Straits Times: ‘Nursing home in JB’ remark only a suggestion

Budget debate

MINISTRY OF HEALTH

Khaw says he just wanted middle-income families to know that such an option exists

BY SALMA KHALIK
HEALTH CORRESPONDENT

HEALTH Minister Khaw Boon Wan had a suggestion on Monday for Singaporeans: Consider staying at a nursing home in neighbouring Johor where prices are lower.

Yesterday, it received flak from two opposition MPs.

Workers’ Party (WP) chairman and Non-Constituency MP Sylvia Lim said the suggestion was “quite a bad indication of affordability of our own health-care services here and also a reflection of our national values”.

Fellow WP member Low Thia Kiang (Hougang) asked: “Is the minister suggesting that Singaporeans who cannot afford medical treatment or step-down care here should now consider such facilities in Johor?”

If so, is the minister “outsourcing the Government’s responsibility to provide affordable health-care service to Malaysia?” he asked.

Their remarks riled Mr Khaw.

“I’m not saying that if you are poor, I will put you in an ambulance, send you across the Causeway to a Johor nursing home. That is not what I said and please don’t twist my words,” he said.

In fact, the Johor option is not for the poor, who are heavily subsidised in Singapore. “Everybody can afford health care in Singapore, whether acute care or long-term care,” he pointed out.

The suggestion was aimed at middle-income families who need to pay for the care themselves. It gives them a choice.

“I just wanted to point out to Singaporeans that there are options like this,” Mr Khaw said.

Cost of nursing home care will always be more expensive in Singapore, as doctors and nurses are paid more and construction cost is higher, he said.

He had said on Monday that since many people visit the elderly in homes only on weekends, it makes little difference whether the person is housed here or in nearby Johor.

It is part of globalisation and is happening with Singaporeans going to Bangkok for Lasik to treat short-sightedness and Americans and Russians coming here for treatment, he noted.

It is also not something that should, or can, be prevented, he added.

Singaporeans are crossing the Causeway for cheaper petrol and medicine.

“By allowing the flexibility of consumers walking across the Causeway…they benefit. I don’t think we should constrain them from doing so.”

Pointing to the United States, where 40 million to 50 million people cannot even afford health insurance, the minister said that in Singapore, even the unemployed or those with low incomes can afford a standard of care comparable to that in the US.

To a question from Ms Jessica Tan (East Coast GRC) on whether more can done to make health care affordable in these difficult times, Mr Khaw said cheap, or even free, health care was always possible.

But what standard of care would that provide, he asked.

“To keep health-care costs affordable is the easiest thing in the world, but to keep it also of a high standard and yet affordable, very few countries have done so.

“I like to believe that we are one of them. We are not perfect but I think we have done a fairly good job.”

He referred to a story in this month’s Japan Echo on the country’s health-care system, which “screamed that it is on the verge of collapsing”.

Said Mr Khaw: “I felt sorry for Japan because for a long time, it was among the best health-care systems in the world.”

He recalled a recent newspaper story about a seriously ill pregnant woman in Tokyo who died because several hospitals said they were too full to take her in.

He added that in the Echo report, the Japanese Health Minister blamed all the problems on pandering to politically populist measures.

“My job is to make sure we don’t walk into that hole,” Mr Khaw said.

Singapore has already “done a lot” for long-term care.

“If it’s not enough, we will do much more,” he promised.

He also said that people must do their part too, by staying healthy and, if necessary, changing their lifestyles.

salma@sph.com.sg

Channel NewsAsia: Dipping into reserves needed to deal from position of strength

By Asha Popatlal

SINGAPORE: Dipping into Singapore’s reserves for the Budget is necessary as it allows the government to deal with the current economic crisis from a position of strength.

Without doing so, the government might not have been able to do as much as it did, explained Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam as he wrapped up three days of debate on the Budget Statement

The government’s decision to tap on past reserves was a hot issue during the debate.

Members of Parliament raised a host of questions: Why dip into the reserves now? Why not use existing funds first? How was it done? What benchmarks were being set?

Explaining, Mr Tharman said the move was to signal Singapore’s intention to deal with the situation with all the resources at its disposal, without the need to borrow.

Without the confidence of additional resources, the government may have had to curtail the help measures.

Mr Tharman also laid out the principles for seeking the President’s approval.

“First, a government should only draw on past reserves in very exceptional situations, for example, when external events or crises pose a threat to Singapore’s economy or society. Second, the measures to be funded should be of a temporary nature,” he said.

But the minister stressed that it was not possible to define strict indicators for drawing on reserves as it was not possible to define rules that meet all circumstances.

He also did not rule out the possibility of the government of the day needing to tap on reserves again in this lifetime.

As a precautionary measure, the President’s nod is needed as the second key to open the reserves after the government turns the first key. The process to do this was another hot issue.

