Pritam Singh’s maiden Parliament speech as leader of Opposition focuses on cost of living

As it turns out, many things in Singapore do return to that.

By Jeanette Tan | May 15, 2018

The first day of debate on President Halimah Yacob’s address in Parliament started on Monday, May 14.

Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing acknowledgd veteran Workers’ Party leader and former chief Low Thia Khiang for his contributions to opposition politics:

Chan Chun Sing thanks Low Thia Khiang in Parliament for helping to build a better S’pore

This marked the passing of the torch for the WP’s new secretary-general, as well as the new Leader of the Opposition, Pritam Singh, who had his turn as the first opposition Member of Parliament to speak in the debate.

Maiden speech

In his 11-and-a-half-minute speech, which also happens to be his maiden one as leader of the opposition in Parliament, Pritam made points on key matters of concern to Singaporeans in various sectors of our society.

Interestingly, he observes, they all tie back to the tricky issue of the rising cost of living here.

Here’s a summary:

On politics: 4G leaders, please listen to the people

Pritam said he noted President Halimah’s urging of the next generation of the ruling People’s Action Party leadership to avoid taking the people’s trust for granted, to push for bold changes and to mobilise young Singaporeans, adding that the one thing linking these three is the need to listen to Singaporeans.

“What the government should not do is to close the door or resign itself to the politics of majoritarianism when a sensitive or difficult subject comes along, but instead invest a lot more energy to engage and explain, for our people have more than their fair share of good ideas. If the approach of the 4G leaders is to ignore, silence or ridicule alternative ideas, they will fail to galvanise and spur all Singaporeans to greater heights or worse, they may even engender a divided society rendering the message of inclusivity hollow and without substance.”

Cost of living issue 1: Water price hikes have caused coffee price hikes

He then touched on the issue of water price hikes (which he was really quite interested in last year), noting that despite Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean’s assurance during 2017’s Budget debates that the price of coffee will not go up:

Pritam pointed out that Lianhe Zaobao report recently confirmed that a leading coffee shop chain increased their coffee prices, citing rising overheads.

On this, he also asked about the need for the 30 per cent hike in water prices in light of the Public Utilities Board’s annual surpluses rising from S$3 billion in 2007 to S$5 billion in 2016.

Cost of living issue 2: Transport fare hikes

On the matter of upcoming transport fare hikes, which Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan hinted at during this year’s Budget debates:

Public Transport Council reviewing bus & train fare formula as costs go up by billions

Pritam pointed out the views of some members of the public who called into a radio station that the revenues for public transport cannot be worked out from fares alone — can the likes of SBS Transit and SMRT consider working their profits from advertising and takings from shop rentals, for instance, into absorbing some of their increased infrastructural investment?

“Mr Speaker, the question of the quantum of the surpluses and the prospect of alternate revenue streams and future surpluses of many Government-Linked Companies and statutory boards to better cushion price hikes on Singaporeans needs to be looked at very closely and debated before prices go up.”

On these, Pritam said going a bit further in-depth about these calculations and considerations would be vastly more helpful in getting Singaporeans on board with price hikes or taxation increases:

“Getting into the details of such matters would represent a unique partnership with the people. It would represent bold leadership but such an approach would come with an upshot. Price hikes are likely to be better understood and contextualised to the benefit of the policy discourse in Singapore.”

Cost of living issue 3: The cost of having children

The young and newly-minted WP chief also touched on another key issue: the cost of having children in Singapore.

Describing Singapore’s need to raise our Total Fertility Rate as an “existential issue” for the nation, Pritam cited statistics from a government survey that showed significantly fewer Singaporean couples were able to have the number of children they ideally wanted.

Top reasons for this, he said, include, and in this order:

  1. Financial cost
  2. The stress of raising children here
  3. The difficulty of managing work and family demands

Pritam said “bold thinking” and “structural changes” are needed to fix these problems, mooting ideas relating to housing prices, flexi-work arrangements and education, as well as tax support credit for low- and medium-income parents.

Cost of living issue 4: An unclear picture

Pritam brought up one final issue that may perhaps be a question mark for some Singaporeans: why will taxes be raised when we are currently sitting on a S$15.7 billion in budget surplus, post-fund transfers?

As he explains, “the picture for the immediate future does not appear to be one of a government needing money to stay afloat and needing to tax the population as a result, raising the cost of living”.

Acknowledging Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat’s previous explanations of needing to finance rising costs of healthcare and infrastructure development, he asked:

“But what are the government’s current estimates and the underlying basis for its projections of higher expenditure coming on stream in future? This information needs to be shared so the public are clear-eyed about the sufficiency of the budget at the government’s disposal to help Singaporeans with the cost of living today.”

You can watch some excerpts from his speech here:

Or the full version of it here:

Top image via Workers’ Party Facebook/ Screenshot from govsingapore YouTube video

About Jeanette Tan

Jeanette takes pride in her ability to sing the complete lyrics to Hakuna Matata and a host of other Disney songs. She holds out hope to someday be talent-spotted to do voice-overs for documentaries, lifts and automated telephone answering systems.

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