Straits Times: Low: When will it be Hougang’s turn for HDB upgrading?



OPPOSITION MP Low Thia Khiang crossed swords with Minister of State (National Development) Grace Fu over the upgrading of HDB flats, especially those in his Hougang constituency.

Mr Low yesterday repeatedly pressed her for answers as to when his residents could benefit from upgrading and asked if they were being fairly treated.

He accused the Government of using upgrading as a political tool to change voting behaviour, and wanted to know how much it spent on upgrading flats in different precincts.

He also claimed that the Government “owes every eligible flat owner in Hougang constituency $22,500 to $27,000 for the long overdue upgrading”.

This is based on the average cost of $30,000 for a basic upgrading package, of which the Government pays the major portion and residents the rest.

It has been 12 years since he was told that Hougang’s turn for the Main Upgrading Programme (MUP) would not happen for “many, many years”, he said during the debate on the National Development Ministry’s budget.

Noting that the MUP has since been replaced by schemes such as the Home Improvement Programme (HIP), he asked: “Will opposition wards need to start all over again and wait many, many years for HIP to happen?”

Ms Fu said the HIP was the result of residents asking for more flexibility and consultation in upgrading.

The programme would benefit 300,000 flats across the island.

Explaining that the MUP was restructured so that flats could be spruced up more quickly, she said the change applied to PAP and non-PAP constituencies.

Mr Low had asked about the amount spent upgrading each flat and how these government funds would be applied fairly to everyone.

Responding, Ms Fu said the amount was about $30,000 a unit. But she told Mr Low that the question of fairness did not arise in this matter.

“It is not a case of an entitlement. It does not mean that every Singapore household can come and claim for this sum of money,” she said.

“It is something that we will prioritise. It’s something that we will do depending on the age, the quality of the flats.”

And who gets HIP first also depends on the funds available.

The Government’s focus now is to have lifts stop at every floor of HDB blocks by 2014, she said.

“And Hougang residents can look forward to that by 2014,” she said, adding that Mr Low could speed the process up by having his town council undertake the upgrading of the lifts in his constituency.

Straits Times: Is the vote secret? Of course, says Low Thia Khiang



OPPOSITION MP Low Thia Khiang does believe that the vote in Singapore is secret.

“Of course I do believe the vote is secret, otherwise I will not even want to participate in elections!” declared the smiling Workers’ Party secretary-general, to laughter in the House.

In response, Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng said: “Well, I’m happy to hear Mr Low saying and confirming here in this House that he believes that the vote is secret and I believe Ms Sylvia Lim, the party chairman also thinks the vote is secret.”

The exchange started when Mr Low (Hougang) asked Mr Wong about plans for a voter education campaign.

Mr Wong had earlier, during the debate on the budget for the Prime Minister’s Office, said educational brochures will be mailed to every home.

Videos will also be produced for TV and Internet broadcast, and for distribution at community centres.

Saying that he was pleased with this news, Mr Low noted that there are still some Singaporeans who are “wary” about the vote’s secrecy, particularly given the serial numbers printed on ballot papers.

He asked if the campaign would address this.

Mr Wong said: “Before I answer the question, maybe I’ll ask Mr Low whether he thinks that the vote is secret.”

Yes, said Mr Low.

Mr Wong responded with a smile: “So there’s no question about the integrity of the voting process as well as the secrecy of the vote.”

He then explained the need for serial numbers.

“When there is a dispute, for example, there’re more votes counted than there are voters in the constituency, then we’d know whether ballot papers have been stuffed into the ballot boxes and we can then trace every number and see where these extra papers come from.”

But he assured: “There is no way of tracing who (cast the ballot) unless the court so orders when there is a dispute in terms of the vote.”

Voters will be educated on this issue, he added.

Mr Wong also addressed a query from Ms Lim, who asked if overseas Singaporeans could vote earlier, so that their ballots are counted with local votes.

She said: “My concern was that in some single seats especially, the number of overseas voters could be as low as two, so there may be some concern about anonymity.”

Mr Wong replied that such a move will mean overseas Singaporeans will have just four to five days of listening to campaign speeches and so “may not have enough information to form a conclusion”.

Thus, it will “not be fair” for them to vote so early.

He allowed the possibility of putting aside some votes in Singapore to be mixed with the overseas ones.

“But again it will also mean a delay in the announcement of the results of those constituencies.”

Straits Times: Budget estimate off the mark: So what is the real issue?


