Sunday, 5 July 2020

GE2020: Half-time-report

Singapore GE2020: 6 key election issues, from jobs, COVID-19 to population
Insight looks at six issues that have surfaced as the campaign for GE2020 enters Day 6 today, 5 July 2020

Safeguarding Singaporeans' jobs in a crisis
By Grace Ho, Senior Political Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 5 Jul 2020

With a global recession looming, political parties made their case for how they would keep Singaporeans in jobs and tackle unemployment.

The ruling People's Action Party (PAP) has put jobs front and centre of its election messaging, making it a key prong of its manifesto titled, Our Lives, Our Jobs, Our Future.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong pointed out that the Economic Development Board was able to attract $13 billion in new investments in the first quarter of this year, which will generate several thousand jobs over the next few years. In a video message on Wednesday, he said this was possible because investors know the Singapore Government has strong popular support and can get backing for "policies that will grow the economy, attract talent and investment, and eventually create jobs for Singaporeans".

"In a crisis, it is even more critical for us to reinforce these fundamentals, in order to attract more investments and jobs to Singapore," he added.

Manpower Minister Josephine Teo disclosed last Friday that 12,000 have been placed in new jobs under the SGUnited Jobs Initiative since March, as part of the Government's efforts to create more opportunities for work and traineeships amid the economic crisis brought on by the pandemic.

Jobs was also a central topic in a live debate last Wednesday.

Workers' Party (WP) candidate Jamus Lim highlighted the party's proposals for a national minimum take-home wage of $1,300 a month for full-time work, as well as a redundancy insurance scheme.

The scheme would see workers pay $4 a month, matched by employers, into an Employment Security Fund, and retrenched workers would receive a payout equivalent to 40 per cent of their last-drawn salary for up to six months, capped at $1,200 a month.

Progress Singapore Party (PSP) candidate Francis Yuen said Singaporeans have to get priority in jobs, by freeing up jobs held by foreign professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs).

"We believe that we need foreign PMETs to complement, but we need to believe that there is opportunity for us to slow it down," he said. On small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), he highlighted the need for them to thrive and prosper, to keep jobs available to Singaporeans.

MOM's Mrs Teo later said that the Government has taken pains to ensure Singaporean jobs are protected, by tightening foreign worker policies over the years. The schemes rolled out in the recent Budgets were specifically targeted to offer wage support for Singaporeans, signalling to employers that they should hold on to their local workers, while shedding foreign workers if need be.


The PAP's Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, who is also Foreign Minister, said job security is at the forefront of PAP's campaign. Citing the Jobs Support Scheme, which subsidises wages so that firms can retain workers, he said the Government was in effect paying three-quarters of the median wage of Singaporeans during the circuit breaker.

He also pointed to measures such as the income relief scheme for the self-employed and the SGUnited Jobs and Skills Package that will create 100,000 opportunities in the form of jobs, traineeships and paid skills training places.

He said: "(We have provided) emergency treatment and are looking beyond the horizon. And that's what we have been focused on - jobs, jobs, jobs."

SDP's Dr Chee Soon Juan, however, dismissed the government efforts as "an election jingle".

"Since 2003, we've had the Economic Review Committee and the Economic Strategies Committee, and of late, the Committee on the Future Economy. With each of these (committees), we see our productivity tanking," he said.

"Jobs were lost and we have unemployment. And just before the general election right now, you're telling people you want jobs, jobs, jobs. I think that is more an election jingle than a well-thought-out plan.

WP's Associate Professor Lim, who is contesting in Sengkang GRC in his first election, noted that the WP had done the maths and what it proposes is budget-neutral.

The PAP and the WP differ in where they think trade-offs should occur, he added, with the PAP tending to come down on the side of capital. The WP thinks that for every dollar of national income, workers are receiving an insufficient amount. "And we think that a rebalance of that kind of share of labour income is ultimately necessary," he said.

The WP reiterated the policy points it made earlier at an online rally last Thursday, with its chairman, Ms Sylvia Lim, calling for economic growth that is broad-based and inclusive.

Mr Yee Jenn Jong, who is contesting in Marine Parade GRC, said that a "grow at all cost" mentality had led to unsustainable growth and depressed wages for bottom income earners.

PAP leaders, however, questioned how the opposition parties intend to fund all of this.

Pointing out that the Government set aside 20 per cent of its GDP for fiscal stimulus during the pandemic, Dr Balakrishnan said on Wednesday that it is funding this not by "passing the burden to our children or grandchildren", but by dipping into Singapore's reserves.

"Our Pioneer and Merdeka generations always believed in spending less than they earn on a recurrent basis. That's why we have the reserves."

In an online Mandarin dialogue on Thursday, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, responding to proposals by the WP and PSP to raise wages in blue-collar professions and increase the net investment returns contribution by up to 10 per cent, asked: "Who will foot the bill?"

