Wijeysingha takes Tharman and press to task

Vincent Wijeysingha

The quality of reporting in the local papers today on the SDP’s Shadow Budget 2011was predictably banal, absent of any serious analysis that would help Singaporeans differentiate between the ideas of the SDP and those of the PAP.

For example, in its SDP unveils its ‘Shadow Budget’, Today (whose slogan is: ‘We Set You Thinking’), did not deal with the merit of the SDP’s budget proposals in themselves but compared them unfavourably against PAP programmes.

Referring to the SDP’s proposal to abolish GST for basic foodstuffs and medicines, it said:

“Such a proposal is not new….Then, Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam referred to a household expenditure survey, which showed that the most commonly cited eight essential items make up only 5 per cent of the expenditure of the bottom 20 per cent of households.”

In figures recently published by the Department of Statistics, the average income per household at the bottom twenty percent is $2040. Five percent of household expenditure is $102.

Does Today (and the Finance Minister) really think that ordinary people spend only that amount on household essentials every month ($102 divided by 4.5 weeks in a month would be $23 per week)? Is the Minister so out of touch with the reality of family spending? If so, he has no business being in charge of finance.

His other justifications are also unintelligent. Exempting GST would not mean raising it on other goods to balance revenue and expenditure. There is no reason to argue that it cannot be raised on only certain goods such as luxury goods, increasing taxation at the higher end of the scale, reducing expenditure through cost savings such as thinning down the PMO, and eliminating subsidies for foreign students, all of which proposals the Shadow Budget 2011 have proposed.

These are not the real reasons for the PAP’s GST policy, and we all know it in the SDP. The real PAP objection to our proposals are twofold. First: it taxes the wealthier more and this is a policy anathema to the PAP since it is a party committed to the rich and the exploitation of the poor rather than to all Singaporeans. Second: the PAP stands to have its own salaries, perks and lavish conditions reduced if smaller and frugal government is imposed.

Today also reported Mr Tharman as saying:

“That is why we have decided that the most effective way of raising revenues to help the poor is to administer a simple across-the-board GST rate on all products in the market and to, instead, compensate the lower-income group through more offsets and use the GST revenue to fund Workfare.”

Using subsidies to assist Singaporeans after higher taxes are imposed is a foolhardy way of managing household income. What the Minister is saying is this: First, I set taxes at a rate you cannot afford. Then I use those taxes to give you a subsidy so that you can pay the tax. If this is the best form of taxation the Minister can conceive, there is clearly no skills match between him and his job.

But we, the people, are not easily fooled. Subsidy-giving enables the PAP to say that it is a caring government that dispenses generosity. The PAP wants the people to think that no other party would, firstly, be able to amass such riches and, secondly, be kind enough to give it away. It is untrue. But more importantly, it is inept.

Additionally, Workfare does not assist the average employee to cope with rising costs. The vast bulk of Workfare does not enter the pockets of Singaporeans, it is put into their CPF account, the spending of which is deferred. Workfare is a red herring.

The quality of PAP policymaking and of debate are abysmal. But that is no surprise, given that they are essentially bureaucrats who are absorbed into the ruling party purely to give expression to the views of one man, the former Prime Minister, from whose outdated ideas of government and administration, the newer leaders has been unable to escape.

For instance, the productivity measures we have seen in government budgets in years past have been totally without success but, again, found their way into the 2010 Budget. It will be interesting to see if our Finance Minister retains them in the one he will announce tomorrow.

It is also unfortunate that our newspapers do not reflect these simple and logical observations about taxation. At the press conference, I reminded the press that they have an almost sacred duty to inform Singaporeans. Unfortunately, it continues to be clear that their real duty is to put the best gloss on PAP rhetoric. And when that rhetoric is so appalling and unintelligent, it only results in confirming the stereotype of the press as the mouthpiece of the PAP.

The Straits Times argued previously that the opposition has no one to blame if it does not do well in the polls. This argument is entirely debunked when his colleagues in the press continue to parrot the government line without any educated or informed comment.

We wait to see if the media will act responsibly in the days and weeks to come; if it will conduct a fair and balanced analysis on the SDP’s Shadow Budget and a comparison with the government’s Budget so that Singaporeans can make an informed choice at the coming General Elections.

Or will the press simply devote many column inches to praising the Finance Minister for his wisdom and munificence?

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