Friday, October 21, 2011

Low Thia Khiang’s speech: Towards a First World Parliament


Mr. Speaker Sir,

In his Address, the President stated that our shared goal is to create a better life for all. Sir, we share this goal.

We also agree that economic growth is basic to improving our lives. I do not think anyone of us here expects money to drop from the sky. Singaporeans are pragmatic and mature enough to understand this.

The Presidential Address also provided a broad outline on achieving a better life for all, from the young to the old, from the lower income to those doing exceptionally well.

All these are aimed at achieving a happy and fulfilling life for all Singaporeans. It is therefore puzzling that some PAP MPs made a fuss when Sylvia Lim said that the government should bear in mind that happiness should be the ultimate aim of its policy goals. Besides normal economic indicators, we should consider other indicators reflecting the happiness and well-being of a society, as articulated in the United Nations resolution initiated by Bhutan and supported by Singapore. In Bhutan’s case, they use Gross National Happiness (GNH).

The President described the situation after the general elections as a ‘new normal’. Should the government not view indicators such as GNH as a ‘new normal’ in addition to GDP & GNP? I hope that this is not a sign that the government’s memory of the people’s reactions to its policies during the General Election is fading.

In the Presidential Address, a promise was made to our senior citizens that “you can spend your silver years with peace of mind” – a promise which I take to heart. Yes, this is what our senior citizens deserve. It is only fair that those who have contributed to the progress of the nation, who have moved Singapore from the Third World to the First World, should be recognized and treated accordingly. This is what a responsive and responsible government should do.

To ensure that our senior citizens will live with peace of mind and dignity, the government must provide affordable health care and adequate housing as well as appropriate retirement financing. This will require more government expenditure.

When MPs from the Workers’ Party raised questions related to these issues in this House, they were met with criticisms from the PAP. We were often warned about the dangers of a ‘welfare state’. We were reminded that there is always a trade-off in any policy. This makes me wonder whether the promise to our senior citizens in the Presidential Address will remain as a promise worth less than the paper on which it is given – until the next general election.

While I agree that we should be mindful of the pitfalls of a welfare state, I think it is high time that the PAP MPs refrain from using this as a ‘red herring’ to kill debate on alternative solutions and mechanisms to those proposed by the Government.

In this regard, I was glad to hear the Prime Minister yesterday make the commitment to strengthen our social safety nets in healthcare, housing and CPF. I hope our senior citizens will see the Prime Minister fulfill his pledges to make a real difference to their lives.

Sir, indeed, we should be fully aware of potential trade-offs in policy. We should also be on guard against viewing trade-offs only from the Government’s perspective. We should always assess trade-offs from the people’s perspective, especially those who are severely affected by the policy.

However, the Government has often used ‘trade-offs’ as and when it suited them.

When the Government allowed two casinos to be built here, it highlighted the benefits to our economy over related gaming and social ills – never mind the trade-offs. When the Government decided to go ahead with hospitalization means testing without a transparent safety net for the sandwiched “not too poor, not too rich” group, it spoke about subsidizing those who needed it most.
To shorten the long queue for subsidized rental flats, the Government’s expedient solution was to disqualify more people from applying. They were told to live with their children regardless of how that could affect family relationships and as a result, some elderly people suffer emotionally. The Prime Minister acknowledged yesterday that the issue of higher demand for subsidized rental housing was not straight-forward, but it needed attention.

However, Sir, the general feeling among Singaporeans during the General Elections and even now is that the Government is more concerned with paying its Ministers well than about the welfare of the people. I think that the government must ask itself why Singaporeans feel and think this way.

I believe, Sir, the answer lies in the policy “trade-offs” expounded by a member on the government bench. It seems to me that more often than not, the policy trade-off was biased against the people, especially those who are adversely affected.

The policy “trade-off” is nothing more than a political assessment by the govt. The assessment is whether people can withstand – or as we say in Malay, ‘boleh tahan’ – the impact of the policy. But when the people ‘tak boleh tahan’, the govt will ‘kena’ and get hit during the election. This is what happened during the recent election in May.

The government should thank the opposition parties for making tremendous efforts despite the lack of resources to allow Singaporeans to exercise their right to vote and express their views. The opposition parties have also enabled the government to awaken to the problems on the ground that it had thought were manageable.

I am happy to note that the PAP has done some reflection on the ground reactions and the Government has responded to some of the concerns of the people.

We have seen a spectrum of policy changes since the election in May even before the opening of Parliament. We also saw various Ministers at work – including the Minister for Transport taking public transport – and the swift response from the Minister for MND on the usage of railway land. I am also happy to note the shift in the focus of our education philosophy. In this regard, the announcement in this House that the MCDYS is now not only looking after the “In Risk Group”, but will also be focusing on “At Risk Group” is a positive step. I am of the view that this proactive approach in social services is the right direction.

Sir, all these developments after the GE augur well for the future of Singapore. They reflect the dynamism of Singapore as a nation.

I am also pleased to note that although the political system is not a level playing field for opposition parties, the political will and maturity of the voters mitigated this unfair system.

Here we are, in this House, the 12th Parliament, which we hope is the beginning of a “First World Parliament” befitting a First World nation, Singapore.

While the lack of resources and information may hamper the Workers’ Party from developing alternative policies, it will not deter us from doing our best to contribute to the debate in parliament on behalf of our electorate and the people of Singapore. We will scrutinize policies for any loopholes and gaps that are likely to affect our people adversely. We will be the voice of the people in the House so that the government will also consider their concerns and needs in any policy trade off.

I urge the PAP to step out of the shadow of the doom and gloom of certain pitfalls of western liberal democracy and work towards a First World Parliament in our own way. The Singapore way, to build a better life for all Singaporeans and a prosperous Singapore, based on justice, equality and happiness for our people.

(Low Thia Khiang's Chinese speech on bilingual education: here)

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