Jobs, social mobility at forefront of live debate

Disagreements during the debate are on costs, trade-offs and the value of elected opposition MPs


LOWERING unemployment, supporting local businesses and improving social mobility were among the issues tackled by representatives from the People's Action Party (PAP) and three opposition parties - the Workers' Party (WP), Progress Singapore Party (PSP) and Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) - at a political debate broadcast live on Wednesday night.

The discussion saw the opposition camp take issue with the ruling party's plans to raise taxes and what they consider inadequate support in helping small businesses reinvent.

The opposition politicians - the WP's Jamus Lim, PSP's Francis Yuen and SDP chief Chee Soon Juan - also argued that Singapore needs to dedicate more resources to strengthening its social safety net, especially through education and healthcare.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan said job security is at the forefront of PAP's campaign, citing the formation of the National Jobs Council and how the government has provided training allowance for Singaporeans to upskill themselves.

The government has also provided "immediate relief", he said, to those whose jobs have been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. But it is looking beyond the horizon.

"(We have provided) emergency treatment and are looking beyond the horizon. And that's what we have been focused on - jobs, jobs, jobs."

Dr Chee argued, however, that the government has not yielded much success in its quest for productivity.

"Since 2003, we've had the Economic Review Committee, and the Economic Strategies Committee, and of late, the Committee for Future Economy. With each of these (committees), we see our productivity tanking," he said.

"Jobs were lost and we have unemployment. And just before the GE (general election) right now, you're telling people you want jobs, jobs, jobs. I think that is more an election jingle than a well-thought-out plan."

On supporting local businesses, PSP's Mr Yuen said that apart from handouts and waivers, small and medium-sized enterprises need support to reinvent their businesses amid the current economic crisis.

These businesses are currently "(operating) in the ICU", he quipped.

"We need to be able to quickly create help for them to reinvent their businesses… There is no point prolonging the pain. When you are out of ICU (intensive care unit), you have a resurgence policy to nurse them back to health," said Mr Yuen, a board director at US-China aviation joint venture Huarui Aerosystems.

"Getting out of ICU is not the end of it, getting back to health is where we want the SMEs (to be)."

WP's Dr Lim said his party believes that more financial support should be made available for SMEs' ventures into regional and global markets.

There is also room for non-market mechanisms, such as a quota or balloting system, to keep commercial and industrial rents low, he said.

On social mobility, both Dr Lim and Dr Chee agreed that education is no longer a social leveller that it was before.

"When I was in school, we used to have an educational system where really there was equality of opportunities. But if you look at the schools now, you don't see that," said Dr Lim, who is an economist.

One way to bring back this equality is by ensuring that schools which are not the elite schools get a "disproportionately higher amount of educational spending", he said.

All three opposition politicians also called for greater attention to be paid to destitute seniors. "It is really a crime that we see that the elderly have to continue to work to make ends meet," he said.

In response, Dr Balakrishnan said the PAP government believes in uplifting the less well-off. The question on schools, he said, should not centre on "brand names". "It's a question of making every school a good school, or not," he said.

The PAP has not lost its focus in uplifting the vulnerable, and has done so while maintaining the economy's competitiveness, he maintained.

"We will not leave anyone behind. We will look after our seniors. We will give them the due dignity that they have," he said.

Overall, the disagreements that came up during the debate turned out to be less about policy directions and more about costs, tradeoffs and the value of elected opposition members.

Dr Balakrishnan even raised a common charge against Dr Lim's party, that the WP is "PAP-lite".

Having read the WP's election manifesto, Dr Balakrishnan said the PAP could well have written the same one. The WP merely takes "a half-step to the left" of the PAP, he charged - but even this has fiscal implications.

He asked how the WP intends to pay for its proposals. Dr Lim said that his party had "done the math behind" its manifesto, and everything proposed is budget-neutral.

The PAP and the WP differ in where they think trade-offs should occur, he added, with the PAP tending to come down on the side of capital. The WP thinks that for every dollar of national income, workers are receiving an insufficient share.

In the second-half of the debate, Dr Balakrishnan traded questions with each of the others in turn.

He asked the PSP's Mr Yuen what more the PSP would like to be done for local PMETs (professionals, managers, executives and technicians), given that there are almost seven local PMETs for each foreign Employment Pass holder.

Mr Yuen replied that there are more than 400,000 foreign PMETs here, and some 100,000 local PMETs who are out of a job.

The government should be helping the local group to make a transition into jobs now filled by the foreigners, whether with incentives or measures such as quotas.

Mr Yuen asked about the government's plan to create 100,000 jobs and opportunities. Dr Balakrishnan replied that these will be created within the next year to deal with the immediate crisis. In the longer term, the parties agree on the need to upskill the workforce, he said.

SDP's Dr Chee, who is contesting the single seat of Bukit Batok, was asked for the total bill of the SDP's proposed schemes, and who will pay for it.

Dr Chee said that two pillars of the SDP's "Four Yeses, One No" campaign - retrenchment benefits and retirement income - would require about S$5 billion each year.

In his wrap-up statement, Dr Balakrishnan said that the SDP's plan to suspend the goods and services tax would result in a fiscal hole of S$11 billion each year. He asked the SDP to "have a care" that in its proposals for wealth taxes or estate duties, it does not engage in "class welfare".

The night's exchange showed the value of political debate, said Dr Lim. Although the PAP has argued that this GE is about winning a mandate so it can lead Singapore out of the crisis, "the truth is the PAP, in all likelihood, will have this mandate by the end of this election", he said.

"(We are not trying) to deny the PAP a mandate. What we are trying to deny them is a blank cheque," he said, so that debates can be had - not on TV, but in Parliament.

Mr Yuen agreed, stressing the need for a free contest of ideas and constructive voices in Parliament. To that, Dr Balakrishnan - who had the last word - said he agreed with Dr Lim and Mr Yuen.

But regardless of the outcome on Polling Day, there will be more opposition representation in the new session of Parliament due to the Non-Constituency Member of Parliament scheme, said the minister, repeating a point made several times by the PAP in the campaign so far.