SINGAPORE - No one should assume he has a monopoly over compassion, said Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam as he responded to Workers' Party (WP) MP Jamus Lim's arguments on minimum wage and policymaking.
The lengthy debate between Associate Professor Lim and seven People's Action Party MPs was sparked by the Sengkang GRC MP's maiden speech, in which he called for greater compassion and thoughtfulness in policymaking.
Singapore should "no longer privilege efficiency at the sheer expense of equity", said Prof Lim in Parliament.
"Because we are no longer a third-world nation, we cannot continue to operate as if we are blind to the consequences that tough-nosed policies carry for our people," he added.
Prof Lim contended that the issue with the Government's policymaking today that has let many fall through the cracks is a lack of compassion. "I humbly suggest that the root of these challenges is insufficient compassion in our policymaking process," he said.
Rising to join the debate, Mr Tharman said several of his fellow PAP MPs had made an impression on him with their speeches over the past few days.
These were notable not only for their forceful proposals, which often went beyond what the Government is doing, but also for the "emotional force of their conviction", he said.
"I would like to suggest that none of us have a monopoly over compassion, and I say this not to discredit anyone, and, in particular, I really respect where member Jamus Lim is coming from, intellectually, emotionally and so on, but... no one should assume that you have a monopoly over compassion," Mr Tharman said.
He also had a piece of advice for Prof Lim: to avoid "strawman arguments" like saying the Government is only interested in efficiency, not equity.
"That's frankly laughable," said Mr Tharman, who is Coordinating Minister for Social Policies.
"Try to avoid that manner of argument, of painting everything in binary terms."
In his speech, Prof Lim also called for the implementation of a minimum wage. He noted that the majority of Singaporeans have said they would be willing to pay more for essential services, and contended that such a policy would not have a significant impact on unemployment.
He pointed to shortcomings in the existing Progressive Wage Model (PWM), noting that it has been applied to specific sectors instead of being universal.
Responding, Mr Tharman said the Government does believe it is important to raise the wages of its lowest paid workers. "We really believe this. We've achieved significant progress in the last 10 years, and in the last five years, and we think we should go further."
On the PWM, he said he would not "exaggerate the differences" between it and the minimum wage model.
Describing it as "minimum wage plus" with a sectoral approach, he said the PWM has the benefit of allowing policymakers to set the minimum rung at an acceptable level for each sector.
"If you have a single level, you'll have to decide where to pitch it," Mr Tharman said.
Raising the standard of living of the poor is a complicated matter, he noted, with one issue being how to achieve this goal without losing the wage earner's ability to have the pride of a job and earn a wage.
"I say this, by the way, as an economist, as someone who studies overseas experience very carefully, and who - together with my colleagues - is a practitioner," he added.
Singapore's efforts to do so involve the PWM, Workfare subsidies and many other means, Mr Tharman said. "And it's not a job that's done for good; we have to do more."
Mr Tharman also took aim at something Prof Lim had said earlier, when he cited the National University of Singapore as being the source of a study.
He said: "By the way, it's a very small point, I've never heard economists cite a university as a source of research, be it a well-regarded or not very well-regarded university. Individuals do research, and it may be very credible research, but universities don't publish research."
Responding, Prof Lim said he regretted if it came across that he was suggesting that he, his party, or any individual has a monopoly over compassion.
"In fact, that was explicitly why I did cite cases where I felt that existing policy demonstrated oodles of compassion. I even cited other members not from our party who have also talked about compassion," he said.
He added that he was not setting out a strawman argument in talking about the trade-offs between equity and efficiency.
"I'm not suggesting that every policy that is currently in place is only geared towards efficiency. And likewise, I'm not suggesting that every policy that I have laid out in my speech and elsewhere is only geared to equity."
Instead, it is about a continuum, Prof Lim said, adding that his argument was that Singapore can move more in the direction of favouring equity over efficiency.