He added that given the global economic downturn, raising other forms of taxes - such as income, property and corporate tax - will be challenging.

It will also be difficult to earn as much as before from investing the country's reserves, he said, adding: "This is not child's play. These are challenges that we will be facing over the next 10 years.

"If we had, in the past, done what the WP is proposing, we would not have enough money to see us through the crisis today."

Handling the COVID-19 outbreak
By Lim Yan Liang, Assistant Political Editor, The Sunday Times, 5 Jul 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has plunged Singapore, and the world, into its worst crisis in a generation, and the country's response has set the backdrop for the ongoing general election campaign.

The People's Action Party (PAP) has made safeguarding lives a top priority, by taking measures to keep people safe and preventing the healthcare system from being overwhelmed.

It has also sought to protect and create jobs, rolling out four Budgets and putting $93 billion on the table to focus on keeping companies afloat and Singaporeans employed.

While these moves have kept fatality rates here relatively low - one of the lowest in the world - the economic fallout has been considerable. The surge of cases in the foreign workers' dormitories also seemed to have caught the authorities off guard, forcing a rushed and relentless effort to get on top of the situation.

Opposition parties have hit out at the PAP's handling of the crisis. Progress Singapore Party (PSP) chief Tan Cheng Bock, for instance, has charged that the PAP government has missed the forest for the trees in its handling of the ongoing medical crisis.

He argued that the priority should be putting a lid on new COVID-19 cases and protecting lives.

With Singapore still reporting hundreds of new cases every day, other countries would be very wary of re-establishing travel and investment links with the Republic, he said on Thursday. "The important thing is the virus must be stopped, because once the virus is stopped then people will say the numbers are small, they can open the borders to us, the planes can come and bring all the tourists," he told reporters during a walkabout at Marymount SMC.

The PAP's focus on jobs does not get to the root of the problem, added Dr Tan, whose party political broadcast urged Singaporeans to send opposition MPs to Parliament to check how the Government spends the reserves on post-COVID-19 recovery measures in the next five years.

"Speaking as a doctor, are we treating the symptoms, or are we treating the disease?" he asked. "I fear that we're treating the symptoms only - we are pouring money here, pouring money there, but that is treating the symptoms."

Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) chairman Paul Tambyah also questioned on Friday if the multi-ministry task force (MTF) handling the pandemic "lost their focus" earlier this year, amid talk of an early election.

Speaking at a pre-election forum at the National University of Singapore Society, Professor Tambyah, an infectious diseases expert, said he praised Singapore's initial handling of the pandemic, but that "all hell broke loose" in March as the Government contended with both returning Singaporeans and outbreaks in the foreign worker dormitories.

"That was around the time they started talking about an early election, and you wonder whether the ministerial committee lost their focus on public health and started thinking about the election," he said.

The Workers' Party (WP) has also questioned the Government's handling of COVID-19, including whether its early advice for people not to wear masks unless they were feeling unwell was driven more by concerns of a mask shortage.

"Ten weeks after the first COVID-19 case was recorded in Singapore, the Government abruptly changed its position and announced the distribution of reusable masks to all residents," the WP said in its manifesto.

"Would many infections have been prevented if the advice had been given earlier to wear masks to cut down the risk of infection, as advised by some doctors from the beginning?"

Among the COVID-19-related policies the WP is advocating is to form an independent medical advisory board to provide alternative perspectives and advice to that of government doctors, and to make recommendations to the Government's medical team.

It is also calling for more widespread and pre-emptive testing of the coronavirus within the community to curb the virus' spread, and for the Government to make the COVID19 vaccine free to all Singapore residents when it becomes available and approved.

At its first Hammer Show, WP candidate Gerald Giam said COVID-19 has also seen Singapore "going from gold standard to cautionary tale in just a matter of weeks", alluding to criticism that the Government failed to anticipate the outbreak of cases in foreign workers' dormitories here.


The pandemic has thus spotlighted how Singapore has, in the last two decades, been too focused on growing gross domestic product through low-wage foreign labour, at the expense of real productivity growth, said Mr Giam, a former Non-Constituency MP.

"Unfortunately, productivity growth has been an aspect which has been a millstone on our economy in the last 20 years," said Mr Giam, a point also made by other WP candidates.

Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing yesterday disputed Prof Tambyah's characterisation of how the Government has handled the pandemic, and said the task force had, from the start, been focused on handling each wave of infections.

Despite the election having been called, work continues on the critical issues, whether that is jobs or tackling COVID-19, Mr Chan told reporters.

"If you notice, Minister Gan Kim Yong and Minister Lawrence Wong, the co-chairs of the MTF, they are actively managing this situation, and that is why you don't see them campaigning, like some other people in the usual ways," he said.

