I have always maintained that my speeches must speak for themselves, must stand and fall on their own. So I will only make a few short comments:
- Minister Tharman did not say anything about the first part of my speech, about the benefits of GDP (not) going to Singaporeans.
- Someone (whose views I respect) told me that this was not one of my better speeches, that it was not constructive or different. Well, I think there is nothing constructive that can be said here about compassion -- either you believe in the idea of what I said, or you don't. It is about the idea, not about specifics.
- I did not advocate completely ignoring waste, deadweight loss and disincentives to work. Instead, I believe that in some situations, some wastage of public funds should be tolerated, if the overall benefit outweighs that wastage. While the road to hell may be paved with good intentions, not all good intentions lead to hell.
- I did not say anything that could possibly be construed as not caring about creating wealth at all, as the Zaobao columnist seems to have suggested. That is a strawman argument, and it's easy to debunk a strawman argument. Indeed, I do believe in and applaud the Budget measures aimed at our long-term competitiveness -- I merely chose not to include it in my speech.
- Finally, I suspect that as these things go, I got as mild a rebuke as I possibly could have. And I appreciate that.
Speech by Minister Tharman
27 February 2008
5.1. Mr Speaker Sir, the most important debate in the last two days has been about the basic ethic that we want to sustain in our society.
5.2. We all aspire to help and uplift the less fortunate members of our society.
5.3. Mr Siew Kum Hong made an impassioned speech. He says that the Government is only concerned about not eroding the work ethic, rather than caring for Singaporeans, and so we tend to provide the bare minimum to Singaporeans in need such that they have just enough to survive.
(a) His description does not square with the reality of Government interventions to support the lower income group. Through Workfare, through our housing subsidies, through our CPF subsidies and top-ups, through the support we provide the poor with Medifund and through the many flexible schemes that ComCare offers, we are providing substantial support for lower income Singaporeans.
(b) His desire to see nobody left behind is noble and shared by us all. But his exhortation that we should ignore waste, ignore deadweight loss, ignore disincentives to work is quite reckless.
(c) As Chew Chu Ching pointed out in his ZaoBao column today, commenting on Mr Siew Kum Hong’s speech, “if a country does not care about creating wealth at all, it is big question whether it could survive in the real world." [cartoon from ZaoBao to the same effect]
(d) To be able to help the poor, we must first create wealth, grow our GDP and provide every incentive for Singaporeans to strive and work to improve their lives and that of their families.
(e) If our policies harm that, for the noblest of reasons, we will be in serious trouble, as many other countries have found. Instead of helping the people we all want to help, we will be doing worse for them.
5.4. The real issue is how we can keep our economy productive and vibrant, and how we can keep our society resilient and caring, not just now or for a few years, but for many years to come. Will it be achieved by Government giving more and more and handing out more and more goodies, which MPs like Mr Sam Tan, Dr Ong Seh Hong, Mr Baey Yam Keng and Dr Lim Wee Kiak cautioned against?
5.5. As Chua Mui Hoong put it in yesterday’s Straits Times, “it is timely to recall that the Finance Minister is not the God of Fortune, and that not all calls for spending have merit. Even if there is a $6.4b surplus”.
5.6. Our basic philosophy has been and must remain what Mr Zaqy Mohamad, Mr Zainul Abidin Rasheed, Dr Lily Neo, Ms Lee Bee Wah, Mrs Josephine Teo and Dr Lim Wee Kiak expressed – we must keep alive the incentive for every Singaporean to strive and maximize opportunities to do better for themselves and their families.
5.7. This Budget has given Singaporeans something to tide over their present difficulties. But far more important is what we do to help every individual upgrade himself through education and training, to stay in a job and keep advancing his skills, and to save for retirement.
5.8. We have embarked on new initiatives, and there is much more work ahead. We will stay focused on this central task. As Mdm Halimah Yacob summed up, it is what we have to do so that this continues to be a place where everyone has the opportunity to fulfill his dreams through hard work and can look forward to the future with hope.
5.9. This is the philosophy which will keep Singapore going through good years and bad, which will ensure that prosperity will last more than 3 generations as Mr Seng Han Thong hoped. And above all, which will make this a society where every Singaporean can be proud that they are playing their part, not just by doing better for themselves, but by contributing to Singapore.