In its election manifesto, the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) called for a review of free trade agreements (FTAs) that touch on labour exchanges, such as the Singapore-India Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement.
Homing in on that point during an online Mandarin dialogue last night, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing said such reviews would also have to take into account the compromises and potential trade-offs that Singapore will have to make with the other country.
"If we want to review an FTA with India, for instance, what do you have to give up and what does India want from this side? What do we offer in exchange?" Mr Chan asked.
He added that opposition parties also have to contend with the possibility of having to form an alternative Government when they field candidates for election, and this means they have to think through and make clear the potential trade-offs of their policy proposals.
The dialogue, which was broadcast on Zaobao.sg, also included PSP's vice-chairman Hazel Poa and Workers' Party candidate Kenneth Foo. It covered several areas, including the upcoming Goods and Services Tax (GST) hike and Singapore's policy on foreign labour.
Ms Poa asked Mr Chan, who is the PAP's second assistant secretary-general, about the PAP's plans for Singapore's foreign labour policy.
In response, Mr Chan said Singapore's foreign manpower needs are not determined by the Government, but rather, by the needs of businesses. "If we tighten the foreign manpower policy, we will need to think about how it will have an impact on SMEs and other businesses," he said, adding that the policy is not a zero-sum game as hiring foreign workers does not come at the expense of locals.
"If we don't have foreign labour tomorrow, does that mean our enterprises will have better capabilities and opportunities, or that our workers will have more opportunities? I don't think it's that easy... I am not worried that we will lose out (to other countries), Singaporeans are not afraid of competition, we just want fair competition," he said.
In response, Ms Poa countered that the Government still plays a role in regulating and calibrating the flow of foreign labour into the country. The policy still merits further discussion, she said, pointing out that other countries have been able to attract local workers to blue-collar professions as substantial wages are offered to the locals.
Mr Chan later asked Mr Foo about his party's proposal to scrap the planned GST hike, which will increase the tax rate from 7 per cent to 9 per cent some time between 2022 and 2025. Some $6 billion has been set aside to help cushion the impact of the tax hike on Singaporeans.
The WP has argued in its manifesto that the Government should tap alternative sources of revenue, such as the income from land sales. It also suggested increasing the net investment returns contribution by up to 10 per cent.
Since 2016, the returns from Singapore's invested reserves have been the single largest source of government revenue.
"I want to ask them a very simple question - who will foot the bill?" Mr Chan said, adding: "An ageing population, infrastructure that has to be renewed, all these are very large undertakings."
Singapore has three options to fund its expenditure, he added. It can rely on the money left by previous generations, get the current generation to foot the bill, or pass the buck to future generations.
"Which of these choices does the WP want?" he asked.
Mr Foo responded that the Government has not made public its income and expenditure projections over the next 10 years.
"In the absence of data, would a responsible opposition be able to support this Budget in Parliament?" he asked. "Would it be able to support the GST increase from 7 per cent to 9 per cent? This is completely impossible."
On the question of who foots the bill, he added that the WP's manifesto is "budget-neutral".
But if money needs to be spent, the most important thing is to focus on who the money is being spent on, he said. "If we put our people first, we have to ask: do we use the money, or not?"
Mr Chan replied that given the global economic downturn, raising other forms of taxes - such as income tax, property tax and corporate tax - will be challenging,
It will also be difficult to earn as much as before from investing the country's reserves, he said.
"This is not child's play. These are challenges that we will be facing over the next 10 years."
Mr Foo responded that the WP's stance remains the same, to which Mr Chan replied: "Let me be frank: If we had, in the past, done what the WP is proposing, we would not have enough money to see us through the crisis today."
- Additional reporting by Tee Zhuo