Pritam Singh: What has changed, must not change and should change in S'pore

The Workers' Party chief spoke at length yesterday in his new role as Leader of the Opposition during the debate on the President's Address. The following excerpts are highlights of his speech.

Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh said that as far as information is concerned, the Opposition's output will depend very much on whether it can get the input it asks for. The Opposition, he said, intends to make targeted inquiries of government d
Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh said that as far as information is concerned, the Opposition's output will depend very much on whether it can get the input it asks for. The Opposition, he said, intends to make targeted inquiries of government departments and public agencies, as such information is essential for crafting alternative policies.PHOTO: GOV.SG

My speech will cover a variety of topics organised into three main areas. First, I will speak about certain things that have changed in Singapore. Second, I will talk about things that must not change, and third, I will suggest that some things should change.

First, let me speak about a few things that have changed in Singapore in the aftermath of the last elections. Immediately after the results of the general election were known, the Prime Minister announced the position of Leader of the Opposition (LO) and that this would come with support and resources. It would be an understatement to say that this announcement came as a surprise to the WP and to members of the public.

My view is to take the appointment of the LO and the motives behind it positively. The PM has signalled a change in the narrative and culture of how politics and government is to be conducted, and I thank him for that.

We look forward to a different tone of political engagement, and the WP accepts the change as another step towards a First World Parliament.

This appointment has already created expectations. My personal expectation is that my WP colleagues and I will have to work extra hard. We will have to ask ourselves tough questions before critiquing government policy - the chief of which is, what would we do if we were in charge?

With the new changes, it needs to be clear what the Opposition can and cannot do.

The appointment of the LO is an opportunity for citizens, and indeed politicians, to educate ourselves and understand better what exactly it is that the Opposition does and what its purpose is. What does it mean to be a check and balance on the Government, and how exactly can the Opposition propose alternative policies?

My assessment is that the public expects the WP and the Opposition in general to play a constructive role in Singapore politics. It should advance the interests of all Singaporeans, whether they may be in the majority or minority on any particular issue, without fear or favour.

For opposition parties to make greater headway in Parliament, we have to understand that today's political context necessitates the development of a rational and responsible approach to opposition politics that places not just the Singapore citizen, but Singapore at the core.

Mr Speaker, my WP colleagues and I will set our own standards and chart an independent course... The road ahead will not be easy but anything worthwhile never is. We will do our best by Singapore and Singaporeans.


Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh said that as far as information is concerned, the
Opposition's output will depend very much on whether it can get the input it asks for. The
Opposition, he said, intends to make targeted inquiries of government departments and public
agencies, as such information is essential for crafting alternative policies. PHOTO: GOV.SG

But how much we can do and how much our political conversation evolves for the better will be driven by three things:

One, by the quantity and quality of information that is shared by the Government in Parliament and separately, released to the public more generally; two, by the resources given by the Government, to analyse and use that information for the benefit of the public; and three, by the willingness of the Government to listen to, and implement, the alternative ideas suggested.

As far as information is concerned, the Opposition's output will depend very much on whether we can get the input we ask for. We intend to make targeted inquiries of government departments and public agencies, as such information is essential for crafting alternative policies.

On its part, the Government should consider how it can put out more information without being asked, particularly information and indicators benchmarked against other countries.

In early 2018, I asked a parliamentary question about the number of permanent residents or PRs who remained PRs for more than 10, 15, 20 and 25 years respectively, and the common reasons cited by these individuals for not taking up Singapore citizenship. The information provided was far narrower - specifically that about 15 per cent of PRs have been PRs for 20 or more years.

Sir, the additional details that were not provided are important so the Opposition can consider and put forward alternative approaches to population and immigration policies. The data would also put into stark relief the relevance of referring to someone as a local in our statistical data when it is clear either that some PRs do not want to become Singapore citizens or the state has no plans to extend citizenship to them.

Mr Speaker, I accept that such matters are sensitive, and the Government's unwillingness to provide the data in the format or detail requested may arise not because of an unwillingness to disclose information. Instead, there could be genuine concerns about how the information will be used, or perhaps misused, to rile pockets of the population, since PR policy is closely tied to immigration and jobs.

 
 
 

But it is my case that the Government will have to find a new way of dealing with such difficult matters. And I strongly believe Parliament is an important safety valve and potential moderator of the extreme conversations found offline and online on immigration and population issues.

As for resources, I would like to share my understanding of the resources that will be provided to the LO. Every elected MP is given a budget to hire a legislative assistant and a secretarial assistant. The legislative assistant is paid an allowance of $1,300 per month and the secretarial assistant is paid an allowance of $500 a month. Based on these sums, these positions are, of necessity, part-time ones.

By contrast... a sitting Government has at its disposal the resources of a Singapore Public Service of 146,000 full-time officers. Of these, 85,000 are members of the civil service.

The LO's office will not have the breadth and depth of the party in government in coming up with alternative policies. Nonetheless, the WP will continue pursuing alternatives we feel are important for Singapore, an example being the proposal for redundancy insurance for workers...

