The top two concerns of voters - the cost of living and foreigners - were the subject of debate among candidates from the ruling and opposition parties, in a forum televised ‘live’ just hours after nominations closed on Tuesday (Sep 1).
Representatives from the People’s Action Party (PAP) and the five opposition parties fielding the most number of candidates for General Election 2015 were gathered at MediaCorp for the structured forum. ‘Your Vote Matters’ was simulcast on Channel 5 and Channel NewsAsia from 8pm to 9pm.
The panel comprised Mr Lawrence Wong and Ms Denise Phua from the PAP (which is contesting all 89 seats); Mr Perera Leon Anil, Workers’ Party (28 seats); Mr Lim Tean, National Solidarity Party (12 seats); Mr Kenneth Jeyaretnam, Reform Party (11 seats); Dr Chee Soon Juan, Singapore Democratic Party (11 seats) and Mr Tan Jee Say, Singaporeans First (10 seats).
RISING COST OF LIVING
In the question-and-answer segment, candidates tackled the top three questions sent in by viewers. The first: What was their party’s plan to keep the cost of living manageable?
Mr Lim said the NSP recognised the huge inequality gap in Singapore, “one of the highest in the world”. It had unveiled a policy to allow every Singapore family that does not live in private property to buy a HDB flat at cost-plus, and also another on the resale market.
More could be done to keep incomes growing and to give citizens more security in their retirement, said Mr Perera. He pointed to recommendations in the WP’s manifesto for inflation-pegged Silver Support payouts, lowering BTO flat prices, and unemployment insurance.
Mr Jeyaretnam said Singaporean wages were being depressed by the Government’s open-door policy, and the RP wanted a cap on the number of foreign workers and a minimum wage.
Mr Tan blamed rising costs “mainly” on government measures in transport, housing, education. “It has very little to do with imported inflation as in the past. Oil prices have come down. And yet petrol prices have risen because the Government has increased the duty on petrol,” he said.
Dr Chee said that bringing in the “super-rich” was driving up prices of houses and cars - while at the same time, imported low-wage PMETs depressed salaries and made for a “double whammy”. But Ms Phua pointed out that there were service jobs, such as nursing, that Singaporeans shunned, and businesses were already feeling the impact of the tightened inflow of foreigners.
Also responding, Mr Wong pointed out that in fact, not just nominal wages but also real wages – which account for inflation - have increased. “We continue to do our best to keep essential services affordable – housing, education, food,” he added. Education is heavily subsidised, more hawker centres are being built, and “electricity prices today are lower than in 2010, and on top of that, families are getting more U-save rebates than before”.
“So in fact, the Government is doing more and wants to continue doing more,” he said. “We are open to new idea. On a minimum wage, we have to be careful. If done incorrectly, it can lead to more unemployment and worse outcomes for Singapore.”
FOREIGNERS AND THE ECONOMY
The candidates delved further into the issue of foreigners.
Mr Lim said the NSP wanted “strict quotas on foreign PMETs”, while Mr Jeyaretnam called for a cap that could be adjusted in line with the economy. The RP candidate highlighted the problem of those over 40 who could not get a job, calling the Fair Consideration Framework “riddled with holes”.
Mr Tan said SingFirst wanted a “level playing field”, which could be achieved with a minimum wage. “And we don’t want S-passes, where businesses can bring in semi-skilled workers and undercut our PMETs,” he added.
Dr Chee said the SDP had called for a points rating system for foreigners seeking employment here, like in Australia and Canada. Mr Perera reiterated the WP’s argument for not growing the current foreign workforce and seeking a 1-per-cent growth in the resident labour force instead - by getting more women and seniors back into the workforce with targeted incentives.
Mr Wong stressed that the Government did what it did with the best interest of citizens at heart. “We want to make sure our immigration policies benefit Singaporeans,” he said. “Already we have tightened the inflows of foreigners significantly. Growth in the past decade is at its lowest.”
But the Government would not go “all the way to zero per cent increase” which was the WP’s proposal. “That would be a huge jam-brake on the economy, and it would be harmful, dangerous,” he said. “Singapore businesses would suffer, Singaporeans could be out of jobs.”
Ms Phua also pointed out that the Manpower Ministry was going after companies that were “weak in a Singaporean core and weak in commitment to employ Singaporeans”. “There are not many countries that are doing a lot more for PMETs,” she added, citing the Jobs Bank, efforts to create jobs of the future, and heavy investment in SkillsFuture which helps citizens deepen their skills.