Sembawang GRC MP Lim Wee Kiak and opposition MP for Hougang Low Thia Khiang locked horns over the Government’s faulty Budget estimate for last year. Mr Low rose after Dr Lim’s speech to make two clarifications

SPIRITED DEBATE: Sembawang GRC MP Lim Wee Kiak suggested that questioning the discrepancy in the Budget estimate was to miss the point and that the key concern was how to look forward.

Mr Low: First clarification, the member in his speech said why should we quarrel with the discrepancy in the estimates because we are in a happy situation where we have a huge surplus instead of a deficit.

Does he agree that he misses the point? The point is not so much whether we end up with a huge deficit or huge surplus, the question is: why is the Budget estimate so far off the mark?

Second clarification: He says that if our estimate is off the mark, Hong Kong is even worse than us because they are off the mark much more than Singapore’s estimates.

I’m afraid that if this is the attitude of the People’s Action Party, we are going down a slippery slope. We are not so good in estimates, he says, but never mind, there are people who are worse than us.

So in Mandarin, this is exactly what we call “Ah Q jing shen” (mentality)*.

Dr Lim: In fact when I did my block visit last night, a resident asked me the same question: why does the Government have such a huge surplus? Did something go wrong in the estimate?

Looking at the papers this morning, when Hong Kong reported a huge surplus – four times above the estimate – the main reason given was it was an unprecedented year, property prices went up, they had huge transactions in the stock market. A similar phenomenon was seen in Singapore as well.

I told the resident: At the end of the day, I think the key question for this House is how do we look forward?

When the family breadwinner came back and said: “I’ve struck lottery”, you shouldn’t be asking, “Why did you strike lottery?”

You should be asking: how are we going to use the lottery money? So I think we should not miss the point. The real issue now is: What can we do now to make sure that there will be less and less need for all these social welfare programmes in the future. Look forward and not backward.

*Ah Q is a famous character in Chinese literature, known for his foolishness and optimism.

TODAY: On putting GST back to 5%


It would mean giving up about $1.35 billion in tax collections, but could the Government reverse the 2-percentage-point hike in the GST? Such calls continued to come from parliamentarians yesterday.

Non-Constituency MP Sylvia Lim pointed out that commentators have said the surplus estimate of $6.4 billion is a “provisional figure” and there was “expectation” the finalised figure would be even bigger, as a result of the Government having provided for a large deficit in the last quarter. With signs the economy could do well this year, she said, GST should be put back to 5 per cent, with no GST on food items, to help people cope better with rising costs.


Straits Times: Two-point GST hike debate continues



THE signs were there a year ago that the two-point hike in the Goods and Services Tax (GST) was not needed, Workers’ Party chairman Sylvia Lim claimed yesterday.

Back then, the Government’s own estimates had indicated it would have more than enough in its coffers to fund additional social spending, without having to raise the GST from 5 to 7 per cent, said the Non-Constituency MP.

Ms Lim reminded the House that her party had pointed out the projected increases in personal income tax and other revenue streams during last year’s Budget debate, and was criticised for doing so.

Now, the record $6.45 billion Budget surplus has proven that the GST increase was “without compelling reasons”, she said.

The debate on the wisdom of last July’s GST raise continued in Parliament yesterday.

Ms Lim and Nominated MP Loo Choon Yong called for the GST to be reduced back to 5 per cent.

In response, at least two PAP MPs said it was better to proceed with caution. They advocated against tinkering too much with the existing surplus and saving for a rainy day instead.

By raising the GST, the Government has “compounded the inflation pressures on the people”, argued Ms Lim.

Against a spike in prices of food, transport and other essentials, “adding on another 2 per cent on a higher base price has increased the cost of some items by more than 20 per cent”, she said.

Wages have not caught up with the rising cost of living, as “only very few people’s incomes have risen by 20 per cent since last year”.

She urged the Government to also consider removing GST altogether on essential food items.

NMP Loo, in calling for a suspension of the two-point increase, cited the huge surplus and the higher-than-estimated corporate and personal income tax collections.

He acknowledged that the cut would mean forgoing GST collection of about $1.35 billion for the next fiscal year.

“I understand the reluctance of governments and revenue collectors to give up what they have collected, especially when they have spent political capital on it.”

However reducing the GST would “reaffirm in all our hearts that this Government cares and will always respond to the people’s hardship”, he said.

Responding to the calls for reducing the GST, Dr Ong Seh Hong (Marine Parade GRC) said in Mandarin that he supported the Finance Minister’s policy of keeping the Budget “prudent, pragmatic and forward-looking”.