Mr Tharman said: “Did the President have the full opportunity to properly evaluate the proposal? Or was it a fait accompli?”

Revealing details for the first time, Mr Tharman said the Budget was finalised a fortnight before Budget Day.

The Cabinet approved it one week before Budget Day. But before that, the Prime Minister met the President informally to sound him out and to give him time to think about it.

The Ministries of Finance, and Trade and Industry, followed up with detailed briefings for the President and his Council of Presidential Advisers.

Once the numbers were finalised, a formal request was sent so that the President and the Council could come to a decision.

But, questions remained.

“The concern arises over the way the 2-key system operates. It seems the 2-key system operates simultaneously at the same time. When the government key says “unlock”, the other key unlocks automatically,” said Low Thia Khiang, MP for Hougang.

Mr Tharman said: “This is not a ‘wayang’ (show)… The point is: the President, advised by the CPA (Council of Presidential Advisers), makes an independent and careful judgement on the government’s case.”

MP for Tampines GRC, Irene Ng, said: “Can I ask the minister whether the process can be refined and improved further so that in future we can make the process more transparent – that the public knows that the institution of the President is one that is strong, and that it can exercise an independent turn of the key.”

Inderjit Singh, MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC, said: “What’s missing is the process that the President took after he got briefed by the government. If we could get a sense of what they discussed and what process they went through to decide, then this may clear many of these questions.”

But Mr Tharman said: “I’m not sure why it is relevant. At the end of the day, this is a system that is different from Norway and Australia, where as much detail as possible is provided.

“This is a system that relies on trust in the individuals who are in charge, including those appointed to the CPA and the Elected President. Do you trust them? Have they made decisions wisely? Has the government been acting responsibly?”

Mr Tharman said once Parliament approves the Budget, the government will seek the President’s formal approval to draw from the reserves. The President’s decision will then be gazetted, as required under the Constitution.

– CNA/ir

Posted in 2009 02. Comments Off on Channel NewsAsia: Dipping into reserves needed to deal from position of strength

TODAY: How about a Great S’pore Resilience Sale?

BUDGET 2009
DEMAND STIMULUS

LOH CHEE KONG
cheekong@mediacorp.com.sg

THOUGH Singapore’s economy is export-driven, several Members of Parliament (MPs) have urged the Government to get Singaporeans to spend more, as one response to the current economic malaise.

Their suggestions include suspending or cutting the Goods and Services Tax, a nationwide sale and slashing Electronic Road Pricing rates to lure Singaporeans to the shopping malls.

Tanjong Pagar MP Bay Yam Keng suggested a “Great Singapore Resilience Sale” where leisure attractions across the island would simultaneously reduce admission prices. “Retailers should run sales to push their inventory. Even our hawkers should cut their prices. Perhaps we can even slash ERP rates and TV licence fees just for one year,” he said.

Singling out the media for perpetuating the “gloom and doom” that has got locals spending less, Pasir Ris-Punggol MP Michael Palmer said: “Every time one turns on the radio or television and listens to the news, or reads the newspapers, the message comes across clearly.” While he “fully” agrees Singaporeans “must be kept informed about the true state of affairs”, he said the “psychological effect” would be to dampen spending. He cited the example of a grassroots leader who had cut back on spending even though his business was “still flourishing”.

Calling on the Government to rethink its aversion to a temporary suspension or reduction of GST on essential items, Mr Palmer said such measures would ease the burden on low-income households and spur consumption.

Non-Constituency MP Sylvia Lim noted that many small and medium enterprises here depend on domestic consumption. Also, compared to targeted handouts to offset the GST, an across-the-board cut in GST – which the Government has ruled out – would provide a “more broad-based stimulus” to consumption, she argued.

But Tanjong Pagar MP Indranee Rajah pointed out the Government was already taking steps to stimulate demand, such as bringing forward construction projects and ramping up public-sector hires.

Straits Times: Give temporary cash aid to jobless: Sylvia Lim

Budget debate

HELPING THE RETRENCHED AND THE NEEDY: TWO IDEAS

• BY AARON LOW

THE Government should provide temporary financial relief of up to $500 a month for workers who have lost their jobs in the recession, said Non-Constituency MP Sylvia Lim yesterday.

“In this most trying of times, this will be an important relief to job seekers while they continue their job search,” said the Workers’ Party chairman, mooting the idea of a “Job Seekers’ Allowance”.

Noting that the Government rolled out programmes that paid jobless older and low-skilled workers a small allowance while they retrain, she said there were still gaps in the system that a Job Seekers’ Allowance would plug.

For instance, in the case of the government-sponsored training programme, called Skills Programme for Upgrading and Resilience (Spur), workers will still have to pay a small course fee, she said.

Courses may end before the economic situation improves, and along with them, the allowances paid to the jobless.

