Political Forum on Singapore’s Future (Mandarin) Part 1 of 3

Translated by Donaldson Tan

We want a live TV debateOn 3 April 2011, MediaCorp telecasted the first mandarin General Election debate in 20 years. Appended below is the English translation.

There are 3 segments to the debate. The first segment is on the long-term challenges faced by Singapore. The second segment focuses on the impact of foreign labour and the cost of living. The third segment is on policy solution proposed by each political party.

This is the first segment. Click here for [Part 2] and [Part 3].

The Long-term Challenges of Singapore

Moderator: Ladies and gentlemen, good evening. I am Zeng Yeli. Every political party in Singapore has activated its election machinery, in anticipation of General Election any time. This will be a watershed General Election. The number of SMCs has increased while some GRCs have become smaller. Also, the number of seats in Parliament has increased too. It is expected this General Election will be the most intense one in 2 decades.

That’s why MediaCorp took the opportunity to organise this political forum to allow representatives from each political party to discuss the long-term and short-term challenges facing Singapore. We hope this will improve the electorate’s understanding of each political party’s policy position. We have invited the ruling party (PAP) and 4 opposition parties to send representatives to participate in this forum and debate public policies face to face. However, the Singapore People’s Party (SPP) decided at the last minute not to send any representative.

Now, I will introduce the representatives of each political party. The People’s Action Party (PAP) is represented by Minister in Prime Minister’s Office Lim Swee Say and Member of Parliament Sam Tan. On the Opposition, there is Sebastian Teo of the National Solidarity Party (NSP), Alec Tok of the Reform Party (RP) and Koh Choong Yong of the Workers’ Party (WP).

According to rules of the forum, the ruling party PAP and the Opposition each has 50% to express its stance on public policies. After every representative has elaborated his stance, the next segment will be an unmoderated caucus for each representative to exchange views and debate policies. As moderator, my role is to ensure each representative will keep time quota and to keep the flow of debate on topic and civil. As such, I will disrupt the discussion if necessary.

The first segment of the forum is Singapore’s long-term challenges, which include economic growth, education for the next generation, future healthcare needs of the population and upgrading of urban facilities in Singapore.

Now I shall invite PAP representative Lim Swee Say to initiate the debate.

Lim Swee Say [PAP]: Thank you, Yeli. Hi, everyone.

Singapore today is an excellent country. Our country is prosperous and stable, while Singaporeans have roofs over their heads and are secure in their jobs. Such an outcome is neither God-given nor achieved effortlessly. On the contrary, Singapore achieves this because the people are united and industrious while the government has foresight and is able to administrate effectively. We achieve this together through our hard work.

Reflecting on our future, will Singapore of tomorrow be better than the Singapore of today? This is the crux of the question for the coming General Election. We believe the challenges we face in the journey of nation-building will increase not only in numbers but also magnitude. The range of challenge includes food and shelter to education, healthcare, social development, economic growth and other aspects. On top of overcoming these challenges, there will also be more inertia from the electorate in response to new public policies that are designed to overcome the challenges faced by Singapore.

In another words, the success of the past wasn’t achieved effortlessly while it will be even harder to achieve success in the future. That’s why the mentality of the PAP is one that has no room for failure. We believe as long as the political environment of Singapore is stable while the people remains united and the Singapore government can administrate effectively, there is an insurance for Singaporeans against the future.

Moderator: Thank you, Minister. Your time has just lapsed. Now, it is time for the Opposition to respond. It is the turn of Sebastian Teo from the NSP. He also has 2 minutes.

Sebastian Teo [NSP]: Thank you.

What challenges Singapore faces is a very wide topic, but it is definitely an area of concern for the People, so we must approach this topic from the angle of the People.

From various emerging phenomena, we know that some pockets of our citizen army of the Singapore Armed Force are unsure what they are fighting for, so wouldn’t it be timely for the government to examine the social cohesion and/or the sense of belonging in Singapore?

If there are more and more highly educated Singaporeans becoming taxi drivers shouldn’t the government be re-evaluating its labour policies and find the root of the problem?