With just 10 MPs... it is not feasible for the WP to set up a shadow Cabinet in the tradition of Westminster Parliaments. There are 16 ministries, including the Prime Minister's Office. Despite not being able to shadow each ministry, we intend to organise our MPs to look into five areas that are critical for Singapore and of huge importance to Singaporeans.

The five areas are: one - health, ageing and retirement adequacy; two - jobs, businesses and the economy; three - education, inequality and the cost of living; four - housing, transport and infrastructure: and five - national sustainability.

Things that must not change

First, Singapore's historical position as a trading nation. Second, the Government's policies and actions on defence and foreign policy. And finally, certain things that are now synonymous with Singapore - multiracialism, the greening of Singapore, the quality of our public libraries and our culture of abhorring corruption.

Singapore has always been a trading nation and open borders are a fact of our lives. Investors should know that Singapore will never close for business no matter how many WP MPs are in Parliament. We make a living by being relevant to the world and separately as a trustworthy and reliable interlocutor. Opposition politics and advocacy for Singaporeans cannot ignore Singapore's place in the world and what we offer to the world. We must still look outward, even as we continually search for a lasting modus vivendi which accommodates the domestic pressures of being economically open, and the reality of a Singapore identity that evolves and crystallises as our nation matures.

GOVERNMENT POLICIES ON DEFENCE AND FOREIGN POLICY

Moving on to the second thing that must not change. The WP supports the Government's positions on defence and foreign policy. These must continue as they are. These policies are well considered and they place primacy on Singapore's interest while seeking long-term mutual cooperation with other countries and international organisations. They also take into account the realism of the international politics and the reality of not just a small state, but our peculiar circumstances too.

The WP backs the Government in involving Singapore in United Nations initiatives, and those of the World Health Organisation, the World Bank, Unesco, the International Labour Organisation and other multilateral initiatives. We support the Government's efforts in working with our neighbours to bolster Asean. In particular, we support Singapore's efforts to work with Asean and other countries to finalise the South China Sea Code of Conduct. As a small maritime nation and, separately, a trading nation, the sanctity of international agreements and adherence to the rule of law are necessary to discourage arbitrary behaviour by more powerful states.

THINGS THAT ARE A PART OF SINGAPORE

Next, we support the Government's work in continuing various things that have become a part of Singapore's DNA.

Singapore's position on corruption must not change. Equally important is Singapore's emphasis on racial and religious harmony. These words are almost a cliche in Singapore, and we should be grateful for that, because in many other countries, it is a source of intractable problems. The WP strongly believes in Singapore's multiracial, multi-religious and multicultural community. It is important that all communities support, respect and accommodate each other.

Things that should change

It is my conviction that these changes would improve governance and better look after the needs of Singaporeans.

First, to leverage an independent organ of state, namely Parliament, the WP proposes the formation of more Select Committees.

Some conversations in Singapore can continue to be divisive unless we decisively create a framework for reasoned conversation. Parliament, using the platform of Select Committees, can operate as an important safety valve and agent of positive conversations that ought to have a direct impact on policies and laws.

More significantly, in the information ecology of today's world, misinformation and disinformation campaigns are run online and offline, usually in combination, to manipulate content and hijack narratives. This House and the Government need to reframe the public narrative on our more pressing issues.

In many countries today, even the mainstream media cannot moderate the conversation without significant public funding. A recent headline from the magazine Current Affairs put it starkly: the truth is paywalled and the lies are free - an apt description of the dilemma facing the mainstream media in the face of some aspects of social media. By forming Select Committees that meet regularly on the most sensitive and difficult issues for Singapore, Parliament can play a bigger role in leading the conversation and championing the truth.

FOREIGNERS IN THE ECONOMY

The next thing we need to change in Singapore is how we manage and accommodate foreigners in our economy. Their presence gives Singapore a vitality that keeps us economically relevant and also provides jobs and opportunities to our fellow Singaporeans.

Many of us count the foreigners in our midst, regardless of race, language or religion, as our friends. That openness and friendly attitude must continue as a manifestation of the Singapore spirit and the Singapore we leave behind for future generations of Singaporeans.

But it is precisely because we need foreigners to power our economy that we need to pay more attention to Singapore workers who feel excluded from opportunities created in their homeland.

In recent weeks, letters in the Straits Times Forum have been published, one by a retired senior Singaporean banker and another by the managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore in reply. These appeared after the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) placed 47 companies on the Fair Consideration Framework watchlist. Of the 47 companies, 30 were financial and professional services institutions. On the MOM's website, examples are given of one wealth management firm where almost three-quarters of its PMET - or professional, manager, executive and technician - jobs are held by persons of the same nationality. Another example is given of a bank where almost two-thirds are of the same nationality.

The obvious question is: How did those two companies get to those stages without MOM taking action before this? To be fair, this is a complex issue. For example, there may be some justification if the bank's customers are not in Singapore, but are from the same country as the PMETs, and if these customers do not speak any of the languages widely used in Singapore. Some have argued that this is what it takes for Singapore to become a global financial hub.

