MPs back Budget, but warn about spending

MPs back Budget, but warn about spending

THE "shift to the left" in the Government's social policies dominated the first day of debate on this year's Budget, sparking some soul-searching yesterday among Members of Parliament over the consequences.

Most welcomed the largesse of new programmes such as the Silver Support Scheme to give the poorest elderly a basic pension. The opposition Workers' Party (WP) said it supported the leftwards shift and suggested that it should have come sooner.

But several backbenchers worried that the Government is nearing a "red line" of social spending that could lead to the deficit-ridden, debt-laden economic situation of developed countries in the West.

Almost half of the 25 MPs who spoke in Parliament yesterday expressed this concern to varying degrees, with Nominated MP Chia Yong Yong summing it up thus: "I fear that if we lean too far to the left, we will have nothing left."

Some spoke urgently about their discomfort with the direction of greater social spending not just on the lower-income, but also on the middle class.

"While I am happy for those (getting more support), I am ill at ease over the ability of future governments to sustain such programmes," said Mr Arthur Fong (West Coast GRC), referring to schemes like generous childcare and domestic helper support.

Noting that spending is a "one-way street", Mr Hri Kumar Nair (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) cautioned that the Government has few levers left to pull in plugging its deficit - contrary to popular belief that it has unlimited means.

Referring to the inclusion of Temasek Holdings' gains in the calculation of projected returns that it can use for spending, he said: "After Temasek, there is no 'next'."

As long as the mindset among Singaporeans is that the Government must have the solution to everything, the country's social contract will always be under pressure to be rewritten for the benefit of one or more groups, he said.

But MPs yesterday still largely welcomed the moulding of the social contract that this Budget, together with the few before it, had accomplished.

Rather than a "Robin Hood" move, this year's Budget is Singapore's "New Deal", said Mr Liang Eng Hwa (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC), referencing the massive expansion of social support in the United States after the Great Depression.

WP chairman Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) argued that there is room to raise taxes on the rich further, beyond the 2 percentage point hike from 2017 announced in this year's Budget.

"To a very large extent, the way we raise national revenue and allocate expenses says something about our values as a nation," she said, adding that in its leftwards shift, "perhaps the Government realises that it has been too calculating with the people, and is now making adjustments".

Yesterday, amid the voices in the House urging caution over the expansion of state spending, several MPs also peppered their speeches with requests for more government support for a variety of groups, such as small businesses facing rising costs, or elderly folk ineligible for the Silver Support Scheme because they live in private property.

The debate continues today.

This article was first published on March 4, 2015.
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