If the Singapore government pursues a GDP growth while ordinary Singaporeans cannot share the fruits of this effort, shouldn’t we be examining what’s wrong with the national economy?

Also, despite contributing their youth to nation-building in the 60s and 70s, the elderly today are not self-sufficient. They have to sell their flats to raise money and implore their descendents to take care of them. They have no means to take care of themselves. Shouldn’t we examine the structure of society and find out what exactly has gone wrong in the challenge of aging population? Let’s take the opportunity to raise the debate on the aging population to next level.

Moderator: Thank you, Mr Teo. Next in line will be Alec Tok of the Reform Party. He will also have 2 minutes.

Alec Tok [RP]: Thank you, Moderator. Hi Everyone, I am Alec Tok of the Reform Party.

Although the RP only has a short history of 2-3 years, our members are very concerned on the issues faced by Singapore. They have personal and practical understanding of these issues. We also have views on the challenges faced by Singapore. In short, we have to find a new equilibrium in every aspect.

The first aspect to consider is whether there is any balance in the pursuit of economic growth. For example, Sebastian Teo of the NSP touched on whether GDP growth will lead to the betterment of the country at large. During the last 10 years, no ordinary Singaporeans were the beneficiaries of GDP growth. This is reflected by the statistics that average real wage has grown by 1% in the last 10 years. As a whole, Singapore has experienced growth but none of the benefits of growth have trickled down to ordinary Singaporeans. This is a very important problem and I hope we can spend this evening to debate this issue. Which is more important – the improvement of Singapore or the improvement of the People’s lives?

Moderator: Thank you, Mr Tok. We now invite Koh Choong Yong of the Workers’ Party to speak. He also has 2 minutes.

Koh Choong Yong [WP]: The Workers’ Party believes the immediate challenges Singapore faces are: (1) whether GDP growth is beneficial for the people; (2) how to cultivate and develop the next generation; (3) the emerging social and healthcare needs of Singapore’s aging population; and (4) whether social welfare net is adequate and effective in catering to the underprivileged groups.

We believe that benefits of GDP growth should be shared equally by everyone and not a small class of Singaporeans. Citizens should have priority to national resources, so they wouldn’t feel second-class in Singapore.

On the economic front, we need to develop an entrepreneurial culture and facilitate economic opportunities to develop a local class of entrepreneurs, so that the national economy can evolve to the next level. We can begin through education: (1) foster curiosity and an interest in learning; (2) cultivate an attitude of endeavour and no fear towards failure; (3) move away from rote learning and rigid adherence to the examination system.

We believe the social safety net should be based on needs regardless of income status, so that no Singaporean will fall through the net and struggle for survival.

Moderator: You [Koh Choong Yong, WP] still have 30 more seconds.

Koh Choong Yong [WP]: Then I will elaborate further on GDP growth. The benefits of economic growth are not distributed equitably. We understand that underprivileged groups need more assistance than any other social classes.

Moderator: Thank you, Mr Koh. Every party has expressed their stance. Now we have moved into the sub-segment of unmoderated caucus. This sub-segment lasts for 7 minutes. Sam Tan of the PAP has yet to speak, so this segment shall be initiated by him.

Sam Tan [PAP]: Thank you, Yelin.

Everyone knows that starting something is difficult and keeping it going is even harder. The success that Singapore has achieved over the past 50 years wasn’t achieved easily. It depended on government policies and support of the people. Precisely because the people and the government complemented each other in Singapore’s development, that’s why Singapore has transitioned itself from third word to first world. To even do a better job than we already had, we have set the bar very high.

This is why the Singapore government has initiated on many levels to seek and evaluate new policy directions, so as to strengthen its support for Singaporeans. On the economic front, we have to develop high growth industries domestically and enter Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with many countries, so that our merchants have more economic opportunities.

On the education front, we have to provide students with opportunities to explore and tailor the education system to their potential. The government has also initiated a set of public policies on healthcare, aging population and social development. However, the Singapore government cannot work alone. It requires the cooperation of the people for its policies to be effective.

Moderator: Sam Tan, your time is up. Now everyone else can speak up freely.

