'50 years to get rich, now let's get wealthy'

Mr Toh Ah Wat, who runs a drinks stall in Ang Mo Kio, gives free breakfasts to 50 needy people every month. Other people came to know of his efforts and helped pay the costs. This, said Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC) yesterday, enlarges the co
Mr Toh Ah Wat, who runs a drinks stall in Ang Mo Kio, gives free breakfasts to 50 needy people every month. Other people came to know of his efforts and helped pay the costs. This, said Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC) yesterday, enlarges the common space of Singaporeans. PHOTO: TECK GHEE FACEBOOK PAGE
Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC)
Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC)PHOTO: NTUC FAIRPRICE

MPs emphasise the need to create an inclusive Singapore that people can find meaning in

HAVING become rich, can we now focus on learning to be wealthy in the things that matter?

Such as on being truly inclusive. On valuing people for their intrinsic worth and not just their economic contribution. On being the kind of cohesive, innovative, fun city that Singaporeans young and old would love to call home?

This was the impassioned call from several MPs yesterday on Day 2 of the Budget debate.

This is not to say that the nuts and bolts of Budget 2015 were forgotten. Many of the 26 MPs who spoke had specific suggestions for its many policies - sometimes contradictory ones.

For example, MPs like Ms Denise Phua (Moulmein-Kallang GRC) wanted tighter control of SkillsFuture credits so they cannot be used for hobby courses, while others urged more flexibility in their use.

As on Tuesday, MPs continued to stress the need for fiscal sustainability, an apt emphasis for a generous Budget that will generate a $6.67 billion deficit.

They also dealt with the thorny question: How can revenues be raised to fund future spending?

It is noteworthy that both opposition parties in Parliament have stated their stand on this.

Workers' Party leader Sylvia Lim on Tuesday called for the top marginal tax rate to go beyond 22 per cent (it is now 20 per cent and will rise to 22 per cent in 2017).

Yesterday, Non-Constituency MP Lina Chiam of the Singapore People's Party urged the Government to raise the top tax rate to 25 per cent.

"This would still be one of the lowest top-marginal income tax rates in the world and, at the same time, would raise a revenue of $500 million - $1 billion," she estimated.

She also called for the re-introduction of estate duty for assets above $10 million and for higher casino taxes.

Any debate on the Budget has to deal with the brass tacks of tax policy. Still, it was refreshing to hear many MPs get back to fundamentals to speak about what really matters.

What is the Budget for, anyway? What is all that spending and investment in aid of?

Here, Nominated MP Kuik Shiao-Yin, who declared herself the second youngest MP in the House (at age 37), delivered an impassioned speech that had many ministers and MPs thumping their seat armrests in approval.

"Our country spent the first 50 years of our history getting rich. I would love to see us spend our next 50 years charting our course towards becoming truly wealthy. I believe if the state commits itself wholeheartedly to encouraging innovation, promoting inclusivity and empowering identity, we would be on the right track to creating the kind of Singapore many of our young people would want to live in. A Singapore that balances both our material and immaterial needs," she said.

What was also relevant was Nominated MP Tan Tai Yong's sober reminder that perhaps Singapore isn't so resilient after all.

The history professor identifies two types of resilience. The first, alleviation, refers to the ability to carry on "business as usual". He calls this R1.

This means, for example, building the future to continuously improve the infrastructure so that Singaporeans are spared discomfort. Not enough trains? Build more. Water shortage? Have enough in reservoirs to avoid having to ration water.

The other type of resilience, which Professor Tan dubs R2, refers to adaptation: recognising new realities and adapting.

He gave an example of how the two types of resilience worked:

"Last year, around this time, Singapore had its worst drought in 140 years. But there was no water rationing, and businesses experienced no interruption in water supply. This was a great feat. It showed that our systems are highly resilient. Even under severe conditions, we are able to stand up to the stress.

"But under R2, which requires systems, including actors, to adapt to changing realities, Singapore, in my view, could be seen to be quite vulnerable."

Can Singaporeans be toughed up with this R2 kind of resilience?

"As the Singapore Government continues to do more for the population, this will make us more resilient, as (with) R1 - we will be able to withstand more shocks and continue 'business as usual'," he said.

"But what about our ability to adapt, to change, to endure and persevere? Will we then gradually lose that toughness, resilience and resolve that the pioneer generation showed in such good measure?"

To build this muscle of resilience, Prof Tan suggested that fewer parents drive their children to school, and let them take the school bus. Students should also clean their own schools.

It got me wondering: If the country did not have the nice cushion of several billion dollars of reserves to spend each year on social spending, how would we fare as a people? Would we become more fractious or will there be more community efforts to help the poor?

Hopefully the latter.

Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC) shared the heart-warming story of a hawker in Ang Mo Kio. Mr Toh Ah Wat runs a drinks stall and gives 50 free breakfast meals each month to the needy. Other people came to know of his efforts and helped pay the costs. As Mr Seah said, this enlarged the common space of Singaporeans.

That story is a reminder of what matters. The Budget is a means to an end, and the end is a nicer country for our people. And in that effort, whether the Budget goes into deficit or surplus, whether taxes are raised or not, we all can play a role.