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GE2020: Jobs, local businesses and social mobility at forefront of live political debate

LOWERING unemployment, supporting local businesses and improving social mobility were among the issues tackled by representatives from the People’s Action Party and three opposition parties – the Workers’ Party (WP), Progress Singapore Party (PSP) and Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) – in a political debate broadcast live on Wednesday.

In the hour-long discussion, which took place in Mediacorp, the members of the opposition camp took issue with the ruling party’s plans to raise taxes and what they considered to be inadequate support offered to small businesses to reinvent themselves.

The opposition politicians - WP’s Jamus Jerome Lim, PSP’s Francis Yuen and SDP chief Chee Soon Juan - also argued that Singapore needs to dedicate more resources to strengthening its social safety net, especially through education and healthcare.

They were each given one-and-a-half minutes to respond to each question posed by the moderator, before the PAP representative, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, responded with the four-and-a-half minutes allotted to him. 

Dr Balakrishnan named job security as the issue at the forefront of his party’s campaign, citing the formation of the National Jobs Council and the government's provision of a training allowance for Singaporeans to upgrade their job skills.  

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He said that aside from providing “immediate relief” to those whose jobs have been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, the government is also looking beyond this. “(We have provided) emergency treatment and are looking beyond the horizon. And that’s what we have been focused on. Jobs, jobs, jobs.”

Dr Chee argued, however, that the government had not achieved much success in its quest for higher productivity. “Since 2003, we’ve had the Economic Review Committee, and the Economic Strategies Committee, and, of late, the Committee for Future Economy. With each of these (committees), we have seen our productivity tanking.”

He added: “Jobs have been lost and we have unemployment. And just before the GE (general election) right now, you’re telling people you want jobs, jobs, jobs. I think that is more an election jingle than a well-thought-out plan.”

On supporting local businesses, PSP’s Mr Yuen (who is being fielded in Chua Chu Kang GRC) said that apart from handouts and waivers, small and medium-sized enterprises need support to reinvent their businesses amid the current economic crisis. 

These businesses are currently “(operating) in the ICU”, he quipped.

He said the government needs to be able to quickly create help for them to reinvent their businesses if these businesses cannot carry on in their current form. "There is no point prolonging the pain. When they’re out of ICU, they need a resurgence policy to nurse them back to health,” said Mr Yuen, a board director at US-China aviation joint venture Huarui Aerosystems.

“Getting out of ICU is not the end of it, getting back to health is where we want the SMEs (to be).”

Dr Lim, an academic being fielded by WP in Sengkang GRC, said his party believes that more financial support should be made available for SMEs’ ventures into regional and global markets. There is also room for non-market mechanisms, such as a quota or balloting system, to keep commercial and industrial rents low, he said.

On social mobility, both he and Dr Chee agreed that education is no longer a social leveller that it was before.

An economist by training, Dr Lim said: “When I was in school, we used to have an educational system where there really was equality of opportunities. But if you look at the schools now, you don't see that." 

One way to bring back this equality is by ensuring that schools which are not the elite schools get a “disproportionately higher amount of educational spending”, he said. 

All three opposition politicians also called for greater attention to be paid to destitute seniors, saying that it was a crime to see that the elderly have to continue to work to make ends meet.

In response, Dr Balakrishnan said the PAP government believes in uplifting the less well-off. The question on schools, he said, should not centre on “brand names”. “It’s a question of making every school a good school, or not,” he said.

The PAP has not lost its focus in uplifting the vulnerable, and has done so while maintaining the economy’s competitiveness, he maintains.

“We will not leave anyone behind. We will look after our seniors. We will give them the due dignity that they have,” he said.

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