He said the Government should not encourage the “erroneous expectation” among Singaporeans that a Budget surplus only means more handouts, or “hongbao”.

Instead, he said they should be looking at how the Budget can “maintain the country’s competitiveness”.

Improving the employment prospects of low-income Singaporeans through training is a more lasting way to help them cope with rising costs, suggested Mr Yeo Guat Kwang (Aljunied GRC) in Mandarin.

The Workers’ Party’s arguments reminded Mr Yeo of a story by the classical Chinese philosopher Zhuang Zi.

In the story, a fish in a shallow trench appeals to a passing scholar for help. The scholar tells the fish to wait while he fetches water from the sea.

“By the time you come back, I will be a dried-up, preserved fish in the market,” says the fish.

Now, said Mr Yeo, if the scholar were a People’s Action Party man, he would tell the fish: “I will give you a bit of water first, but come with me and I will show you how you can stand on your own.”

What about if Ms Lim met the fish, asked the MP rhetorically.

He said she would probably say: “I have no water to give you, but I sympathise with you from the bottom of my heart. I will ask my government to give you all their water, and tell of your plight to the world.”

Concluded Mr Yeo: “Eventually the fish will still end up in the salted fish bin in the market.”

TODAY: Marksmanship and forecast skills

Budget surplus of $6.4b comes under vigorous debate


IT WAS called a “happy mistake” and even “pleasantly embarrassing” by some.

While a few Members of Parliament (MPs) felt the Government’s unexpected $6.4-billion surplus – an “astronomical difference” from its earlier forecast of a $700 million deficit – would hurt its credibility, others said it should be commended for turning the expected hole in the budget into an “astonishing surplus”.

The question many had, though, was how the forecast went awry – and was the Goods and Services Tax (GST) hike last June, on hindsight, warranted? Should the Government also be doing more to help businesses and Singaporean households plagued by inflation?

Yesterday, as Parliament reconvened to debate the Budget, the spotlight fell on the eye-popping surplus that Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam attributed largely to the unforeseen property bull run, with state coffers boosted spectacularly by stamp duties.

Ang Mo Kio MP Inderjit Singh described the $7-billion swing from deficit to surplus as a “pleasantly embarrassing” outcome for the Finance Minister, who had “defended very strongly the 2-percentage-point GST increase last year, citing reduction of Government income from other sources”.

“In light of the booming economy, which should have been visible by mid-2007, the Government could have made the late decision to hold off the GST rise by a year or two,” Mr Singh said.

Workers’ Party chief Low Thia Khiang said the large surplus vindicated his argument last year that the Government could have afforded the Workfare Income Supplement scheme – cited as another key justification for the GST hike – without upping the tax.

“Was the Government too conservative in its initial forecast because it wanted sufficient reasons to justify the GST hike?” he asked.

Like Mr Low, Nominated MP Gautam Banerjee suggested that the GST be put back at 5 per cent “as soon as is practicable and until such a time that there is a real need to increase government revenue from indirect taxation”.

But others, including Hong Kah MP Amy Khor, said the Government should be commended for a job well done. She added: “It is this far-sightedness and prudence, as well as the many timely and astute policies implemented, that have played a major role in bringing about such a large surplus.”

For Mr Banerjee, executive chairman of auditing giant PricewaterhouseCoopers Singapore, the issue lay more in whether a better job could be done with forecasts.

The Finance Ministry’s key performance indicators, he said, should give more weight to “realistic preparation of estimates”, than be “unduly weighted towards prudence”.

Nominated MP Eunice Olsen, who noted that one of the ministry’s KPIs was its “Budget marksmanship”, asked “why did the Government not anticipate revenue figures more accurately, especially when it is in control of various factors such as immigration numbers?”

In an ironic observation, she noted that Hong Kong, too, was expected to announce on Wednesday a surplus four times higher than initially projected – after public outcry forced its legislature to scrap a proposed sales tax, a fact that might spur critics of Singapore’s GST hike.

“There are worrying voices on the ground that say it would be hard to believe the Government the next time it says more revenue is needed for spending,” Ms Olsen said, adding that such sentiments are “often accompanied by references to the billions of dollars” the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation spends on buying stakes in foreign banks.

As to some Singaporeans’ disappointment with Budget goodies dished out, Yio Chu Kang MP Seng Han Tong said the media had created unrealistic expectations by asking various quarters for their Budget wishlists. In fact, the Government “should stop the practice of giving out surpluses during the Budget”.

