BY PEH SHING HUEI
INCONSISTENT?: Contradictory signals on deficits, says Mr Low.
WORKERS’ Party (WP) chief Low Thia Khiang attacked the Government yesterday for its vote-getting Budget, and it swiftly drew return fire from two MPs of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP).
The opposition MP, speaking in Mandarin, pointed out that after years of declaring that budget deficits are “monsters and disasters” and accumulating surpluses relentlessly, the Government has now done an about-turn.
He saw the giveaways as an election ploy, noting that in giving $2.6 billion, it is incurring its largest deficit in recent years: $2.86 billion.
This, he said, does not gel with what Finance Minister Lee Hsien Loong had said when there was a $1.2 billion deficit in 2003. Then, Mr Lee had said deficits could be tolerated in times of hardship. But when times are good, the Government should accumulate surpluses.
Since the economic projection for the year ahead is good, Mr Low argued, it was odd to present a budget with a deficit.
Raising his eyebrows at the cash giveaways, the Hougang MP contrasted it with the New Singapore Shares (NSS) dished out in 2001, days before the General Election on Nov 3. He said he could understand the NSS gift as it came after years of surpluses that added up to $15 billion. “Distributing the shares cost the Government just $2.4 billion,” he said, before adding sarcastically, “which is just peanuts”.
He then accused the Government of repeatedly giving out money before elections, only to take it back after the polls, echoing a charge he made in 2001 when he called the off-Budget measures to fight the recession an election ploy. For example, he said, after distributing the NSS, the goods and services tax was raised from 3 to 5 per cent. The GST went up on Jan 1, 2004, about a couple of years after the NSS was distributed.
Mr Low also suggested that the Government was inconsistent, saying that while it did not seem perturbed by the deficit, it would issue stern warnings whenever the opposition asked for more help for the people on education and health, arguing that such moves could bankrupt the nation.
Nonetheless, the lower-income group deserved the money they will receive on May 1, he said.
However, he added that the PAP Government’s “strategy of giving a bonus every five years is only a temporary way of alleviating Singaporeans’ burdens”.
“I need to remind the Government that what the people are really concerned about is the perennial rising cost of living.”
In rebutting his claims, the two PAP members said they were puzzled by his lack of desire for workers to be better off. Mr Seng Han Thong (Ang Mo Kio GRC), in his attack, reminded Mr Low of what he once said: that the Government has money but the people do not. “Yet now that the people have money, Mr Low is still unhappy,” he added. “Despite representing the Workers’ Party, he does not represent the workers, he does not think of the workers,” Mr Seng said in Mandarin.
Associate Professor Koo Tsai Kee, Senior Parliamentary Secretary (Defence and Environment and Water Resources), said Mr Low’s speech puzzled him.
Mr Koo, also an MP for Tanjong Pagar GRC, said the WP representative had “a very short horizon”.
The Government’s Budget and performance, he said, should not be appraised on an annual basis, but rather over the term of its rule. Likening it to a company, he added: “When you give a contract to the CEO, it’s never a quarter to quarter, nor even year by year. Very rarely year by year. Maybe three years or five years.”