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Self-reliance versus more social spending

MPs split on how far Government should go

CHARISSA YONG on 04 Mar 2014

Singapore Press Holdings Ltd


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THE $8 billion Pioneer Generation Package highlighted differences among MPs yesterday, with some cautioning more prudence, while others called for increased social spending.

While there was widespread agreement that the Pioneer Generation Package showed that the Government had handled the nation’s finances well, it also seemed to signal a fork in the road for MPs about the way ahead.

Mr Alvin Yeo (Chua Chu Kang GRC) said Singapore risks becoming a Western-style welfare state and undermining what the pioneers built up if people expect an easy life without working for it.

Singapore cannot rest on its laurels, he added, and urged the country to keep working hard as there will be fewer working adults to support the growing number of elderly.

“Yet, there are some Singaporeans who feel we have already arrived. That the need to work is somehow less than before, perhaps because we can raid the reserves or resort to higher taxation of those better-off,” said Mr Yeo.

He also warned that well-intentioned measures to give more benefits to the needy “have created disincentives to self-reliance and impoverished governments elsewhere”.

Mr Yeo pointed to unemployment benefits in Britain that used to be so generous that people who could find work preferred to stay jobless, he said.

This sort of “dependence mindset where we expect some government agency to step in and take care of us – regardless of whether we can take care of ourselves – will lead ultimately to the breaking down of what has been built so far”, said Mr Yeo.

“The state should look after those who cannot take care of themselves, but this can only work if all of us strive, in the first place, to look after ourselves.”

Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC), took a different tack: “We cannot make welfare so comprehensive that no work is needed – but I want to make it just a little less hard.”

He called on the Government to fund more diverse programmes to improve people’s lives.

Nominated MP Laurence Lien also expressed a different view, calling for a new type of society where social considerations were not consistently trumped by economic ones.

Mr Lien said he favours adopting appropriate social safety nets and reducing social inequities.

He suggested, for example, that the Government could go further to help in healthcare, housing and education.

Mr Lien also wants free basic education for all aged between three and 18, such as in the form of vouchers for preschool fees.

He was confident that Singapore has enough funds for this if returns on reserves in operating revenue are included, for instance.

Dr Janil Puthucheary (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) disagreed, noting: “Free education is not free. It is very expensive to society as a whole... there is a very high taxation burden, and it drives individuals to seek private education.

“Economic growth is necessary in order for us to fund an increase in social spending.”

Dr Lim Wee Kiak (Nee Soon GRC) also questioned whether annually drawing on up to half of the country’s returns on reserves was sustainable.

Mr Liang Eng Hwa (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) said that while it was tempting to spend more and tax less, “there is no free lunch in the real world”.

Singapore should not allow its pioneers’ values of prudent fiscal management to weaken or slip in the years to come, he said.

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.

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