"All these are ongoing work, and I can touch my heart and say that at no point in time have we ever neglected the lives, livelihoods and lifelines of our people," he added.

Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam has also said that as countries emerge from COVID-19, the measure by which they will be judged on how well they have tackled the virus is in the death rate.

"People look a lot at what happens when you test people, what the infection rates are, and so on, but a year from now, two years from now, people are going to stare at the fatality rates," he said in an episode of Straight Talk with the PAP on Thursday.

Singapore is one of four places in the world which has managed to keep its per capita fatality rate "extraordinarily low", said Mr Tharman.

The others are New Zealand, South Korea and Taiwan.

"Even Germany, which has done relatively well compared to most European countries, (its) fatality rate is about 25 times more than Singapore," he said.

Whether a country is able to keep its people safe will be a mark of its reliability and trustworthiness in a post-COVID-19 world, said Mr Tharman, alongside the ability to transform one's economy without allowing large divides to emerge - such as between those poised to take advantage of accelerating digitalisation, and those who are not.

Singapore also needs to do even more to be connected to the rest of the world at a time when global supply chains are being threatened, he added, because connectivity is critical to a small and open city-state.

"If we can do those three things well - retain trust and reliability (and) take care of our people well; second, transform without becoming a more divided economy and society; and thirdly, find new connections internationally to create new markets for ourselves - Singapore will have a bright future, even in a very difficult world," he said.

Facts show task force has handled Covid-19 situation well, but fight goes on, says Lawrence Wong
He cites low fatality, community infection rates and help given to migrant workers
By Toh Ting Wei, The Straits Times, 8 Jul 2020

The COVID-19 task force has handled the current crisis well in terms of numbers relating to community infection, fatality rate and how it has helped migrant workers, said National Development Minister Lawrence Wong yesterday.

But at the end of the day, the fight against the coronavirus is ongoing, and Singaporeans will have to judge the task force's performance, he said.

Mr Wong, who co-chairs the task force combating the COVID-19 outbreak, was responding to a question during a virtual briefing about the virus situation in Singapore.

A reporter had asked Mr Wong about his thoughts on how voters will assess the task force's performance, and whether this will affect the People's Action Party vote share in the July 10 general election.

"If you look at what we have achieved up till now, the outcomes are quite clear," said Mr Wong.

"We have been able to bring down infection rates in the community significantly and protected many Singaporeans, especially the vulnerable ones. We have been able to achieve a fatality rate which is amongst the lowest in the world.

"Where the cases in the dormitories are concerned... I do not know of any other country that has mounted as significant an operation as Singapore has in taking care of its migrant workers."

On the migrant worker situation, Mr Wong said the task force is in the process of testing all the workers.

He added that beyond taking care of their health, the Government has also taken care of their well-being, food and salaries. "We have done everything we can to ensure the overall well-being of these workers because we know that they are an important part of our society," he said.

Mr Wong also noted that the task force has been transparent with how it has dealt with the crisis and provided regular updates on its work through the media.

The Government's management of the COVID-19 situation has become a political issue in recent days, with opposition candidates questioning if the situation could have been handled better.

Among them is Professor Paul Tambyah, an infectious diseases expert and a candidate from the Singapore Democratic Party.

Prof Tambyah had flagged the Ministry of Manpower's (MOM) advisory warning employers against sending asymptomatic workers for COVID-19 testing earlier this year as a mistake, among other issues.

He said telling employers they could lose their workforce privileges if they go against the advisory is a "violation of public health 101".

Mr Wong and the relevant authorities have rebutted the allegation.

Yesterday, the Health Ministry's director of medical services Kenneth Mak said his ministry had asked MOM to issue the advisory.

This was after hospitals gave feedback that employers were asking doctors to confirm that their workers were free of COVID-19. Not only was this not possible, it was also distracting accident and emergency (A&E) staff from attending to patients that required urgent help.

"A circular was sent out and I understand that nearly a week later, a second advisory was sent out because there were employers still persistent in sending their workers to the A&E," Associate Professor Mak said. "Therefore, MOM then issued a more strongly worded directive."

Yesterday, Mr Wong also thanked all those who have helped in Singapore's fight against COVID-19.

"This fight is far from over, there is still so much that we need to do, and that's why we have asked for everyone to focus their minds on what is critical," he added.

10 million population claim by SDP
By Grace Ho, Senior Political Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 5 Jul 2020

A heated exchange on population numbers resurfaced tensions over immigration, leading the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) to issue a strong statement refuting opposition claims that it plans to drastically increase the number of foreigners, and questioning the character and integrity of opposition party chiefs.

During a televised debate on Wednesday night, Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) chief Chee Soon Juan suggested several times that Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat had "toyed with" the idea of nearly doubling the Republic's population to 10 million, from the current 5.7 million.