“While it is right that these unemployed Singaporeans must be upskilled wherever possible, full employment at the national level is unlikely.

“The Government will have to provide a policy response and safety net to these citizens in the medium to long term.”

To ensure that the scheme is a targeted one, she suggested a means test be implemented to weed out those who have high levels of savings and assets. And only those looking for a job will qualify.

Three People’s Action Party MPs rose to challenge her on the suggestion, including labour chief Lim Swee Say.

Ms Ellen Lee (Sembawang GRC) wanted to know how this scheme would be funded and whether more funds would have to be drawn from the reserves.

Ms Lim said that assuming 100,000 people were helped at the cost of $500 a month over six months, this would amount to $300 million – less than one-tenth of the $4.5 billion Jobs Credit scheme.

“Some of that money (from Jobs Credit) is better used in this instance, to put it directly into the hands of people who need it most rather than to companies who may have no intention of retaining anyone.”

Mr Yeo Guat Kwang (Aljunied GRC) pointed out that the needy already had channels they could turn to for help, including jobs matching and financial assistance from government agencies.

But Ms Lim said the current amount of assistance varied greatly, whereas her scheme had clear guidelines on how much help can be given, depending on an applicant’s last-drawn salary.

Mr Lim said he could not see a link between Ms Lim’s scheme and how it could save jobs for Singaporeans.

He also rejected her claims that this scheme would be superior to Spur.

He said: “Not only will they receive the $600 per month of training allowances, they will also have a new skill. But most importantly, we believe that many will be able to secure new jobs.”

Help for retrenched workers was also a call made by other MPs, including Madam Ho Geok Choo (West Coast GRC) and Dr Amy Khor (Hong Kah GRC).

Both wanted the Government to be more flexible towards retrenched workers who cannot make their HDB housing mortgage payments on time.

Madam Ho asked the Government to let them make just the interest payments on their loans.

aaronl@sph.com.sg

Straits Times: Opposition MP Low has valid concerns

Forum

I REFER to the parliamentary exchanges between the People’s Action Party (PAP) Members of Parliament and opposition MP Low Thia Khiang in yesterday’s reports, ‘Lively debate over Jobs Credit plan’ and ‘Is scheme to save jobs truly effective, asks Low’.

The rebuttals by the PAP MPs showed that they had failed to understand the nub of Mr Low’s concern, which was whether the Jobs Credit scheme was truly effective.

I wish that subsequent questions by the PAP MPs, directed at the opposition, could have been more carefully thought through. The context of Mr Low’s query was that the Government had, in the past, adopted policies which were tried and tested.

As Jobs Credit is new and requires huge monetary resources of some $4.9 billion, or a quarter of the entire Budget allocation this year, it is only natural to ask questions about its effectiveness.

In the midst of the current economic outlook, it would be better to place our resources on ongoing programmes that are effective in preventing companies from collapsing.

I am not advocating that we should not consider out-of-the-box answers. But I do not see the sustainability of the Jobs Credit programme.

As Mr Low has cautioned, the programme does not have strings attached.

Shouldn’t there be a condition that companies benefiting from the scheme must not retrench their staff for at least six months?

Such a caveat will ensure that the programme will prevent retrenchments.

Joey Yeo

Channel NewsAsia: MPs ask for more help for households

SINGAPORE BUDGET09

By Asha Popatlal

SINGAPORE: While dealing with jobs and the credit crunch may be the central elements of Singapore’s Budget, doing more to help households was what many MPs called for in Parliament on Day 2 of the debate.

MP for Hong Kah GRC and Chairman of REACH, Dr Amy Khor, said: “A quick poll by REACH indicated that only 28 per cent of the 885 respondents felt that the direct assistance measures to help families cope were adequate.”

Measures proposed by the MPs included reducing the Goods & Services Tax temporarily to stimulate spending – the way the UK reduced its Value Added Tax last December – or increase the amount of GST credits given out.

MP for West Coast GRC, Ho Geok Choo, said: “Doubling GST credits is too timid. Maybe we should look at quadrupling the GST credits or slashing the GST by half to 3.5 per cent.

“In times like these, do we need to spend so much on traditional defence? FY2009 defence spending is projected to be S$11.4 billion or 26 per cent of the Budget. It is better to employ some of that money to build up economic defence.”

There were also calls for more to be done for the retrenched and that they should undergo a means test to prevent abuse of any of the assistance schemes.

Non-Constituency MP, Sylvia Lim, said: “To reinforce work ethic, an applicant will qualify only if actively looking for work and hasn’t unreasonably rejected work offers.”

MP for Jalan Besar GRC, Denise Phua said: “We cannot afford to be too blunt in the way we design help and a form of means testing may be necessary.”

