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MPs can debate and spar, but discourse should not 'tear at seams of society': Ong Ye Kung

MPs can debate and spar, but discourse should not 'tear at seams of society': Ong Ye Kung
MPs can debate and spar, but should not “tear at the seams of our society", said Health Minister Ong Ye Kung in Parliament on April 20, 2023.

SINGAPORE — From foreign workers to how government spending is funded, airing different views is part of politics but debates in the House should not pit one group against another, said Health Minister Ong Ye Kung on Thursday (April 20).

MPs can debate and spar, but should not "tear at the seams of our society, and if we keep doing that, it will sow disunity and divide our society", he said in Parliament in response to points raised by two opposition MPs earlier in the debate on the President's Address.

On Tuesday, Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai alleged that the People's Action Party (PAP) Government had tried to paint the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) as xenophobic, nativist, and even racist when the PSP had merely sought to give voice to the anxieties and concerns of Singaporean workers.

Ong said the Government has always acknowledged concerns raised by various members of the House, including by the PSP. This includes Singaporeans' anxieties about jobs and competition in a globalised and fast-changing economy, and the affordability and accessibility of HDB flats.

"We are working hard to adjust policies, and make deliberate efforts to address these issues," he said. "But I hope Leong will also acknowledge the serious concern we have in the way he raises and debates issues."

Ong cited the debate on the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) between Singapore and India in July 2021, which came after the agreement was much demonised "and the discourse took a worrying racial undertone".


As a former free trade agreement negotiator, Ong was asked to deliver a ministerial statement in the House on the pact, and explained to parliamentarians how CECA preserved Singapore's right to immigration policies and setting work pass conditions for foreign nationals who want to work here.

But when Leong, who is PSP chief, filed a motion on foreign talent policy in September 2021, he continued to refer to CECA as a cause for widespread anxiety among Singaporeans on jobs and livelihoods, said Ong.

This "did little to reduce the raw emotions and misimpressions on CECA that had been stoked", said Ong. "It was as if my ministerial statement and explanation in July 2021 did not take place."

Leong and the PSP know that race issues can be played up in multiracial Singapore, he added. "Our harmony is hard-earned. Let's not take it for granted."

Addressing Workers' Party (WP) Leon Perera's speech next, Ong said Perera had asserted that the Government tries to push a single "dominant narrative" without regard to the alternatives raised by the WP.

"This cannot be true. If not, we would not be having such extensive debates on so many issues in this House," said Ong.

When ideas are raised in the House, they are welcomed and taken in when appropriate, regardless of party. Many ideas are not fundamentally at odds with existing policies but instead build upon those in place. And when the Government has a different view, it explains why, Ong added.

"Very often, the WP as opposition wants more of what is already being done. Whatever the Government proposes, ask for more. So here is one difference between our two parties, I don't think it's a major one, and is again part and parcel of political contestation," he said.

But there is a fundamental difference when it comes to the WP's ideas for the Budget, because to do more, one has to spend more, and one has to say where the money comes from, said Ong.

The WP has never supported the goods and services tax (GST) system, he noted. An alternate budget without the GST simply cannot work and is not a viable alternative, he added. 

"You cannot give up a major source of revenue and yet want to spend more in so many areas. I'm new to this subject, I may have misunderstood WP's position. Perhaps it has changed its long-held position and now accepts that GST is needed, but merely objects to the increase from seven per cent to nine per cent," said Ong.


To make up for loss of revenue from the two percentage point increase in GST, the WP had proposed drawing 60 per cent of the Net Investment Returns Contribution (NIRC) for government spending, up from half now.

NIRC currently pays for about one-fifth of government spending. It consists of up to 50 per cent of the net investment returns on the net assets invested by GIC, the Monetary Authority of Singapore and Temasek, and up to 50 per cent of the net investment income derived from past reserves from the remaining assets.

Ong said the Government will not agree to this proposal, and this is also a fundamental difference between the PAP and the WP that has to do with the PAP's values and beliefs.

The Government's view is that the reserves belong to all generations of Singaporeans, current and future, and have to be safeguarded, he added.

"It is very tempting, even seductive, to say let's shift from half-half to 60-40. But we debated and enshrined the fiscal rules in our Constitution not that long ago," said Ong.

"We should not, at the first sign of need, push for changes in the rules just to take the easy way out."

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This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.

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