He asked Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, who was representing the PAP at the debate, if he would categorically tell Singaporeans his party had no intention of raising the population to 10 million by continuing to bring in foreigners.

Dr Balakrishnan corrected him each time and referred him to the National Population and Talent Division's statement that the Government had no plans to do so.

But Dr Chee doubled down on the claim, publishing a Facebook post linking to a Straits Times report of a dialogue DPM Heng had with Nanyang Technological University students in March last year.

ST clarified that Mr Heng did not say Singapore should plan for 10 million people, nor did he mention the figure, at the event.

On the contrary, when asked about the Population White Paper - which projected that Singapore's population could hit 6.5 to 6.9 million by 2030 - Mr Heng noted that former chief planner Liu Thai Ker had publicly said Singapore "should go for an even higher number".

Without endorsing this, he had explained that "our population size was not just about physical space, but also about social space and how we can preserve a sense of togetherness".

It was the former Housing Board chief executive, Mr Liu, who had suggested Singapore should actually plan for a more distant future if it was to remain a viable, liveable city.

At a public forum in April 2013 on the topic of planning for 2030, Mr Liu said: "The world doesn't end in 2030, and population growth doesn't end at 6.9 million."

ST reported him suggesting that Singapore could do well to look ahead, perhaps to 2100, when it might have a population of 10 million.

Mr Heng refuted Dr Chee's statement on Thursday in a Facebook post: "Let me be clear: The Government has never proposed or targeted for Singapore to increase the population to 10 million. And if we look at today's situation, our population is likely to be significantly below 6.9 million by 2030."

Later that day, Dr Balakrishnan also called on Dr Chee to clarify his stance, now that the 10 million figure touted in the party's manifesto had turned out to be a falsehood.

The SDP, however, said in a press release: "Now that Dr Chee has successfully extracted an assurance from the PAP that it has no intention of increasing the population to 6.9 or 10 million, we invite the PAP to tell Singaporeans what its target population is."

When the controversial Population White Paper was published in 2013, it drew negative reactions from many quarters, in particular, over its projection that Singapore's population could reach 6.9 million by 2030.

In a nod to its campaign slogan 4Y 1N - which hinges on getting people to say "no" to a 10 million population - the SDP added: "The idea of a 10 million population is not an SDP invention or imagination."

This prompted the PAP to say that having been proven wrong, the honourable thing to do would have been to "admit that SDP's election campaign was based on a falsehood, withdraw it, and apologise to Singaporeans for misleading them".

"Instead, Dr Chee further twists the facts... Dr Chee first conjures a bogey out of thin air to befuddle, frighten and divide Singaporeans," said the PAP. It added that when it was pointed out no bogey existed and no one had "toyed" with the idea, "he waves his arms triumphantly in the air, proclaiming, 'see, I slayed the bogey'".

Pointing out that Dr Chee has "staged this drama many times before", the PAP statement said that the "new Dr Chee - of which there have been many - is still the old Dr Chee".

The party went on to say that this is not just a matter of Dr Chee's personal dishonesty, but that the falsehood renders the campaign "pointless" and calls into question the integrity of the whole party.

Weighing in on Friday, Workers' Party (WP) chief Pritam Singh said there should be room for fair comment on the population target that Singapore is aiming for, since ministers have alluded in the past to the possibility of a larger population size.

While he acknowledged that Dr Balakrishnan had said that Singapore was not even going to reach a population of 6.9 million, he said: "So one of the things I don't understand is why can't these things actually come up well before the elections. I mean it's the Government's position so it should state that very clearly."

In response, the PAP issued another statement on Friday expressing disappointment that Dr Chee and the SDP had "dug their heels in, repeated their falsehoods, and refused to apologise to Singaporeans for misleading them", and that other opposition leaders had "also opportunistically jumped into the fray".

"It is baffling that Mr Singh should ask this question (on why the Government could not have said this earlier). During the Committee of Supply in February 2018, Minister Josephine Teo had said that our population would be significantly below 6.9 million in 2030," it said.

"She repeated this in the Committee of Supply in February this year. Was the leader of the opposition not scrutinising the minister's statements?"

Taking this up yesterday, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said he was "perplexed" by the WP leader's statements, as the figures had been disclosed in Parliament more than once.

Ensuring diversity of views in Parliament
By Danson Cheong, Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 5 Jul 2020

It has been described as a "poisoned chalice", a "ploy" to keep people from voting for the opposition, and a "back door" for the opposition to get into Parliament.

The Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) scheme has become one of the most talked-about issues this election season, with vigorous debate from both sides of the political divide.

NCMP seats are offered to the opposition's "top losers", its candidates who garner the best results at the polls even though they do not win, and over the years the number of seats has increased from three to the 12 on offer in the coming election.

