with the material or with money. For example, it could have reversed its decision on building an eight-lane highway through Bukit Brown. It could restore the Law Society’s voice to speak up on legal matters. It could free the mainstream media. It could have made changes to the political system – introduce an independent Elections Department, for example. It could have addressed parents’ constant stress and worry over the heavy burden of their kids’ homework. It could have introduced minimum wage. Or how it will help our elderly folk who have to clean tables at the coffeeshops and hawker centres, or those who sweep our roads even as they age. Or it could address those the government had mistreated, such as those detained under the ISA and for whom the government never proved its case.
But we saw none of these.
The much lauded Terminal 5 will cater mostly to visitors and tourists. Yes, there will be jobs created, and I am sure this is something the government will tout – just as the two casinos created “35,000” jobs for us. Relocating the port will free up space for more residential housing to be built. But with a dwindling birth rate, a professed and promised slow down on immigration, I wonder who these new residential units will be for – keeping in mind also that the government is building “10,000” more rental units, and has also started to build smaller 2- and 3-room flats.
All in all, the NDR speech had nothing new, really. There was no new direction in the government’s fundamental policy or thinking. In the end, Singaporeans still will have to contend with cheaper foreign labour suppressing their wages, and Singaporeans will continue to have to depend on the government for handouts for even the basic things.
And as our society ages, government spending will have to increase as, indeed, the government has admitted. But fiscal policy is only one side of the coin. The other side of it are all the other “softer” issues which are just as important.
One thing is clear, however. And this is: all these changes we are seeing now have come about because of the political changes which the people of Singapore effected in the last three elections – which results gave the opposition parties a boost. As Singapore approaches its 50th year of independence, one can expect the politics to get more nasty, as the ruling party fights to remain relevant and in power for the beginning of the next half century of our existence as a state.
Under PM Lee’s premiership and leadership, the PAP has lost some 15 per cent of the vote over the course of two general elections, and suffered unprecedented losses in two by-elections. I expect and suspect that this is at the back of the mind of the PM – and I also expect more handouts as GE 2016 nears, and at the same time, his government will also wield the big stick against its critics as the next elections draws nearer.
In short, the PAP has not changed fundamentally. It will still do what it feels, and do so without consultation – such as the White Paper on population – and when it is desperate enough – such as the recent Internet regulations to curb free speech online.
It is telling that the government bulldozed these through, without consultation and even after the public raged against them.
So, no. There was nothing “epochal” or “landmark” or “brilliant” about the PM’s speech. It was, as PM Lee said at the PAP party conference in 2012, “re-calibrate left a bit, right a bit.”
This, after a year’s worth of “national conversation”, and Singaporeans continue to be dependent on government handouts for basic needs. How is this any different from the status quo?
As Rachel Chang from the Government mouthpiece, said: