Parliament: WP chief Pritam Singh calls for universal senior citizen healthcare package and more open government

Providing citizens with a basic level of medical benefits will also ease their out-of-pocket expenses for primary healthcare and help them cope with the cost of living, said Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh on Feb 26 during the debate on the Budget statement. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

SINGAPORE - A permanent senior citizen healthcare package for all Singaporeans from the age of 60 has been proposed by Workers' Party (WP) chief Pritam Singh, a move that will "represent a critical symbol of integration" among the people.

Providing citizens with a basic level of medical benefits will also ease their out-of-pocket expenses for primary healthcare and help them cope with the cost of living, Mr Singh said on Tuesday (Feb 26) during the debate on the Budget statement.

Mr Singh (Aljunied GRC) said such a healthcare package will help the Government address feedback from the ground that periodic benefit schemes - such as the Pioneer Generation Package and the Merdeka Generation Package - are timed with the election cycle or are unfair because some are left out.

He said there are some quarters who have concluded that the Merdeka package is "pungently timed with the election cycle, giving off the odour of an unfair advantage aimed at the electoral prospects of the People's Action Party (PAP)".

There is also feedback of the "inherent inequity" for some senior citizens who, by virtue of their year of birth, miss out on a few years of medical benefits because of the interval between one-time packages, he told the House.

Mr Singh also gave two reasons why his proposed healthcare scheme for seniors can be funded from the annual Budget.

First, the introduction of Temasek into the Net Investment Returns Contribution (NIRC) framework since 2016 brings an additional $5 billion a year into the mix instantly and about $25 billion across a five-year term of government, he said.

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Despite the Government's greater spending needs going forward, the roughly 35 per cent increase in the NIRC from 2016 "goes some way to explain the healthy accumulated surpluses accrued to this term of government from the opening of Parliament in 2016", he noted.

Second, he pointed to Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat's Budget statement that the cost of huge infrastructure projects will be partly funded through borrowing. Mr Singh asked whether this can free up revenue to fund recurrent spending.

"If it does, it would appear that funding such a universal and permanent healthcare initiative for our seniors cannot be dismissed as dishonest, unreasonable or imprudent," Mr Singh said, taking a jibe at PAP MPs by repeating the adjectives they would use when they shot down previous suggestions by the WP.

In May 2018, during the debate on the President's Address, the WP had called for a relook of the 50 per cent cap on spending from the returns of the reserves. National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said it showed an "ill-disciplined, imprudent and unwise" mindset to relax the rules every time money was needed.

During last year's Budget debate, Mr Heng rapped the WP as "dishonest and irresponsible" for its stand on the proposed goods and services tax (GST) hike from 7 per cent to 9 per cent, expected to kick in some time from 2021 to 2025.

In his 18-minute speech, Mr Singh also posed questions on how Singapore will cope with rising sea levels and temperatures brought about by climate change.

He asked for estimates, the financing approach and the infrastructure required to prepare for and protect Singapore amid rising sea levels.

Mr Singh also urged the Government to be more open and transparent.

"Increasingly, as we move into the future, the Government will not have all the answers... If change is indeed going to be deeper and faster, then Singaporeans must be ready to become active participants of this process, with the Government facilitating conversations by sharing more information," he said.

He added: "A strong and united Singapore will not be built with some Singaporeans being made to feel that they must conform or support the Government's narrative, with little room for alternative views.

"This is a sure way of heralding not just a divided and insecure population, but a divisive conversation about the choices we have to make collectively."

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