Key debates at Channel NewsAsia’s political forum

Posted on 03 April 2011

Debate centred around economic issues; Opposition wins by a whisker.

By Terence Lee

On GST

Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) assistant treasurer Vincent Wijeysingha advocated a zero-rate GST for basic services like food so as to alleviate pressure from lower-income groups.

In response, finance minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam came out robustly in defense of the GST system, saying that most of the revenue generated from the GST comes from the top 40 percent of Singaporeans. The money collected is then given back to the poor through subsidies and handouts. He says that the poor get more from these handouts than the GST they pay.

On a related note, People’s Action Party (PAP) member-of-parliament Josephine Teo claims that the government’s Inclusive Growth programme would benefit over 20,000 low wage workers.

Vincent’s suggestion sounds interesting but I wonder how robust it is compared to the government’s existing measures? I also have my doubts about whether the PAP’s current policies are sufficient enough to tackle insufficient wages experienced by the poor.

For instance, while Workfare acts as supplementary income for low-wage workers, much of it goes to the CPF instead of to the worker’s pockets. It’s a pity that the idea of minimum wage was not discussed much.

Result: Tie

On income of the poor

Photo: SILAS HWANG / Creative Commons

Vincent highlights a UBS report stating that the purchasing power of Singaporeans is actually comparable to Russia’s, despite being a “first-rate” economy.

Tharman counters by saying that the UBS report is flawed, without going into specifics. He then mentioned that Singapore’s median income is quite high compared to other countries.

Vincent responds by questioning the validity of median income as an indicator for the well-being of the poor. He then criticises the ministers for their million-dollar salaries, a dig that was ignored.

Finally, Tharman assures viewers that the PAP cares for the welfare of the people. He smartly reemphasises the benefits of the GST system and its trickle-down effect from rich to poor.

Result: PAP wins

On housing

Gerald Giam of the Worker’s Party and Vincent both echo the view that the HDB should be non-profit, something that Minister for National Development Mah Bow Tan would claim is already the case. Gerald goes on to say that prices of HDB flats should be pegged to the cost of flats and not to the resale and private housing market.

Vincent took another tack on the issue, arguing that HDB prices are too high for the lower-income group because they spend too much money from their retirement funds on housing. That’s why they work until the 70s and 80s. Ownership to the home becomes a form of slavery.

“We’re asset secure but income insecure,” he says.

Neither Tharman nor Josephine addressed Gerald’s point. Responding to Vincent, he says that Singaporeans on average use 23 percent of their income to service their housing mortgage, a figure that hasn’t changed much over the years. However, he does not say how the figure is like for the poor.

The PAP reps’ response to the housing debate was not as concise as the GST and income level issues. Neither Vincent’s nor Gerald’s criticisms were successfully rebutted.

Result: Opposition wins

On foreign workers

Photo: KODOMUT / Creative Commons

There isn’t much disagreement between the political parties here: All admit that productivity must go up, while reliance on foreign workers must go down. While the PAP highlighted existing measures to achieve those aims, the opposition (Vincent especially) was quick to point out that the PAP was slow in realising their mistakes.

Vincent, in a ballsy but effective move, interrupted Melissa at one point and mentioned how the PAP was flawed in its measurement of productivity over the past 27 years.

Indeed, a study by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy indicated that Singapore’s productivity growth has stalled over the years, despite government intervention.

Surely, a sore point for the PAP.

Result: Opposition wins

Other issues

On healthcare, Singapore People’s Party second vice-chairperson Lina Chiam’s assertion about the lack of hospital beds was countered by Tharman’s mention of statistics: Occupancy rate for hospitals is only 85 percent. Of course, this figure should be scrutinised further. Lina went on to say how healthcare costs can be reduced by discouraging medical tourism.

She then goes on a tear by highlighting a smorgasbord of other issues: More critical thinking in schools, better political education for students, more recognition for single mothers. Despite her incoherence, the ideas she mentioned are actually pretty good.

But the bad impression she made negates whatever good things she said.

Vincent, being typically SDP, highlighted exorbitant ministerial salaries and persecution of Opposition figures in the past, although he did not press the point home to the extent where it would challenge entrenched views. These issues were not addressed by Tharman and Josephine, which meant the debate was mainly centred around the economy.

Result: Tie

Final score

PAP: 1; Opposition: 2

I must disclaim that I am effectively pro-opposition. That’s my bias. So I felt the Opposition did better in this debate (whether Singaporeans vote for them is another matter). What’s clear is that Vincent is the star striker amongst them all.

For an assessment of the individual candidate’s performance, click here.

This post was written by:

- who has written 81 posts on New Nation.

Terence is an online media nut that is obsessed with writing and publishing on the Internet. Recently, he took up photography to expand his repertoire, and hopes to learn videography soon. He has worked in both online and print publications such as The Straits Times, Today, Mind Your Body, The Online Citizen, and Funkygrad. He is currently the assistant editor with SGEntrepreneurs, a website that covers entrepreneurship in Singapore and Asia. Terence can be found on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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  • http://newnation.sg/2011/04/key-debates-at-channel-newsasia%E2%80%99s-political-forum/ dannk korber

    Tharman & Josephine were basically referring to prepared texts. They knew the new the kinds of questions that will be posed to them. I’m sure CNA would have informed them in advance what they were going to ask. They were not answering to questions raised by Vincent. They were wriggling & dodging their way through. Moderator gave more time to Mrs Lina Chiam who couldn’t decipher what she was asking her. Moderator was also biased to Vincent and interjected when the PAP’s were in a tight spot.

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  • mail

    Im fed up with all year Pay And Pay, and also MM Lee’s remark on muslim had hit me on the spot kept my thoughts working again, all this while i have been voting for somebody who hates my religion. This yr my vote definately goes to opposition.

  • Joa

    @dannk korber

    To be fair, I don’t think the moderator was biased. She interrupted whenever anyone was over time, regardless of whether they were PAP or Opposition.

    And I thought it was nice of her to rephrase her question a few times so that Lina Chiam could have time to think of an answer. If she really wanted to make Lina look bad, she (the moderator) could have just kept quiet and let Lina fumble in an uneasy silence.

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  • http://newnation.sg Sh

    Great summary Terence. This would be fantastic for political watchers who didn’t have time to catch the full interview yesterday. I do agree that Vincent and Gerald are the most promising opposition candidates of the lot but I do wish Vincent didn’t have to resort to cheap digs at Ministers’ salaries. Hua4 Long2 Dian3 Jing1 you know?

  • georgia tong

    Vincent Wijeysingha and Gerald Giam are impressive. However I think Vincent body language could be improve further.

    Though I am an opposition supporter, but the 2 PAP representatives do come across as more confident and friendly.

    Lina Chiam gives the impression she is not well prepared. Disappointed at her performance.

    Mohamed Nasem has some good point but is unable to voice it out well.

  • imho

    PAP gave a better impression. Mr Tharman and Jo seem prepared and coherent. I wished Dr Wijey didn’t stutter and could sit up straight. I wished Mrs Chiam didn’t come across as a birdbrained auntie. I wished Gerald Giam didn’t sound flat or looked woody. I wished that SDA guy wasn’t invited at all. Very disappointing for a voter who really hoped for a change. Room for improvement, guys!

  • red_dot

    imho earlier said “PAP gave a better impression. Mr Tharman and Jo seem prepared and coherent.” Well true because it was already rehearsed umpteen times for the TV show! Don’t forget MediaCorp is the mouth piece of the PAP and the questions/topics were hand-picked by the PAP because they know they need to address those questions now or later. However the opposition as a group did do well. Dr Vincent to me was an outstanding speaker! Credos to SDP for this debate!

    • terence

      red_dot: PAP hand-picked questions? how do you know?

    • t

      red_dot: what are you smoking? regardless of the topics, the questions were posed by the oppositions weren’t they?

      anyway one wonders if one cannot be prepared for a 1 hr talk show, how can these people even be prepared to represent Singaporeans in the parliament

  • Wiliam the Con

    This is a well-written analysis.

    I was impressed with Vincent and Tharman. I’m not sure why Josephine was there, she didn’t add very much, but at least there was female representation among the candidates. Gerald gained confidence as the debate wore on, but he really would have benefited from more preparation.

    I think the consensus is that Mohd Nazem and Lina fared poorly.

    The moderator was firm and did not show any bias.

    Based on this, I (a swing voter) had a better impression of Vincent and Gerald, and might consider voting for them. I would not vote for Lina and Mohd Nazem as I am unsure if they will be able to speak up effectively on my behalf in Parliament.

  • hahaha

    PAP having 2 reps in the forum is already a form of bias.
    I urge the other non ruling parties to be more innovative and robust in their arguments. We really need the change, but if many people cannot see your quality, they will hesitate to give you the big X.

  • George Yeo

    “In response, finance minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam came out robustly in defense of the GST system… ”

    Wah hi, so bombastic the language you use!

    Just say Tharman ABSOLUTELY REFUSED to consider the suggestion, leh.

    It would be more direct, more honest than the ‘robust’ crap!

    Tharman has conveniently forgotten that paying the 7% GST upfront can mean the poor CANNOT buy as much as they need of basic essentials. I suppose this is too much to expect of a million dollar ministers to understand or empathise with. His helicopter vision is too high up to see the real details.

  • keesiao

    Lina Chiam was totally disappointed; I seriously consider whether she actually has the heart to serve or it might be just incompetent.

    She didn’t look natural and a bit “sotong”, she has chased away another potential “A” Team opposition candidate, Desmond Lim.

    Left right up down, she looks like an ignorant housewife who just doesn’t want to let go the power that her husband has garnered this past year.

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