These 12 seats can comprise any combination of elected MPs or NCMPs. This means that if there are 12 or more elected opposition MPs, no NCMP seats will be allocated.

The ruling People's Action Party (PAP) argues that the scheme guarantees political diversity regardless of the outcome of the polls on July 10, while opposition parties have said that without their candidates winning outright at the ballot box, the PAP would have a "blank cheque" to do as it wishes.

The scheme became a talking point when Workers' Party (WP) chief Pritam Singh unveiled his party's manifesto and slogan "Make Your Vote Count" last Sunday and urged Singaporeans to vote for the WP, warning that there was a real risk of a wipeout of elected opposition MPs at the coming polls with the PAP winning all 93 seats.

The WP argued that the PAP's call for a strong mandate on July 10 amounted to it seeking a "blank cheque" on its actions. The PAP, it said, would have a strong mandate even if the opposition won a third of the 93 seats up for grabs.

This triggered a response from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who called the WP's suggestion of an opposition wipeout a "tactic" and said the PAP faced a hard fight for votes as Singaporeans were hurting from the impact of COVID-19.

PM Lee, who is the PAP's secretary-general, would later point to the NCMP scheme, saying that a "significant opposition presence" would be guaranteed in Parliament no matter what happens.

In 2016, the Constitution was amended to give NCMPs equivalent voting rights as elected MPs - these changes will take effect in the next term of government.

Pointing out their enhanced powers, PM Lee said at a virtual press conference after the start of campaigning: "They can vote on Budgets, they can vote on constitutional amendments, they can even vote on motions of confidence.

"So whatever happens, a significant opposition presence is guaranteed. There is no possibility of the opposition being shut out from Parliament."

Other ministers, including Ms Indranee Rajah and Mr Chan Chun Sing, have also made similar points over the past week.

A core pillar of the PAP's campaign in this general election is asking voters for a clear and strong mandate, so it can lead Singapore into the post-COVID-19 future.

With the election coming in the middle of a crisis and recession, observers have said the PAP could see voters flock to it for safety.

So the NCMP scheme has been touted as a fail-safe option that would ensure a minimum number of opposition members in Parliament.

It was introduced in 1984 out of a recognition that people wanted opposition voices in the country's legislative body.


Dr Tan Cheng Bock of the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) has said he would turn down an NCMP seat if offered one, although others from his party might take it up.

At a walkabout on Thursday, he called the scheme a "ploy" to dissuade people from voting for the opposition.

But the most vigorous opposition has come from the WP. Its Hougang SMC candidate Dennis Tan called the NCMP scheme a "poisoned chalice" and said it aimed to keep other parties from laying down roots in a constituency.

He pointed out that NCMPs do not have access to facilities in constituencies they contested in and are not allowed to hold events there.

"As a former NCMP, I appeal to all voters not to be deceived by PAP's intention for NCMPs when you go to the ballot box. Please elect sufficient opposition constituency MPs," he said during an online talk show by the WP on Wednesday.

While the PAP pointed to the argument that NCMPs have the same voting rights as elected MPs, WP candidate Leon Perera said their views carry less weight because they do not have the weight of their constituents behind them.

"A Parliament where the only opposition is NCMPs who have lost the election and do not have the full mandate of the people are MPs whose ideas can be ignored," he wrote on Facebook on Wednesday.

The WP's argument then is that elected opposition MPs are necessary to provide a check and balance in Parliament, with party new face Jamus Lim saying during a televised debate that the WP did not want to deny the PAP a mandate, but a "blank cheque".

The WP's position on the NCMP scheme is well known, with former WP chief Low Thia Khiang once describing these MPs as "duckweed on the water of a pond" because they lack political muscle and grassroots grounding.

But political scientist Bilveer Singh pointed out that despite the WP opposition, it has taken a pragmatic approach in accepting NCMP seats - noting for instance that party chairman Sylvia Lim was made an NCMP in 2006, which helped her cement her reputation as a serious and capable politician.

"The NCMP scheme has been a blessing for the opposition, in the sense that it has given their MPs a lot of exposure," he said.

But Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan also said the PAP would be hard-pressed to convince voters that the views of an NCMP carry the same weight as an elected opposition MP.

Having said that, it is not an issue that will sway voters, when compared with the more pressing bread-and-butter concerns, he added.

Foreigners: Protecting Singapore workers' interests
By Grace Ho, Senior Political Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 5 Jul 2020

Amid a wave of retrenchments due to the COVID-19 pandemic, political parties crossed swords on the Government's foreign worker policy and free trade agreements such as the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca).

During a televised live debate on Wednesday, the Progress Singapore Party's (PSP) Mr Francis Yuen, who is leading PSP's four-person team in Chua Chu Kang GRC against the ruling People's Action Party (PAP), said: "We have a lot of foreign professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) working here. I think there are about 400,000 of them, and yet we have about more than 100,000 of (local) PMETs who are out of a job.

