Both are prime choices picked to take over as leaders of their political parties when their Secretary Generals step down. Both crossed swords today during the final Budget debate.
Our take? Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat drew more blood from WP MP Pritam Singh, this round.
Over the past few days, the House of Whites and Blues asked the government to do more, even more, to make Singapore a home we can be proud of. Where Ah Boy and Ah Girl can go to good schools to grow up and be the next Steve Jobs. Where Ah Ma will be taken care of and not have to sell tissue paper at the MRT station.
Most of them agreed with the government’s vision, with even WP MP boss Low Thia Khiang calling it a “forward looking budget to anchor Singapore firmly in the future – and for the future”.
The agreement however, ended there. WP said that they could not support the government’s position that GST had to be hiked to fund these needs.
That got Minister Heng shooting:
He said: “It is easy to ask for more. Not a single one of the MPs, except Mr Pritam Singh even mentioned what it would cost, nor how to fund it.”
Mr Pritam Singh had suggested that the government use a portion of land sale proceeds for recurrent social spending and increasing the Net Investment Returns Contribution (NIRC) cap. (Don’t worry, Google is your friend. NIRC just means that PM Lee and his merry men cannot spend beyond a certain amount of their returns on the government’s investments, which helps to prevent other terms of government from spending everything and leaving our children with nothing.)
Minister Heng basically told him his idea lacked forward-planning. He explained that rules on land sales and a 50% NITC cap were enshrined to ensure that no government could chip away at Singapore’s reserves to fund current spending. Minister Heng also said the suggestions by Mr Singh were “distractions” (using their words against them, +1 again please) and that WP had no viable alternatives to the GST increase.
“We deliberately introduced rules on land sales and the 50 per cent NIRC cap so that we do not succumb to the temptation to draw more from our reserves to fund current expenditure or eat into the principal sum…We must not give in to the temptation to chip away at our strategic national asset.” – Minister Heng
Here, the Finance Minister then cornered them. He said: ”
“I think the Workers’ Party should come clean to the people. Do they want the Government to increase healthcare or social spending? If yes, how do they propose to pay for the increase?”
Minister Heng then called WP MP Low Thia’s speech on distractions a distraction (get it, get it?)
Mr Low had said that the GST hike should have been announced sometime later, given that this was a measure that would be implemented years down the road. This would have allowed the public to really get behind the government’s Budget vision, rather than being caught up in the debate on whether GST should be raised. And that we could debate it at election rallies instead.
Minister Heng’s response:
“I hope that when the elections come round, he will not turn around and use the GST to distract people from the longer-term issues that we face.”
WP MP Sylvia Lim also added during the debate to say that while WP had intended to support this year’s Budget, it was “ridiculous” that the government should expect a “responsible party to support something when ‘not all the information is available’.” It “should not be mistaken as our support for a GST hike in a later Budget.” WP, she said, did not “have a crystal ball”.
Anyway, after all talk here talk there, this is how the story ends: Parliament passed the Budget with WP MPs saying that they were unable to support the government’s financial position.
Kinda anti-climactic, but well. =/
We hope that if and when Pritam takes the helm, he will really carry a pair for the team. No political party has a crystal ball lah. And taxpayers don’t pay for Pritam and his team $192,500 each a year either (ok, we cut some slack on Leon Perera cause he draws $28,900) to 1) make calls for the government to help the people more – and then don’t suggest how this can be done, practically and 2) say tak boleh, cannot decide now cause don’t have enough information.
Our conclusion: Minister Heng – 1, WP – 0.