Govt shift to left in social policies the right move: ESM Goh Chok Tong

Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong with Straits Times editor-at-large Han Fook Kwang, who moderated the dialogue attended by 230 people, including business leaders and Straits Times readers.
Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong with Straits Times editor-at-large Han Fook Kwang, who moderated the dialogue attended by 230 people, including business leaders and Straits Times readers.ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

There was urgent need to redistribute wealth sustainably to mitigate income gap: ESM Goh

The Government's shift to the left in its social policies worried Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong initially. He felt, as did some Singaporeans, that it was "becoming too populist (and) giving away too much", he said yesterday.

But he later saw that it was the right move because there was an urgent need to redistribute wealth in a meaningful and sustainable way to help lessen the stress of a widening income gap.

Mr Goh said this at a forum when he was asked whether he shared the worries of some Singaporeans who felt the Government was "pandering to the electorate's whims and fancies, and is no longer the firm, decisive Government it used to be".

Yes, he shared their concern, he told The Straits Times' editor-at- large Han Fook Kwang, who had asked the question and was moderating the dialogue attended by 230 people, including business leaders and Straits Times readers.

It was the first of six dialogues in a series titled Pioneering The Future, with pioneer leaders giving their insights on key policies that shaped Singapore into what it is today. The series is organised by the Economic Development Board (EDB) Society and The Straits Times.

 

Mr Goh said that from his experience, "what you give, you can never take away from the population".

"(Founding Prime Minister) Lee Kuan Yew's style was to give away bit by bit, because there's no end to what people want," he added.

"If you give all at one time and have nothing else to give, that's when they kick you out. And this time the Government is giving a lot.''

But later, Mr Goh said, he realised the Government had "no choice" but to introduce policies such as compulsory health insurance scheme MediShield Life and the Workfare Income Supplement for lower-wage workers. The reason is that Singapore was increasingly becoming a very divided society owing to a wide disparity in income, he said.

Despite acknowledging the necessity of the shift, he still wonders whether the policies will be sustainable in the long run. The Government has been doing calculations of its expenditure, but given such unpredictable factors as the demands of the people in the future and demographic changes, he said, taxes may have to be raised three or four decades down the road to fund the policies.

Mr Goh was asked about the thinking behind policies on wages and the influx of foreign workers during his time as minister and prime minister, and whether more could have been done to raise the wages of low-income workers.

He said in retrospect that more could have been done. But at that time, the policies were right.

In the 1980s when he was Minister for Trade and Industry, he had introduced a high-wage policy to restructure the economy. The National Wages Council also recommended an across-the-board pay increase each year. But the high-wage policy could have been stopped earlier as Singapore subsequently hit a recession and its competitiveness was affected.

On the foreign-worker inflow, he said that although there was the need to meet demand, the influx was allowed to "carry on for too long". It resulted in such problems as a decline in productivity among Singapore workers, he added.

At the end of the dialogue, Mr Goh was conferred the Distinguished Fellow of the EDB Society Award 2015, given to pioneers and society members who have contributed significantly to Singapore's economic growth. Earlier recipients include the late finance minister Goh Keng Swee and former foreign minister George Yeo.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 27, 2015, with the headline 'Govt shift to left in social policies 'the right move''. Print Edition | Subscribe