COMMENT: SDP rally – between reason and rhetoric

SDP chairman Paul Tambyah speaking on Saturday (19 October) night. (PHOTO: Dhany Osman/Yahoo News Singapore)

The good thing about being at a rally not held within the election period is that you can absorb what the speakers say without getting caught up in “election fever”. There’s little to complicate your mindset, which would have been bombarded with reams of news articles about “he said, she said” and the barbs being thrown left, right and centre as is common during an election campaign. The atmosphere is more clinical, with less of the chanting, cheering and jeering that makes an election rally, especially one held by an opposition party, exciting in staid Singapore.

So the sceptic in me pondered over what the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) politicians said at the podium in Hong Lim Park on Saturday, just as if they were just a line-up of suited-up speakers at an indoor event titled “What the People’s Action Party did wrong”.

The SDP is the first opposition party to declare that it has started campaigning for the general election, although it concedes that it had no clue when it would be held except that it must be before April 2021. It didn’t want to be caught on the backfoot in case a snap election was called along with the minimum nine days of campaigning before polling day, said its chairman Paul Tambyah.

From what the nine speakers and the SDP paraphernalia proclaimed, it is campaigning on a plank of three Nos.

Will Singaporeans bite?

1. No to 9 per cent GST.

Okay, this is a vote-getter. Nobody wants to pay higher GST, which applies to poor and rich alike. If I want to split hairs, I would say the line should be rephrased to ‘No to any rise in GST’ because the G didn’t say it will go the full hog all at once. What Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat said during the Budget debate in 2018 was that the tax will go up sometime between 2021 and 2025 and probably sooner than later.

It does look foolhardy for a political party to “promise” to raise taxes when it’s more usual to say “read my lips, no new taxes” George Bush-style. In fact, the SDP cited the proposed rise as a broken promise, quoting Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s assurance in his 2015 budget speech that there was no need for increased taxes.

What Mr Tharman actually said was that the G had enough for at least the rest of the decade, a point repeated by the Prime Minister in November 2017. So it doesn’t seem that any U-turn has been made.

The question then turns to whether people believe that the G has no resources or no other channel to turn to to fund a rise in social spending for the ageing population. The SDP recommends instead a rise in income tax for the well-off, return of estate duty or increase in stamp duties, among other things. Oh, and there was the ever-popular cut in ministerial pay. It didn’t say what all these increases would amount to in revenue.

The SDP also believes that if push comes to shove, then a tiered GST would be better for citizens: Exemptions for basics like rice and water, the usual for other goods and services, and a luxury tax for jewellery and fancy cars.

It didn’t say how a tiered GST could be drawn up except that this will be well within the ability of the G. It’s a pity that it didn’t give examples of how this has been implemented elsewhere. The reason for the plain GST system we have now was ease of implementation, little chance of tax avoidance and to eliminate the escalating lobbying for even more exemptions which would water down the GST system.

According to Mr Heng, a rise in GST from 7 to 9 per cent would bring in the equivalent of 0.7 per cent of GDP each year or about $3.4 billion going by 2018 GDP figures. Entrepreneur Alfred Tan, an SDP newcomer, however, went to the extent of suggesting that this was a ploy to raise ministerial salaries, as a rise in GDP is one component in the pay formula.

Cost-of-living has always been a popular opposition plank.

Everyone knows things are more expensive now compared to five, 10 years, 20 years ago. But nobody really wants to do the maths on the purchasing power we have now compared to then, because of a rise in real wages.

SDP members cited a litany of fee increases since the 2015 General Election from utilities to carbon to digital services. There was, strangely, a “sugar tax” cited by secretary-general Chee Soon Juan, even though the proposal hasn’t been accepted by the health ministry, much less introduced.

Fee rises are irrefutable facts (they happened or they didn’t) and a PAP response would mean reprising the reasons for each fee rise. This isn’t about to translate into snappy slogans like this line that drew applause : “Singapore is the most expensive city in the world”.

It was repeated so often that I asked my students to fact-check this. The result: This No. 1 accolade was given by the Economic Intelligence Unit, which helps companies calculate allowance and compensation packages for expatriates. The survey included a basket of different costs such as international school fees and babysitter rates – so we’re not exactly talking about locals eating hawker food or taking public transport.

Where the opposition is on more solid ground is on the plight of the elderly poor, who have seen their wages stagnate for many years, exacerbating the income gap in Singapore. Dr Tambyah cited a piece by Associate Professor Irene Ng from the NUS department of social work, which estimated that in 2017, 11 to 13 per cent of Singaporean households were in absolute poverty and about a quarter were in relative poverty. The speakers didn’t propose a minimum wage floor as I had expected. And of course, I wouldn’t expect them to talk about the G’s recent moves to raise the salaries of cleaners and security guards.

That’s always been the shortcoming of rallies – it’s a one-way affair.