Alec Tok [RP]: If the reality is indeed as portrayed by the PAP, then the GDP growth experienced so far would be equitable, but this isn’t true. The rich-poor gap is one of Singapore’s key pressure points and it is gradually widening as we speak. If a citizen sees stellar economic growth rate in the national economy while the hole in his pocket is becoming bigger, why should he continue to support the policies of the Singapore government?

Moderator: Thank you. The other representatives shall speak now.

Sebastian Teo [NSP]: I would like to touch on the topic of aging population. The aging population is a serious problem, but it didn’t begin yesterday. Based on demographic structure of the population, this problem should have been recognised twenty to thirty years ago. For the past twenty to thirty years, why hasn’t the Singapore government come out with anything concrete? If the government had anticipated the issue of aging population earlier, there wouldn’t be some pockets of the elderly population facing problems today.

Koh Choong Yong [WP]: Sam Tan mentioned that starting something is difficult and keeping it going is even harder. However, he didn’t address whether the PAP approach for the past 50 years requires rethinking and injection of new ideas. The Singapore Parliament has been dominated by one party for a very long time. Since new challenges are increasingly complex, shouldn’t there be more Opposition voices in Parliament to boost the diversity of ideas and adopt a multi-faceted approach in Parliament to overcome these challenges?

Moderator: [Pointing to PAP] Either of you can respond.

Sam Tan [PAP]: Sebastian Teo has touched on the aging population. I used to work for the People’s Association in the 1980s, so I can vouch that the People’s Association has started working on this problem during the 1980s. During my time there, I have worked on many projects to the People’s Association on how to meet the needs of the elderly when the elderly constitutes for 1 in 5 people in Singapore in the year 2030. The ruling party has certainly made preparation for the day aging population confronts Singapore head-on. This is one strategic issue the PAP has considered as far back as 50 years ago.

Moderator: There is still 2 more minutes. Does anyone want to speak?

Sam Tan [PAP]: Can I? Just now…

Moderator: No, it is the Opposition’s turn.

Sebastian Teo [NSP]: I would like to ask a question. In the blind pursuit of GDP growth, did the government consider there may be unwanted side effects? I believe high income groups receive all the benefits of this GDP growth while low income groups receive zero benefits. The 14% economic growth has no relevance to the lives of low income groups. Can both representatives from the PAP clarify what exactly is the government pursuing?

Moderator: Last one minute…

Alec Tok [RP]: If the PAP had considered the challenge of aging population 30 years ago, why did the PAP government decide that Singapore shall become a medical tourism hub? Wouldn’t this lead to a rise in healthcare cost?

Moderator: The last 20s shall be allocated to Sam Tan of the PAP.

Sam Tan [PAP]: I would like to address Koh Choong Yong’s assertion that country needs more Opposition voice in Parliament, so that Singapore can be governed better against emerging challenges. Administrating a country well doesn’t depend on the number of Opposition voices in Parliament, but whether the government can attract the best talent to join its ranks to serve the people. Just depending on Opposition voices alone isn’t sufficient for the betterment of Singapore.

Moderator: Time’s up. I would like to invite Minister Lim Swee Say to respond to the comments made so far. Minister, you have 2 minutes.

Lim Swee Say [PAP]: The problems raised by the Opposition are not unique to Singapore. Aging population, widening income gap and inflation are problems faced globally. However, where Singapore is different from other countries is that the PAP not only discusses the problems, but also exercises practical policies to solve the problems.

For example, Singapore’s economy grew by 14.5% last year. Did this benefit the workers? What I saw was different from the Opposition because I am active in the trade unions. As a result of the economic growth, there was shortage in labour supply while bonuses for 2010 were far better than that of 2009.

On ageing population, the government has been deliberating on this problem many years, so I object the assertion that the government has never looked into it.

Which is more important – the country’s needs or the people’s need? Both are equally important, however there cannot be a family if there is no country. In another words, if a country does not progress, I believe it is definitely more difficult for the people to progress. The mission of the PAP is to serve the People and to overcome problems effectively for the People, so that workers have shelter and enjoy job security.

Moderator: Thank you, Minister. The first segment has ended. In the next segment, we will discuss the Cost of Living and the impact of Foreign Labour.