On 28 April 2020, SDP launched its GE2020 campaign. In SDP’s own lofty words, its campaign theme aims to “address … changes and concerns (brought by COVID-19) to prepare our nation for the post-COVID future”.
I read their campaign messages with interest. But much as is the case with clickbait headers, I must admit to coming away relatively disappointed. These are my reasons.
First, the 5 points look more like a hodgepodge of knee-jerk reactions cobbled together to suit the circumstances – rather than a coherent, logical, strategic, or even sustainable plan for Singapore’s long-term future and success. The campaign’s very name, “4Y1N”, reminds one of a series of replies to cross-examination in court, rather than an encompassing vision for Singapore.
Second, while billed as a theme to address changes brought about by COVID-19, the ideas are anything but. One of the slogans, for instance, was recycled from a GE2015 campaign message. The last slogan of the campaign dusts off history books to raise debates about an issue discussed nearly a decade ago.
Third, the campaign message appears to make claims that range from dubious to misleading – such as misrepresenting the type of tax the GST is, or making wild claims that the advisories not to wear masks if well were simply for the ruling party to bolster its own political capital. If this is the sort of politics that the SDP intends to partake in should they be in power, such a future would not augur well for Singapore.
Below, I categorically examine each points and ask questions that help Singaporeans understand where SDP’s campaign falls on the line dividing good policies and false promises.
Suspending GST – putting Singapore in suspended animation
The nub of this slogan is to call for GST to be erased until end 2021, and for the government to refrain from raising the GST to 9%. The SDP also labels the GST as a “regressive tax”. This is not true. Seen on its own, the GST applies equally to all Singaporeans, rich or poor – in other words, a flat tax. But more importantly, the tax system as a whole is progressive – the bottom 20% pay about 10% of all taxes, while the wealthiest 20% pay over 50%. The bottom 20% also receive offsets (like GST vouchers and rebates) about twice more than the wealthiest 20%.
But let us leave economics to the economists for a moment. Let us simplify matters by likening our coffers to that of a family’s bank account. GST currently amounts to about 15% of that family’s monthly kitty – your children’s education, your old grandmother’s hospital fees, putting your food on the table. Imagine if somebody took away that 15% for two years. Your family would not starve, but belts will need to be tightened significantly – especially when the savings accounts have already been depleted by a particularly annoying medical expense called “COVID”.
That is exactly the situation the SDP wants to place our country’s financial situation in for the next two years. It may seem like an appealing idea at first glance, but would lead to belt-tightening all over the country – in turn affecting you and I in ways big and small.
On a side note, imagine the pain when GST gets reinstated after 2021. Assuming SDP were in power then, I wish them the very best in managing the backlash.
SDP RESTART – old wine in new wineskins
The SDP markets the payment of retrenchment benefits (“SDP RESTART”) as a key pillar of their election campaign. This sounds great on paper. But it does quietly forget the externalities and knock-on effects such a policy would cause.
Retrenchment benefits would mean granting companies a free pass to laying off workers. After all, why hold onto workers, when the company can avoid paying salaries and leave it to the SDP to pay the retrenched workers their benefits? Logically, the outcome would be a rash of mass unemployment, with hundreds of thousands of workers claiming their benefits. This would be unsustainable in the best of days, but in a year where a huge chunk of our reserves have been used to prop up the economy, would take Singapore to the brink of financial ruin. Also, it puts the onus on the jobless to find a job within 12 months (as the benefits shrink) – an uphill task considering the depressed state the job market is expected to still be in.
It is also worth noting that the SDP previously raised this scheme in 2015. So much for taking advantage of the changed circumstances and preparing “our nation for the post-Covid future”. The SDP may wish to consider aptly renaming the policy as “SDP RECYCLE” instead.
Income for retirees – an unsustainable RISE
The SDP wants to provide elderly retirees with a monthly income of $500 (a scheme they call “RISE”). This is essentially a minimum wage for retirees. This sounds like a great idea – if money grew on trees (well they used to be paper-based, so maybe SDP thinks it does).
In 2019, Singapore counted 581,700 persons aged 65 years and above. Using that as a proxy for retirees, a $500 monthly payout to 80% of retirees would see an SDP government forking out $232 million every month, or $2.8 billion every year. Coupled with SDP’s proposal to suspend GST, which provides about $11 billion to our annual national kitty, the SDP may also wish to consider opening a few more parks to grow more money trees.
Put people first – while they mis-lead from the back
This point may be dealt with in short shrift. The SDP claims that the calling for a GE in the midst of COVID-19 demonstrates the willingness of the ruling party to sacrifice public health and safety for its own political interest.
First, it conveniently ignores the facts – countries like South Korea, Australia, France, Germany, Israel and Switzerland have also held elections (from local to national levels) in the midst of a pandemic outbreak. This means that the timing of an election matters less to the preparations made for them – and with Singapore entering into Phase 2, a swathe of safety measures announced for the hustings and constitutional deadlines for elections looming in less than a year, it is not eminently unreasonable to hold elections.
Second, this assumes that the ruling party inherently benefits from calling for elections in a crisis – which signals SDP’s lack of confidence in its own ability to win the ground through rational policies and reasoned debate.
Third – and this is a kicker – SDP’s elections campaign policy essentially hinges on calling for elections not to be held – in other words, a non-starter. Even seen charitably, this slogan is but a weak and unsubstantiated call to make “the PAP (put) the people’s interest as top priority”. It speaks to SDP’s internal failure to grasp its policies and bearings in times of crises. If a potential government cannot even get its act together in a crisis – how can it show #thewayforward?
No to 10 million – a paper tiger
This campaign slogan is based on a policy paper articulated a decade ago. Again, this speaks to the lack of bold, coherent ideas from SDP’s policy playbook.
Nevertheless, let us identify the nub of SDP’s claim, which is that a 10-million population target would create a fertile breeding place for viruses. That would be true in a lab, but in reality, places like Macau, Monaco and Hong Kong, which have population densities higher than or near Singapore’s, have also successfully controlled their COVID outbreaks. Again, good policies trump back-of-the-envelope calculations. Seeing the 4 ideas above, however, it is perhaps no surprise why SDP has much to fear.
Perhaps the more coherent of SDP’s claims is to reduce the number of foreign PMETs here. This gives the impression that number of foreign PMETs here are outsized. This is false. As of last year, there were 1.3 million employed Singaporean PMETs to 190 thousand foreign Employment Pass holders – a nearly 9 is to 1 ratio. Putting that aside, it would be irrational to force companies to only hire Singaporeans. In a globalised economy, doing so would only force such businesses away – taking away even more good jobs from Singaporeans that the COVID situation already has.
The 4Y1N campaign is, at its best, nothing but a mash of “clickbait” headlines and false promises for the future. At their worst, if put in effect, they are dangerously poor policies that force jobs, opportunities, savings, and most importantly, hope – out of Singapore.
So, let us let cooler heads prevail, and calmer voices rise to the fore. Singapore benefits from policy debate, but only if it is steeped in reason and rationality. The SDP’s 4Y1N campaign – a weak imitation of a cross-examination defence – is anything but. It is certainly not a coherent, sustainable or strategic post COVID-19 plan for Singapore. We would do wise not to let them show us the way backwards.