But other MPs, such as Pasir Ris-Punggol’s Michael Palmer, called for more direct aid for Singaporeans to cope with inflation.

Businesses, too, needed more help, in the form of tax relief on rentals, as a cushion against the rising rental costs, he added.

To keep property prices in check, Mr Singh said the Government should have better managed the property bubble.

It should have, for example, staggered the construction of the two Integrated Resorts or released the land for the Business and Financial Centre in Marina Bay earlier.

He also suggested the Government scrap its land sales programme and put in place permanent anti-speculative measures, to have a more responsive supply while curbing speculation.

Mr Shanmugaratnam had said a sustained economic growth would be Singapore’s most effective tactic against inflation.

But Mr Singh felt the “growth at-all-costs” economic model had exacerbated the imported inflationary pressures. “I’m not sure how it can help. A ‘grow-as-fast-as-you-can’ policy is inflationary in nature.”

In all, 19 parliamentarians spoke yesterday. The debate continues today.

Straits Times: Two-point GST hike in the spotlight


Low Thia Khiang urges Govt to bring it back to 5 per cent; others question timing


Scrap the two-point increase in the goods and services tax (GST) and bring it down to 5 per cent again, opposition MP Low Thia Khiang said yesterday.

He gave two reasons when he made the call in Parliament during the debate on the Budget for the coming year.

One, the record Budget surplus of $6.45 billion which far exceeded last year’s projection.

“In the previous fiscal year, the Government raised this GST by saying money is tight, we need to get some back from the people.

“But now we have the huge surplus, so by right, the Government should cancel the 2 per cent increase in GST,” he said, speaking in Mandarin.

Two, rising inflation is a heavy burden on many low-income earners.

Mr Low accused the Government of using the poor as an “excuse” to raise the GST.

The Government had said the GST hike last July was needed to fund new payouts to low-wage workers. This became the Workfare Income Supplement.

“Maybe our Government doesn’t know that while last year’s economy seemed very good, not all the industries benefited. Some people received no bonuses,” Mr Low said.

To underscore the struggles of low-income families, he read aloud a letter from one of his Hougang constituents.

The man had written about his 69-year-old father who, after being retrenched, worked for over a year as a security guard.

Despite speaking English and Mandarin and passing the relevant medical and other tests, the old man is paid only $45 a day for working 12-hour shifts, with the occasional overtime allowance.

He does not receive any CPF payment, holiday pay or medical benefits, said Mr Low. The Government should do more to help people like him get access to Workfare payouts, he said.

Income gap aside, the MP questioned the “huge difference” between the $6.45 billion surplus and the Finance Ministry’s original projection of a $700 million deficit.

Such unreliable projections could “affect the Government’s credibility”, he added.

Two PAP MPs, Dr Amy Khor (Hong Kah GRC) and Mr Seng Han Thong (Yio Chu Kang GRC), disagreed with Mr Low.

Why should the Government be “embarrassed” about the unexpected windfall, Dr Khor retorted.

“Far from it, I think we should all be happy and commend the Government for doing such a good job and bringing about such a large surplus,” she said.

Mr Seng said in Mandarin that “a lot of people blame the GST rise” and fail to realise that inflation is currently a worldwide phenomenon.

He also took issue with Mr Low’s point that withdrawing the GST increase could significantly help the poor.

A more lasting solution, he said, could be found through a combination of Workfare payouts and training schemes to help them find better jobs.

Other MPs, however, also did not look kindly on the GST hike in a climate of healthy economic surpluses.

Nominated MP Gautam Banerjee urged the Government to reduce GST back to 5 per cent “and hold it at that level until such time that there is a real need to increase government revenue from indirect taxation”.

Mr Inderjit Singh (Ang Mo Kio GRC) and Nominated MP Eunice Olsen both felt the Government had been too hasty in raising the GST.

The Government could have held it off for a year or two “in the light of the booming economy which should have been visible by mid-2007”, said Mr Singh.

Ms Olsen said the wide gap between the Budget surplus and the earlier projection of a $700 million deficit is a cause for concern.

“There are worrying voices on the ground that say it would be hard to believe the Government the next time it says more revenue is needed for spending,” she said.

However, Singapore is not alone in its poor “budget marksmanship”, she noted, citing Hong Kong.

The Chinese territory is expected to report this week a budget surplus of four times the amount it forecast last year.