OP-ED: Cost of Living debate – Nice soundbites from the WP and PSP, but let’s put things into perspective

In parliarment last Tuesday (Nov 7), Singapore Parliament witnessed a lively debate last week (Nov 7) focusing on the nation’s cost of living.

Members of Parliament from the Workers’ Party (WP) and the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) were particularly vocal, using striking language to drive their points across.

WP’s Pritam Singh labeled the situation a “crisis,” while PSP’s Leong Mun Wai resorted to clichéd (and overused) metaphors, likening the government’s actions to “giving a chicken wing but taking back the whole chicken.”

Scrutinising the logic behind WP and PSP’s arguments

A closer look at the arguments presented by both WP and PSP reveals their portrayal of the cost-of-living situation in Singapore as a localised crisis – manufactured and exacerbated by the policies of a government that is indifferent and disconnected from the issue. They propose that the solution lies in revisiting these policies. However, this perspective is somewhat simplistic.

Is the government raising prices indiscriminately without considering its impact on Singaporeans? Let’s consider two critical aspects:

Firstly, WP and PSP overlooked the fact that the cost-of-living increase is a global phenomenon. Post-COVID-19, the world has seen rising interest rates and inflation, notably in the US, UK, and EU. China faces a challenging economic future, marked by high youth unemployment, even among graduates.

The problem is not unique to Singapore and given the circumstances, Singapore’s handling of the pandemic appears more competent than numerous leading economies and developed nations who have fared much worse.

Secondly, we should remember what former Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam once advised WP’s Jamus Lim in 2020: the WP does not have a monopoly on compassion and should avoid strawman arguments that oversimplify complex issues such as implying the government is only interested in efficiency, instead of equity.

Unfair to imply the Government is apathetic to Singaporeans’ struggles

It would be unfair to say that the Government does not understand the difficulties that the average Singaporean face, and has not taken efforts to assuage that pain.

Deliberate measures like the Assurance Package – enhanced twice since its launch in 2022 – and direct assistance have also been provided to households requiring more financial support. This is why lower-income families receive greater benefits from the Assurance and GST vouchers, additional U-Save and S&CC rebates, and increased healthcare subsidies through CHAS. This targeted approach, compared to broad-based price subsidies, avoids disproportionately subsidizing wealthier groups. Moreover, the government has recently reiterated its commitment to continue efforts in helping Singaporeans mitigate cost pressures.

While there’s always room for improvement, the devil lies in the details. Any policy changes must be carefully considered and carried out in a responsible manner. This careful approach is characteristic of Singapore’s strategy to maintain a robust and optimistic long-term outlook. As a small nation, Singapore cannot rely on anyone else to bail us out if we run into severe economic troubles.

Opposition proposals need more substance

Turning to the opposition’s proposals, most lack feasibility.

PSP’s suggestions, such as reducing GST to 7%, footing the premiums for MediShield and CareShield, and significantly boosting the immediate relief package from $1.1 billion to $5 billion sounds attractive to the laymen but the lack in clarity on how we are going to fund it puts into question if the proposal can be taken seriously.

Similarly, WP’s proposals, though more detailed, don’t always align with practical realities.

For instance, Pritam Singh suggested a more finely tiered tariff structure along with a graduated water conservation tax, enabling households with higher water consumption to cross-subsidize those using less. Under this proposal, a family of five (for example, two adults, two young children, and a helper) would end up paying more to subsidize a two-person household (like a dual-income couple with no children). Contrary to any perceived benefit, this plan would actually increase the cost burden on middle and lower-income families with more members, who naturally consume more overall.

And Jamus Lim’s idea of nationalizing the transport system, while intriguing, overlooks the complexities of transport systems worldwide.

Many countries have experimented with various transport models, ranging from state-run monopolies to full privatization, each yielding different results. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all academic solution. What matters most is adopting a system that best suits Singapore’s specific needs and context.

Notably, Singapore is renowned for having established a top-tier public transport system that is “accessible, efficient, convenient, sustainable, and simultaneously affordable,” as noted in a 2018 report by consulting firm McKinsey.

Proposals nothing more than soundbites?

It must also be noted that most of the WP’s proposals are not new and have been debated extensively in Parliament over the years. However, the WP continues to revisit these ideas without acknowledging their limitations, primarily because they create impactful soundbites that resonate with the public.

Opposition parties, not burdened by the responsibilities of governance, may sometimes promote populist and irresponsible policies for electoral gain. Lacking the practical necessity to implement and manage these policies, they are often tempted to cater to populist sentiments. This trend has been observed in numerous mature democracies, often leading to adverse consequences for their citizens.

For the well-being of Singapore and its people, it’s essential that our opposition parties resist such temptations.

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