The problem is that we simply do not know enough. And the vacuum has given space for a more toxic conversation to ferment. We should nip this forthwith and some of the details earlier this week from the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) about inter-corporate transferees and remarks by the Minister for MTI have been important. To this end, more information, and not less, is certainly most helpful.

One way for us in Parliament and for the public to know is for MOM to publish the names of recalcitrant employers.

We can then understand the operating paradigm of such businesses and how they intend to make the transition to fair hiring practices.

The Government needs to raise its signature in this regard, especially since the issue is such a hot-button one, often generating a lot of heat but very little light. To assist, a Parliamentary Select Committee can investigate the limitations of the workforce and the needs of the economy on the one hand; and the reality of the Singaporean worker in the face of competition and the constraints faced by employers on the other.

Beyond this, a far more purposeful way to prevent companies from hiring unfairly would be for Parliament to pass anti-discrimination legislation and impose penalties for discriminatory practices by egregious offenders. This should be considered alongside a more activist approach by the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices or Tafep in the immediate term.

Tied closely to the issue of the hiring of foreigners is whether the education system is adequately preparing our citizens for the jobs that are available.

The big banks - OCBC, UOB and DBS - all have workforces that are made up of at least 90 per cent Singapore citizens and permanent residents. It is unclear what proportion are Singapore citizens. Standard Chartered has said that 70 per cent of its local subsidiary's staff are Singapore citizens. Are these really high numbers?

What are the reasons why these banks cannot be staffed by even more Singaporeans?

The two main justifications given for the hiring of foreigners are first, that they are unable to find Singaporeans with the expertise; and second, that foreigners do jobs that are undesired by Singaporeans.

As it is unlikely that well-paying banking jobs are undesired by Singaporeans, the justification of these banks in hiring foreigners must be that they are unable to find enough Singaporeans with the needed expertise.

If that is true, then we need to ask where the gaps are in our education and lifelong learning training systems. These gaps must be found and plugged as soon as possible.

Mr Speaker, I have spent some time on these matters which are on the lips of many Singaporeans because I believe that in spite of Covid-19 and the changes taking place in the world, opportunities are arising that Singapore can take advantage of. For example, the seismic political changes in Hong Kong may prompt some international businesses to move to other jurisdictions. We should aim to welcome those looking to move. But if we do not move purposefully to consolidate and position the Singaporean PMET in a competitive position vis-a-vis the work pass holder, the Government will not be able to secure support for its economic agenda and take advantage of opportunities while maintaining social harmony.

TRADESMEN

Another thing that should change in Singapore is raising of the value of the work of Singapore tradesmen.

In places like Australia, New Zealand and Germany, tradesmen make good wages that match or even outstrip those of university graduates.

In Singapore, although our educational institutions train our citizens for such vocations, not enough is done to protect their trades. The way to protect our tradesmen is to regulate who can practise each trade.

Medical professionals, accountants, quantity surveyors, insurance practitioners and real estate sales professionals have to be properly qualified and certified. This enables them to earn a wage that is protected from undercutting by the unqualified. However, for trades such as air-conditioner servicing and plumbing, for example, anyone can offer such services.

Uplifting our tradesmen will require a paradigm shift in how workers are viewed and trained. If it succeeds, it will raise the self-esteem and incomes of Singaporeans who may not be academically inclined but who have acquired valuable skills that many of us in this House would not be able to fully master. It is my view that such a decisive shift will fundamentally alter our understanding of meritocracy.

A KINDER, GENTLER SINGAPORE

The final point I would like to make on things that should change is on greater help for those who need it most.

The WP believes that the Pioneer and Merdeka Generation schemes are good ones. However, we believe more can be done.

We know that there are trade-offs. Extending more health and other social benefits comes with a cost. Could this result in higher income taxes for many Singaporeans and those who work here, for example? Yes. But the benefits will go beyond mere financial help for those who need it.

Will there be a price to pay in terms of higher costs for the end-consumer? This must be expected. Increasingly, there will be a price to pay if we wish to be "one united people" and move beyond the phrase as an aspiration or worse, a platitude.

Many Scandinavians are content to pay higher taxes because they know this means that others in their society will be able to live with greater dignity. For those who earn higher incomes, to pay higher taxes is a point of pride for many of them.

The Singaporean identity which sees community as a central pillar of its DNA should imbibe such thinking with those better-off paying more. Let us build a kinder and gentler Singapore.

Conclusion

As history tells us, change can be for the better or for the worse. Around 50 years ago, some Asian countries were prosperous and thriving. Fast forward to today, as a direct result of bad choices and in spite of the best intentions, things have gone awry.

However Singapore pivots or evolves in the years to come, I believe a reasoned conversation before choices and decisions are made, or not made, will be critical. These will take time and consume much energy, and we will have to guard against conversations which are hijacked to advance sectional interests that demonise those who have reservations or a different perspective.

The WP will seek to play a positive role in the national conversation both in and out of Parliament, to leave behind a Singapore our children and future generations can be proud of.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 01, 2020, with the headline 'Pritam Singh: What has changed, must not change and should change in S'pore'. Subscribe