SINGAPORE - Look at the Government's total social spending each year, rather than the amount spent on packages such as that for the Merdeka Generation, Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing said on Saturday (Feb 23).
Responding to calls for a universal welfare scheme, he said the Merdeka Generation Package, unveiled in the Budget speech on Monday, is a targeted approach that helps the most vulnerable in society.
Mr Chan was speaking at a public Budget feedback session where he was responding to a commentary by sociologist Teo You Yenn published in The Straits Times on Friday.
At the session held at the National Press Centre involving 100 members of the public, he answered questions on Budget announcements, ranging from whether the Merdeka Generation Package was sustainable to why there was a need to reduce dependence on S Pass foreign workers.
The Merdeka Generation Package, for people born in the 1950s, is expected to cost the Government more than $8 billion, with $6.1 billion set aside for the package during this year's Budget.
About 500,000 Singaporeans will receive benefits such as Medisave top-ups, and additional subsidies for outpatient care for life.
In her piece on Friday, Associate Professor Teo called for the introduction of a set of welfare principles so that all future cohorts of Singaporeans may enjoy "peace of mind and a sense of security".
"Introducing one-off, cohort-based rewards is, arguably, not a principled, sustainable, or solidarity-enhancing way to protect people in retirement," wrote Prof Teo, who is head of sociology at the Nanyang Technological University.
But Mr Chan said that the Government provides "structural support" to the people, and that base, in terms of social spending, is more than 40 per cent of the Budget every year in areas such as education and healthcare.
He said the Merdeka Package was the "icing on top of the cake" to help the most vulnerable. "And it's also an expression of our values that whenever we have some extra resources, we care for those who have contributed to Singapore the most, those who are most in need," he said. "By sharing it equally, actually we don't give as much help as we would like to those who need it the most."
In response to questions on why there is not a simpler, universal scheme - instead of one that involves means testing - he said that an across-the-board policy would not be fair as it could apply to all regardless of income.
He acknowledged that there are implications from means testing that have to be dealt with, such as how people will start comparing the amount of subsidies they receive.
"Of course we agree that everyone should have a peace of mind, that's one of the aims of the Government. But it should be done in a more targeted manner, rather than across-the-board."
The three-hour feedback session, conducted in Mandarin, was organised by radio station 96.3 HaoFM and Reach, the Government's feedback and engagement arm.
Mr Sam Tan, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and Social and Family Development and Reach chairman, was also present.
Participants discussed how they would spend a hypothetical $10 million sum for the country, in five areas such as security, social spending, and savings. They also had a question-and-answer session with the ministers.
Mr Chan also made the case for the need to lower the cap on the number of S Pass workers companies can hire for the next two years - from 15 per cent now to 13 per cent on Jan 1 next year. These workers are mid-skilled foreigners earning at least $2,300 a month.
Mr Chan also said productivity in the retail and F&B sectors has been weak.
"We would rather a short-term pain than a long-term one - to help our businesses transform, reducing the reliance on foreign manpower, especially in the service industry," he said.
He explained that Singaporeans do not typically do the jobs that work permit holders do, adding that employment pass professionals make up the minority of foreign workers here, and S Pass holders compete the most with middle class Singaporeans.
"If we don't control the growth of S Pass workers, then the ones to bear the brunt first are middle class Singaporeans," he said.
Mr Chan also responded to comments that the budget was an "election budget", meant to raise support for the Government ahead of the next general elections, which must be held by April 2021.
"In Singapore our system is very unique. We don't allow any government to make promises on behalf of future governments. Whatever a government wants to promise, it must have earned it within its own term of government.
"Some people ask, why is it that people make promises at elections and why is it that we take them to task? And the simple reason is that if you make promises at an election, you have not yet earned the money. How can you promise to spend the money?
"This is how every term of government in Singapore has done their job."
Earlier on Saturday, Senior Minister of State for Defence and Foreign Affairs Maliki Osman hosted a separate feedback session for Malay residents in the East Coast GRC and Fengshan SMC.
At the annual session at Siglap Community Centre, participants discussed various budget announcements such as the Bicentennial Bonus.