"We believe that we need foreign PMETs to complement but we need to believe that there is opportunity for us to slow it down."

Singapore Democratic Party chief Chee Soon Juan called on the PAP to "stop this foolishness" of bringing in foreign workers, especially PMETs.

It is not sustainable, he said, to bring in foreign PMETs "for the purposes of lowering wages".

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, representing the PAP, said the number of local PMETs is increasing by 3 per cent a year, higher than the overall local workforce's growth rate, and that there are seven locals holding a PMET job for every foreign Employment Pass holder. "And are you aware that in the first five months of this year, 60,000 foreigners have lost jobs?" he asked.

Mr Yuen countered: "The fact still remains that you have amongst us over 400,000 foreign PMETs working here. And the fact also remains that we have a number of our own PMETs that are out of a job to the tune of 100,000.

"So logic will tell us that our own PMETs certainly could fill up some of the jobs that the current PMETs could do."

Mr Yuen's claim drew a swift response from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), which said that as of June last year, there were 39,000 local unemployed PMETs - fewer than half of the 100,000 figure he quoted.

The figure was taken from the Report on Labour Force in Singapore 2019 released in January this year. This year's figures will be released in the report early next year as the survey is conducted annually, it said.

Mr Yuen said that the ministry's figures are outdated, as the June 2019 figures do not include retrenchments in the third and fourth quarter of last year and the expected numbers this year.

He added that in citing the 100,000 figure, the party also considered the "large proportion who will not find jobs" among the more than 30,000 new graduates entering the job market this year, as well as PMETs displaced into the gig economy who are unaccounted for in unemployment figures.

Responding to PSP vice-chairman Hazel Poa in an online Mandarin dialogue on Thursday, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, who is the PAP's second assistant secretary-general, said Singapore's foreign manpower needs are not determined by the Government but by the needs of businesses.

"If we tighten the foreign manpower policy, we will need to think about how it will have an impact on SMEs and other businesses," he said, adding that the policy is not a zero-sum game as hiring foreign workers does not come at the expense of locals.

Ms Poa argued that the Government still plays a role in regulating and calibrating the flow of foreign labour. She also pointed out that other countries have been able to attract local workers to blue-collar professions by offering substantial wages.

The issue of foreign labour was also raised in the National Solidarity Party (NSP) and Peoples Voice party political broadcasts, with NSP secretary-general Spencer Ng saying that foreigners competing for jobs had depressed locals' wages.


Mr Ng said: "We want a country which considers all Singaporeans first. We want a government that ensures our people have the priority for quality jobs."

Peoples Voice has advocated for a freeze on all S Passes and a significant reduction in the number of Employment Passes.

Also coming under scrutiny was Ceca, inked in 2005. Claims that the bilateral trade agreement has allowed Indian nationals to take PMET jobs meant for Singaporeans re-emerged last year, after an expletive-laden video surfaced online showing an Indian national lashing out at a security guard at a condominium.

Peoples Voice secretary-general Lim Tean described the agreement on Facebook Live as a "one-way street" which allows many Indian nationals into Singapore without a reciprocal flow of Singaporean workers into India, and said that his party seeks to abolish it.

In its election manifesto, the PSP has called for a review of free trade agreements (FTAs), such as Ceca, that touch on labour exchanges.

Homing in on that point during the Mandarin dialogue, Mr Chan said such reviews would have to take into account the compromises and potential trade-offs that Singapore will have to make with the other country.

"If we want to review an FTA with India, for instance, what do you have to give up and what does India want from this side? What do we offer in exchange?" Mr Chan asked.

He had clarified last year that all FTAs, including Ceca, place no obligations on Singapore with regard to immigration, nor does Ceca give Indian nationals privileged immigration access.

Mr Chan said then: "Indian professionals, like any other professionals from other countries, have to meet MOM's existing qualifying criteria to work in Singapore. This applies to Employment Pass, S Pass and work permit. Anyone applying for Singapore citizenship must qualify according to our existing criteria."

Criticising the lack of detail in the PSP's manifesto during a walkabout yesterday, Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran said workers and businesses might lose out if FTAs were reviewed.

He said: "Singaporeans deserve to know what you are planning to give up, when you say you're going to review all of these (FTAs). You can't make broad statements then leave it to the imagination of the population."

GST: To raise, suspend or exempt?
By Lim Yan Liang, Assistant Political Editor, The Sunday Times, 5 Jul 2020

The familiar lightning rod issue of the goods and services tax (GST) has returned this election, with opposition parties in broad agreement in opposing a planned hike from 7 per cent to 9 per cent between 2022 and 2025.

