Coronavirus pandemic: Supplementary budget debate

Heng urges caution at suggestion of 'New Deal'

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat cautioned against a suggestion by Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh to provide continued support to people beyond nine months, after the coronavirus pandemic subsides.
Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat cautioned against a suggestion by Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh to provide continued support to people beyond nine months, after the coronavirus pandemic subsides.PHOTOS: GOV.SG

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat yesterday cautioned against a suggestion by Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh to provide continued support to people after the coronavirus pandemic subsides.

Mr Singh (Aljunied GRC) had on Monday compared Singapore's additional support measures to the New Deal implemented by United States President Franklin Roosevelt to rebuild the country during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

He asked if the second and third support packages could constitute a new social compact for Singapore, saying the country should thoroughly review what a living wage ought to be for workers providing essential services, like cleaners.

Responding yesterday, Mr Heng warned against relying on "ideological short cuts or labels, without thinking deeply about interactions and longer-term effects".

He noted that the New Deal was meant to take the US out of the Great Depression, but its ideas have also polarised American society.

This schism can still be seen today between liberals who support it for its comprehensive relief and reform programmes, and conservatives who oppose it for being hostile to business and growth, he said.

Mr Heng noted that Mr Singh himself had pointed out "the New Deal took more than six years and secured the US as a welfare state with a strong federal government and a perennial national debt problem".

"Indeed, we should think hard about this," he told the House.

He also cited how the United Kingdom went through a phase of polarisation similar to that of the US, with successive British governments "swinging between the left and right of the political spectrum".

Mr Heng said that he was a student in the UK in the early 1980s when Conservative Party leader Margaret Thatcher "rode to electoral victory" after Britons became fed up with widespread public sector strikes, including in the National Health Service, in 1978-79.

"It is important that in any policymaking, we pay attention to the subtle but significant changes in the tone of society, in the attitudes of people and in relationships which will take years to show, and which are not easy to reverse," he said.

"For our little red dot, we must have the courage and wisdom to do what is right for us - and not rely on simple ideology or fad and fashion of the day. Focus on our people's well-being, and design systems and support around that core purpose."

For the Singapore Government, it has never been a matter of "whether we want to spend", but rather how to make the best use of resources, to achieve the best outcome for its people, said Mr Heng.

If the country stays adaptable, it can continue adjusting its social security system according to the needs of the day, he added. When digitalisation put pressure on employment and wages of older workers, it rolled out Workfare. More recently, it started the Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme and Covid-19 Support Grant.

"So let me urge all members in this House to remain rigorous and clear-headed, and to focus on outcomes for our people," he said.

"Let us commit to making sure that what we do is fiscally sustainable, not just in this term or the next term of government, but for our future generations."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 08, 2020, with the headline 'Heng urges caution at suggestion of 'New Deal''. Subscribe