More help for the most vulnerable in society was what MPs like Lim Biow Chuan and Sam Tan were concerned about, especially those on Public Assistance (PA).

Mr Tan said: “Sir, I want to ask for more money for the very poor because as I speak to these people on PA and I can smell their fear from their breath. They are afraid that the kindness of donors from temples and VWOs may dry up in the next month, especially in a major economic crisis like now.”

But while help should be given where it is needed, MPs also warned of the need to manage expectations as well.

MP for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, Hri Kumar, said: “My concern is that some, despite losing their jobs, will not see the need to get back quickly into the market, preferring to wait for work which is similar or equivalent to the one they lost.

“We have to send a strong message that we cannot afford the luxury of being selective, especially not in these times.”

The Finance Minister is expected to respond on Thursday to the points brought up by the MPs. – CNA/vm

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TODAY: Debate over drawdown

BUDGET 2009
NATIONAL RESERVES

MPs lock horns over whether savings used for Jobs Credit scheme is money well spent

LOH CHEE KONG
cheekong@mediacorp.com.sg

THE unprecedented move to draw upon the national reserves proved a lightning rod issue as Parliament sat to debate the Budget yesterday, drawing feisty exchanges among Government backbenchers, an Opposition leader and a Nominated Member of Parliament (MP).

Two in three of the 24 MPs who spoke broached the issue. But while many called it a bold and watershed move, Workers’ Party chief Low Thia Khiang and NMP Siew Kum Hong questioned the need to dip into the fiercely-guarded past savings for $4.9 billion, when the Government could afford the entire $20.5-billion Resilience Package out of its current surpluses.

They, as well as some ruling party MPs, also asked President S R Nathan and the Council of Presidential Advisers to lay out the reasons for giving in-principle approval.

But the bone of contention was whether the reserves would be well spent on the Jobs Credit scheme – a $4.5-billion initiative which, some argued, cannot guarantee jobs will be saved as companies struggle to stay afloat.

While the Government will give employers a cash grant – 12 per cent of the first $2,500 of each local worker’s wages, paid every quarter – Mr Low pointed out that in the face of declining demand, the “most logical thing to do” for most businesses, especially small and medium ones, is to cut wage costs.

“Between waiting three months for a $900 cash rebate from the Government versus saving $7,500 immediately by retrenching a worker, which choice does the Government think a struggling employer will make?” he asked.

Arguing that the scheme will inadvertently favour big companies still doing well, Mr Low said: “Are we using reserves to increase the profits of profitable companies in the downturn?”

‘CHOOSE: CPF CUT OR JOBS CREDIT?’

But Mr Low’s criticisms drew immediate retorts from seven People’s Action Party MPs, including labour chief Lim Swee Say.

Given that the Government cannot guarantee the scheme would save jobs, should it then also “forget about” all other programmes that do not guarantee against retrenchments, asked Mr Heng Chee How, Minister of State in Prime Minister’s Office?

As the cash grant is equivalent to a nine-percentage-point cut in employers’ CPF contribution rate, Mr Lim posed Mr Low a choice: “It’s either you introduce a Jobs Credit scheme or you take a CPF cut – which option will the Workers’ Party go for?”

Mr Low’s reply: The WP “will never cut the CPF”. He also reiterated his belief that the money could have been better utilised “by other schemes which can more effectively help companies stay afloat”.

For instance, he had “no problems” with the Special Risk-sharing Initiative, for which $400m will be drawn from the reserves. “I have spoken to some companies (that) would rather have credit facilities,” he said.

Mr Siew agreed that while Jobs Credit would provide a “temporary cushion for businesses, especially SMEs” and make employers “a little bit more reluctant to lay off locals”, it would be a “very expensive band-aid” at best.

But East Coast GRC MP Jessica Tan begged to differ. “I have spoken to small companies … You’re right, they’re facing demand challenges. It’s tough.

“But at the same time, having that relief enables them to tide over and be able to keep the capabilities they would otherwise have not been able to keep.”

Almost all 22 PAP MPs who spoke gave the Jobs Credit scheme their thumbs up, especially since it would favour companies that employ a large number of Singaporeans, and would protect workers from CPF cuts. Jurong GRC MP Halimah Yacob said it “gives Singapore a comparative advantage when global companies decide where to trim their workforces. We may not be able to save 100 per cent of the jobs currently on the line as this is not realistic”.

Still, Sembawang GRC MP Lim Wee Kiak urged “greater clarity” on the guidelines for dipping into the national reserves. Concurring, Mr Siew also expressed concern over the “precious little information” about the deliberations of the President and his advisers in giving their nod to unlocking the reserves.

Said Mr Siew: “The Government has stated some principles for using the reserves, but principles articulated by the Government do not – and more importantly, should not – bind the President. After all, the President is the independent check on the Government in its use of the reserves.”

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