Most, like the Workers' Party (WP) and the Progress Singapore Party, are calling for the GST to be held at the current 7 per cent, while others such as the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) and Reform Party have gone further to call for a suspension to the GST or to exempt essential goods from the tax.

But the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) has defended the need to raise the GST by 2025 to fund the country's recurrent spending needs, and questioned the other parties on where they intend to make up the shortfall should GST collection be suspended, or the GST hike be scrapped.

The matter was raised during a televised live debate last Wednesday, when the PAP's Dr Vivian Balakrishnan said SDP chief Chee Soon Juan was not being forthright with Singaporeans about how his party intended to plug the fiscal gap should the consumption tax be suspended.

Part of the SDP's campaign platform is to cut the GST to zero until the end of next year, which the party says will stimulate the economy and help businesses.

Dr Chee said in the SDP's first e-rally last week that raising the GST amid the pandemic "is not smart economics".

The SDP has proposed raising the income tax for the top 1 per cent of income earners and reinstating estate duty, among other fiscal measures, but Dr Balakrishnan said these do not account for the fiscal hole that suspending the GST would create.

"I don't think you've been open with our people... do you realise, each year, at current rates, you will create a hole therefore of $11 billion?" he asked.

Dr Balakrishnan, who is Foreign Minister, said the PAP did not believe in class warfare, and urged Singaporeans not to "take it out against people who, through no fault of their own, have been somewhat more successful".

"Have a care that you are not actually engaging in class warfare, and you're not trying to divide our society," he told Dr Chee. "I believe Singaporeans remain a united, cohesive people, and we want to uplift everyone."

The impending GST increase also came up during an online Mandarin dialogue broadcast on last Thursday.

Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing asked the WP's Mr Kenneth Foo about his party's proposal to do away with the planned tax hike, which was announced by Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat in Budget 2018.

The last GST hike, from 5 per cent to 7 per cent, took effect in 2007.

The WP argues in its manifesto that the Government should tap alternative sources of revenue, such as income from land sales. It also suggests increasing the net investment returns contribution by up to 10 per cent.

Since 2016, the returns from Singapore's invested reserves have been the single largest source of government revenue.

The PAP notes in its manifesto that $6 billion has been set aside to help cushion the impact of the GST hike on Singaporeans, with lower-income households to receive enough help to offset the tax increase for 10 years.

"I want to ask them a very simple question - who will foot the bill?" said Mr Chan, who is the PAP's second assistant secretary-general.

"An ageing population, infrastructure that has to be renewed, all these are very large undertakings," he added.

Mr Chan said Singapore has three options to fund its expenditure: using money saved up by previous generations, getting the current generation to foot the bill, or to pass the buck to future generations.

"Which of these choices does the WP want?" he asked.

Mr Foo replied that the Government has not made public its income and expenditure projections for the next decade.

"In the absence of data, would a responsible opposition be able to support this Budget in Parliament?" he asked.

"Would it be able to support the GST increase from 7 per cent to 9 per cent? This is completely impossible."

On the question of who foots the bill, Mr Foo added that the WP's manifesto is "budget-neutral".

But if money needs to be spent, the most important thing is to focus on who the money is being spent on, he said. "If we put our people first, we have to ask: Do we use the money, or not?"

Mr Chan replied that given the global economic downturn, raising other forms of taxes - such as income tax, property tax and corporate tax - will be challenging.

For instance, many countries faced with a shortfall in tax revenue are now trying to compel their multinational firms to make up the difference in taxes back home for their investments abroad, Mr Chan said in an episode of Straight Talk With PAP last week.

And it will be increasingly difficult to earn as much as before from investing the country's reserves, he said in the Zaobao dialogue.

"This is not child's play. These are challenges that we will be facing over the next 10 years."

Mr Foo responded that the WP's stance remains the same, to which Mr Chan replied: "Let me be frank: If we had, in the past, done what the WP is proposing, we would not have enough money to see us through the crisis today."

Parties shift focus to issue of tackling impact of COVID-19
PAP calls on opposition to share details on how they plan to deal with pandemic fallout
By Danson Cheong, Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 5 Jul 2020

As Singapore crossed the halfway mark of an acrimonious election campaign yesterday, party leaders on both sides of the political divide said it was time to shift the focus of the campaign to issues that were critical to the nation's future.

This meant dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on workers and the economy, according to the ruling People's Action Party (PAP). Others, such as the Workers' Party (WP), pointed to the need for a constructive opposition that would help the next government tackle the challenges arising from the crisis.

Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing shared the PAP's assessment of the most pressing challenge facing the nation.

"I think the most important thing still goes back to this central issue - how we are going to get through this (COVID-19) crisis," he said after a walkabout at ABC Brickworks Market and Food Centre.

Various PAP leaders then challenged opposition parties to share their concrete plans to deal with the fallout from the pandemic.

