Merdeka package not timed for election: Chee Hong Tat

(From left) Jacintha Abisheganaden, Mel Ferdinands, Rahimah Rahim and Dick Lee performing at the tribute event for the Mederka Generation.
(From left) Jacintha Abisheganaden, Mel Ferdinands, Rahimah Rahim and Dick Lee performing at the tribute event for the Mederka Generation. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Such schemes cannot be rolled out at start of Govt's term as surpluses need to be earned

The Merdeka Generation Package (MGP) and its timing were a focus on day one of the Budget debate yesterday.

Senior Minister of State Chee Hong Tat rebutted Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh's remark that some see the $6.1 billion set aside for those born in the 1950s as being timed to coincide with the election.

Mr Chee said it was misleading to link the MGP - or the Pioneer Generation Package (PGP) unveiled in 2014 - to election cycles.

The reason, he said, was that such schemes cannot be rolled out at the start of the Government's five-year term as surpluses need to be earned, accumulated and put aside to fund healthcare and other benefits.

At the start of its term, the Government will not know how much surpluses it will accrue or how much it can set aside, he added.

This is also part of "what a responsible government needs to do to ensure that our policies and programmes are financially sustainable for the current and future generations", he said.

Some 500,000 Singaporeans will benefit from the Merdeka package, which includes subsidies for outpatient care, MediShield Life premiums and Medisave top-ups. Details of when these will be rolled out will be announced next week.

 
 
 
 

Earlier in the debate, Mr Singh (Aljunied GRC) said people on the ground feel that the package helps seniors with their medical bills.

"There are also quarters who conclude it is pungently timed with the election cycle, giving off the odour of an unfair advantage aimed at the electoral prospects of the PAP," he said. These words prompted Mr Chee to say pointedly: "I wonder why Workers' Party (WP) chose to use such an unpleasant description and to focus on politicising this tribute to our Merdeka Generation."

He added: "The opposition calls for the Government to give more, and yet, when the Government gives more to help Singaporeans, the WP criticises the move as an election tactic. We can't have it both ways, please make up your mind and decide where you stand."

The next general election must be held by April 2021, but many expect it to be called some time next year.

People's Action Party backbencher Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok) also took on Mr Singh's remarks about the package's timing.

Mr Murali said it is a "fortunate situation" that the Government is able to fund the package using the current reserves.

"Members sometimes forget that whatever we budget for in this House does not define what will happen for the financial year," he said, noting that market circumstances would dictate whether there are sufficient resources.

"To ascribe a political motive, to say that the MGP is timed for elections, really elevates the Government to a position of being a fortune teller."

Mr Singh and fellow WP members Faisal Manap (Aljunied GRC) and Non-Constituency MP Daniel Goh also called for the Government to move beyond one-off benefit schemes like the MGP, towards a universal and permanent healthcare package for Singaporeans from the age of 60.

In reply, Mr Chee said the MGP and PGP are on top of structural subsidies already provided for Singaporeans. Lower and middle-income citizens also get help with their MediShield Life premiums.

 
 
 

A total of 27 MPs spoke on a broad range of economic and social issues. Labour MPs, in particular, focused on how to improve the lives of Singaporean workers amid technological disruption.

MPs also raised concerns over cuts to the foreign worker quotas for companies in the service sector.

Mr Chee, speaking in his Trade and Industry portfolio, noted that the move would cause some pain, but said it was better to act now to secure jobs for citizens.

The debate resumes today, and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat will respond to MPs' comments tomorrow.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 27, 2019, with the headline 'Merdeka package not timed for election: Chee Hong Tat'. Print Edition | Subscribe