2. Say no to 10 million population.

I confess I was a little flummoxed by this because what’s been etched into my mind is 6.9 million by 2030. Who gave this 10 million figure and when is Singapore, already peopled at 5.7 million, supposed to reach that number? None of the speakers gave details beyond citing Mr Heng as the source.

So a check showed that Mr Heng said this at a university dialogue in May. Maintaining that Singapore’s population density was not excessive, he cited former chief planner Liu Thai Ker, who said in 2014 that Singapore should plan for 10 million people for it to remain sustainable in the long term. That was the only time the number surfaced in mainstream media.

Even though it wasn’t a policy pronouncement, it does show that Mr Heng was “open” to a more populated country, providing the SDP with a point of attack. Given the fracas over 6.9 million, Mr Heng might want to clarify what he meant when he cited someone else’s figure. Is this the new objective and by when? How is Singapore gearing up in terms of infrastructure?

Any politician will know that anything to do with population will inevitably open a new flank in the immigration debate.

The SDP went on a predictable tirade over how foreigners would flood the island, taking over jobs that the now-retrenched local PMETs used to do. It’s a hot button issue, said to be a prime cause for the PAP’s loss of votes in the 2011 general election. What the SDP didn’t say is how the influx has been slowed down since then and that some fair employment rules are in place to ensure that Singaporeans are always employed first. Like the Progress Singapore Party, however, it raised the issue of the free trade agreement between Singapore and India which committed the little red dot to accepting Indian nationals for work here. I believe Singaporeans would like to know more details about this.

3. Say no to CPF minimum sum scheme.

Another hot button issue. The SDP reduces the debate to a matter of choice: Citizens should be free to decide if they want to use all of their CPF or leave their money in it. It was yet another “broken promise” from the PAP which moved the withdrawal age from 55 to 62 in 1999, to 65 today, its speakers said.

This is a rather sleight of hand on the part of SDP. Citizens turning 55 can withdraw anything beyond the minimum sum, and start getting pay-outs when they turn 65 under the CPF Life annuity scheme. SDP’s Khung Wai Yeen even scoffed at Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s declaration at this year’s National Day Rally that the CPF withdrawal age remains at 55 and that anyone who says otherwise is spreading “fake news”.

Mr Khung, speaking in Mandarin, cited the case of a man who wanted the pay-out term reduced to 20 years, that is, until he turned 85. The man had argued that he had no children to leave his money to, and would like to have a comfortable retirement with his wife. His request was turned down.

The trouble with the CPF scheme is how terribly complicated it is to understand. Allowing the man to reduce his pay-out period would encourage others to make the same request. What happens then to the annuity scheme’s pay-out to others? The administrators would have to reckon with a smaller, indeterminate pool of funds to make sure everybody else has enough to keep body and soul together till they die.

SDP secretary-general Chee Soon Juan speaking at the party's pre-election rally at Hong Lim Park on Saturday night. (PHOTO: Dhany Osman/Yahoo News Singapore)

The speeches were preceded by a concert and a carnival-like atmosphere with booths covered by tents in SDP’s trade-mark red, selling Dr Chee’s books and other SDP paraphernalia. Besides Mr Alfred Tan, there were two other new faces in the line-up of speakers: Entrepreneur Robin Low, who spent much of his speech decrying the G’s tax on big motorcycles; and marketing and content strategist Min Cheong, who believed that workplace bullying is an issue worthy of national attention.

I have to say I felt sorry for the PAP. People jeered when pictures of the PAP leaders went up on the video wall. Policies are reduced to pithy slogans and rhetorical questions. Dr Chee said the SDP prided itself on its research. He had impressive lists of facts, quotes and dates. While all might be true, the question is whether all the facts were presented, the context in which the “new” facts were introduced and what accounted for the changes in the facts.

That, however, is a job for the PAP. It will be uphill because the PAP’s method of policymaking goes over the heads of most ordinary people. Singapore’s policies are too complicated to chart on an A4 size sheet of paper. Just look at the many-headed CPF system, which deals not just with retirement but also housing, medical costs, education loans and investment. People will have to be very well-informed to see that one change to one thing would have a knock-on effect on something else, and that what might be good for the individual might be detrimental to the body politic.

The speed at which changes are made – notwithstanding “expert” committees set up – doesn’t help in getting “buy in” from the people either. (Can someone explain Careshield Life in a few sentences?) There is some merit in stretching the consultation and discussion process beyond just a few hours of one-sided debate in Parliament. It’s messy but it might get more people interested in understanding the details rather than resign themselves to a fait accompli. Some sacrifice of efficiency to gain a fuller public consensus or understanding would serve the country better in the long run.

Nor is it enough to belabour the “trust” issue as the magic formula for a functioning democracy. I don’t think it’s a matter of whether people trust the G to do the right thing, but about being sure that it has picked the right thing to do. It’s about the people gaining more control of the levers, rather than only having a say on who operates the train once every few years.

The ballot box cannot be the sole repository of all the complaints and woes, hopes and dreams of citizens. That’s how freak elections come about.

This commentary was reproduced from Bertha Henson’s blog Bertha Harian.

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