FUTURE OF SINGAPORE POLITICS
Asked what their parties would do if they won parliamentary seats, Mr Lim said the NSP wanted to provide a “robust voice” in Parliament. “That PAP can be a self-check is total nonsense,” he said. He added: “When you vote for an MP you are voting for a voice in parliament, you are not voting for an estate manager.”
Mr Tan said Tuesday’s nomination process – where the Opposition had mostly avoided three-cornered contests - had shown that the opposition parties could work together. “It augurs well for politics in Singapore in the event that we eventually form a multiparty coalition government coming out of this,” he said.
Mr Jeyaretnam said the RP would push for transparency and accountability, including on the Government’s finances and surpluses. “This Government has a S$30 million surplus per annum, why is it not sharing that with the citizens?” he said.
Mr Chee wanted to see politics become more mature, without resorting to “character assassination”. “We’ve got to be become just a little more sophisticated when talking about issues and focus on issues Singaporeans are very concerned about,” he said.
Mr Wong’s view was that future politics would not be about “opposition for opposition’s sake”, but “selecting the best people in Parliament to lead Singapore”, whether from the PAP other another party. “It’s also about character – integrity and honesty, corruption free – and also not glossing over tough issues but telling the electorate about the tough trade-offs - not looking at politically expedient solutions that could be harmful in the long term,” he said.
Mr Wong also raised an instance in 1996 when Dr Chee made an oral representation to a parliamentary select committee, and the data was found to be false. Dr Chee was charged with misleading the public. “I read what Dr Chee said about moving forward and constructive politics, but I think he still owes an account to the public as to what happened,” he said.
WHAT THIS ELECTION IS ABOUT
The candidates were also given time at the start and the close of the forum to state their positions.
Ms Phua said: “The PAP’s report card is not perfect but it is the best report card of all the parties in Singapore.” This was because of its “three As” focus – action, ability, and the desire to address citizens’ aspirations. With all 89 seats being contested, voters would be electing the next government. “If we elect a government that is not ready, equipped to run a nation, then we are in trouble,” she said.
“We want to enable every Singaporean to maximise their potential regardless of where their starting points in life are, such as with SkillsFuture,” she added. “We want to ensure no one gets left behind. The vulnerable and disabled will always have a place in Singapore. That’s what this election is about for PAP.”
For NSP's Mr Lim, “This election really is about whether Singaporeans deserve better from their government. The PAP has distilled the principle of government down to one thing – proft and loss. Are Singaporeans happy with this approach? No, they are not.”
Mr Tan framed the election as being about Singaporean jobs. “Singaporeans are unhappy, they work the longest hours but wages have stagnated, stress levels are high. The fundamental cause is the huge influx of foreign workers,” he said, adding that SingFirst would propose safety nets for poorer and middle-class families.
Mr Jeyaretnam said the PAP had called for elections a year earlier than it needs to because it is “cashing in on the sympathy vote of SG50”. “They know their policies have failed, and they have no idea what to do next,” he said, adding that the Reform Party wanted to see the benefits of growth shared with Singaporeans. “And why can’t the Government return our CPF at 55? We want answers from the Government.”
Mr Chee focused his comments on the kind of opposition that voters want – a constructive and confident one, to push for ways to solve the problems of overcrowding, housing affordability and retirement security. “That's why the SDP has worked so hard to come up with a set of comprehensive policies. We want to give Singaporeans a reason to vote for the SDP, not just against the PAP,” he said.
Mr Perera said that the Government had made some good policy shifts since 2011, crediting it to Singaporeans who voted for change. “The PAP has asked, however, for a higher vote share,” he said. He asked voters to support the WP, for “representative policies to ensure we and our children will always be the ones charting the direction we want”.
Mr Wong said that in fact, the policy changes did not only start in 2011. Workfare was started after 1997 when the Government noticed income inequalities rising. He added: “It’s easy to say, ‘take out CPF at 55’, but how do you plan for retirement adequacy as life expectancy goes up? It’s easy to say minimum wage, but how to ensure there are no adverse outcomes like youth unemployment, which is happening in many countries?”
“So this is what the election is about – taking Singapore into a new phase. It will get harder, and many are watching to see what the outcome of the election will be. People are saying, Singapore had a good run, how much longer can it last?”
Earlier in the evening, a similar forum was held in Mandarin. This was telecast on Channel 8 from 7pm to 8pm.