Despite a drizzle and the afternoon sun, a large crowd gathered at Hong Lim Park for a protest against the Central Provident Fund (CPF) system on Saturday afternoon.
Taking place amid the continuing public debate about the retirement savings plan, the nine speakers at the "Return Our CPF" protest mainly criticized three areas: what they perceived as the inflexibility and changing rules of the compulsory savings scheme, the low rate of returns on CPF savings and the lack of transparency in how CPF monies are used.
Former presidential candidate Tan Kin Lian said Singaporeans should have the freedom to opt out of the minimum sum scheme and CPF Life annuity, though he cautioned that if CPF interest rates improve, it would still be prudent for Singaporeans to keep some money in their CPF accounts. The monthly CPF Life payouts, however, should be raised, he said, a point that several other speakers also made.
Singapore Democratic Party chief Chee Soon Juan, in a message read out by 17-year-old representative Ariffin Sha, said the CPF has strayed from its intent when it was legislated in 1955 as a pension scheme where employees and employers each paid 5 per cent and the sum could be withdrawn upon retirement. Reiterating this argument, former SDP member Vincent Wijeysingha said the Government is now using CPF as a "mop-up scheme" for too many purposes such as housing, healthcare and education.
Dr Wijeysingha and Reform Party chief Kenneth Jeyaretnam also spoke about the defamation suit filed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong against blogger Roy Ngerng for alleging that Mr Lee criminally misappropriated CPF monies. Mr Jeyaretnam said the suit has had a "chilling effect", while Dr Wijeysjngha said that while not all may agree with Mr Ngerng's posts on CPF, many are "unsettled" by the lack of transparency over CPF finances.
Another speaker, Mr Leong Sze Hian, who often blogs on financial issues, had the harshest criticism on CPF interest rates, which stand at 2.5 per cent for the Ordinary Account and 4 per cent for the Special, Medisave and Retirement Accounts. Comparing these rates to those earned by pension funds of other countries such as Malaysia, he said Singaporeans were being "short-changed" of how much they earn from CPF savings, especially compared to inflation and the rate of wage growth.
The call for higher returns and greater transparency was also taken up by blogger Han Hui Hui, the sole organiser of the protest, and Mr Ngerng. Ms Han said wage increases have not kept pace with increases in the minimum sum, which will be $155,000 in July, and called for returns on CPF savings to be raised to 6.5 per cent. Both of them received the loudest cheers from the crowd, which Ms Han said to be 6,000 strong, but which some news agencies reporting on the protest rally estimated was about 2,000.
Mr Ngerng, who spoke for almost 45 minutes to loud cheers, said there was not enough clarity on the connections between CPF monies, GIC and Temasek. He also questioned if there was a conflict of interest by having ministers sit on the board of GIC, which is the fund manager of the Government's assets. Mr Ngerng also called for more transparency and accountability on public monies and the reserves, claiming that the late former president Ong Teng Cheong had also locked horns with the Government over this issue during his term.
The CPF issue was discussed in Parliament last month, and the Government said it is looking at ways to improve the scheme. Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin had said that while the scheme may not be perfect, it provides "peace of mind".
Ms Han said another protest is scheduled for July 12.