Mr Chan said such points had been glaringly missing from the manifestos of the opposition parties and their discussions over the past few days.

"This election is not about the survival of any particular opposition party, or how many seats the PAP is going to get. This election is really about how we get through this," he said.

Seeking support for the PAP team in Sengkang GRC against its rivals from the WP, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said of the opposition parties: "They all say they want to help workers, I mean they have to say that. But they have no plan to deal with the crisis."

The point was echoed by Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam, who told reporters after a walkabout in Yishun Link that parties needed to spell out detailed responses to COVID-19. "How are you going to get out of (the crisis)? Even if you are that check (on the Government), what are your alternative policies? I think that people need to ask," he said.

Progress Singapore Party chief Tan Cheng Bock, who dubbed the July 10 polls the "COVID-19 election", agreed that the pandemic was a "very important aspect of the election", but he went on the offensive.

The Government, he said, had not managed the situation well, leading to high infection numbers in worker dormitories.

"If you don't control COVID-19 infections, borders will be closed to us, (then) where are we going to get people to come here to invest?

"Where are we going to get people to come here as tourists? These are very fundamental, basic things," he said, speaking to reporters at Jurong Point.

"As far as I'm concerned, this is the COVID-19 election. There is all this talk about jobs, but for me, I'm talking about lives and livelihoods," he said.

Meanwhile, WP chief Pritam Singh said that the PAP, which he expected would form the next government, would have "a very difficult job".

The WP would seek to be a constructive opposition party and bring a diversity of views to Parliament, he said.

"Our goal is not to go there and needle the PAP. We want good outcomes for Singapore," he said on the sidelines of a walkabout at Marine Terrace market.

Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) chairman Paul Tambyah yesterday also said the election campaign should move on from the dispute over the 10 million population target his party had accused the PAP of "toying with".

That had prompted a robust response from the PAP, which said the SDP's line was a falsehood aimed at misleading and frightening voters.

Yesterday, several PAP leaders sought to return the debate to the issue they had highlighted from the start - Singaporeans' lives, jobs and future, post COVID-19.

Opposition aims to checkmate, not check Govt, says Chun Sing
Voters should decide if they wish to have opposition block effective government
By Danson Cheong, Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 5 Jul 2020

Voters have to decide if they believe the opposition is ready to serve as a check, or if it is trying to "checkmate" the Government to keep it from providing effective, decisive governance to get Singapore through the COVID-19 crisis, said Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing.

"I believe Singaporeans are fair-minded. And I think that will determine the outcome," he told reporters yesterday after a morning walkabout.

Another crucial decision facing voters is which MPs can best take care of them, their families and their livelihoods in the midst of the ongoing crisis, Mr Chan added.

Addressing the opposition argument that checks and balances are needed in Parliament, he said: "Has the Government done well? If the Government has done well, should we affirm the Government or should we punish the Government by giving the (PAP) Government even fewer seats?

"If the opposition has not done well, should we reward the opposition with more seats just on the slogan that they will provide more checks on the Government?"

Mr Chan visited ABC Brickworks Market and Food Centre with his Tanjong Pagar GRC teammates: Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Indranee Rajah, Ms Joan Pereira and People's Action Party new faces Eric Chua and Alvin Tan.

Mr Chan was also asked about recent statements made by Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh and Singapore Democratic Party chairman Paul Tambyah. Mr Singh had said on the campaign trail that the Government should make clear its revenue and expenditure projections for the rest of the decade for people to assess whether the goods and services tax (GST) hike is necessary.

Mr Chan said anyone following parliamentary proceedings in the last two years would know the clear fiscal challenges Singapore faces, including an ageing population, a need to renew infrastructure and how global returns face downward pressure because of uncertainty.

The Government could use the reserves to fund spending, borrow from future generations or raise taxes to "pay for it in this generation".

"Now, there is no easy choice, but we must not run away from it and pretend the problem doesn't exist," he said.

The Government had originally planned to hike the GST from 7 per cent to 9 per cent in 2021, but deferred it to some time between 2022 to 2025 because of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat has said it cannot be delayed beyond 2025 as the Government needs to raise revenue to fund an expected increase in spending, like healthcare.

Mr Chan also addressed comments by Professor Tambyah, who said at a forum on Friday that he wondered if the Government had "lost its focus on the public's health and started thinking about the election" back in March, leading to an increase in COVID-19 cases.

The minister said that with his hand on his heart he can say "at no point in time, have we ever neglected the lives, livelihoods and lifelines of our people".

He added that Singapore had to go to the polls now as the PAP Government needs a new mandate to deal with the challenges, which could persist for the next few years.

"If by the end of this year, we still do not have a new government, can you imagine if we are hit with a subsequent wave of infection? How will we be able to move decisively?"

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