Speech Of The Day

Of dollars and sense: the meaning under the maths

MP Kuik Shiao-Yin
MP Kuik Shiao-Yin

If the economy is a means to an end, then the discussion at every Budget should be whether Singaporeans share the same end-goals, said Nominated MP Kuik Shiao-Yin. Below is an excerpt of her speech:

Whether we are debating about how we should spend our own personal dollars or the dollars of our nation, the core question to keep returning to is: "Well, what is the meaning we care to make with all our money in the first place?"

So I fully support Finance Minister's reflection in his speech that "a strong economy is not an end in itself; it is a means to build a better home and provide a better quality of life for all our people". One visionary end-state that resonates for most young Singaporeans is still that written down more than half a century ago.The Pledge represents our dream of a Singapore as it should be.

Yet, as each young student ages into a young working professional, many feel their idealism for themselves and for the country being challenged. Along the line, we sense the Singapore way is more like a tense high-wire act where we must learn to calibrate our ideals of communitarianism, democracy and egalitarianism with the realities of individualism, authoritarianism and elitism.

So far, our country has managed to advance forward without falling off the line. But whether our performance has been a gracefully balanced act or one ungracefully tilted too much towards pragmatism has been the fodder of our debate.

The decision to raise the goods and services tax to 9 per cent has been justified as a pragmatic decision in the face of growing national needs in the future. The decision to not raise our net investment returns contributions beyond the 50 per cent mark has also been justified as a pragmatic decision for the sake of signalling to currency markets the strength of our dollar.

Every tilt towards the side of pragmatism is simultaneously a tilt away from the side of our ideals.


Every tilt towards the side of pragmatism is simultaneously a tilt away from the side of our ideals.


I do not presume pragmatism to be bad and idealism to be good. But I believe our idealistic young professionals and students who make up both our current and future tax base have the right to question us: when will it ever be the right time to tilt our balance just a little more towards our ideals rather than always towards what's pragmatic?

We have quite a First World problem on our hands: should we spend more to help the people we have with us today or store more so we can help the people of tomorrow? It's a hard choice - because both are equally good choices. But it is healthy to ask ourselves, if we notice we are in the habit of overestimating for the future, could we also be underestimating our opportunities to do something in the present?

Now I was a terrible economics student so please help me make sense of what the IMF ... says about the size of our reserves. Their assessment is that we are excessively prudent. IMF's opinion is that a good enough amount of reserves would be 27 per cent of our GDP or $113 billion. I read that MAS' foreign exchange reserves alone as of January 2018 are around $369 billion or 88 per cent of GDP... I am not assuming that IMF is right and the Government is wrong. I am certainly not saying let's just take whatever a foreign institution says as gospel truth. So I do think it is helpful for the Government to provide a thoughtful, easy-to-understand response to IMF's assessment because it opens up an important and deeply profound question for us to consider: how much then is enough for us?

I admire the Government's devotion to long-term strategic over-planning and I get the deep fears around under-planning. I appreciate we cannot afford to get the maths wrong. But we cannot afford to get the meaning under the maths wrong either. If we hope to galvanise the support of the young idealists ... we have to give them a braver, broader vision that warrants the bigness of our reserves. Otherwise it can seem like this story is just about growth of reserves for growth's sake.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 01, 2018, with the headline 'Of dollars and sense: the meaning under the maths'. Subscribe