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Political debate less about direction, more on costs, trade-offs, value of elected opposition

IN A televised political debate on Wednesday night among representatives from the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) and three opposition parties, the disagreements turned out to be less about substantive policy directions and more about costs, tradeoffs and the value of elected opposition members.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan, part of the PAP's team in Holland-Bukit Timah GRC, even raised a common charge against the Workers' Party (WP) to its representative Jamus Lim - that the WP is "PAP-lite" or "PAP-like".

Saying that he had read the WP's manifesto for this General Election, Dr Balakrishnan added: "To be honest, we could have written the same manifesto." The WP looks to the PAP's policies for reference and takes "a half-step to the left", he charged - but noted that even this half-step has fiscal implications.

He asked Dr Lim how the WP intends to pay for its proposals in the second segment of the hour-long debate, which was broadcast live on Channel 5.

Dr Lim, who is part of the WP's Sengkang GRC slate, said that his party had "done the math behind" its manifesto, and everything proposed is budget-neutral. The PAP and the WP differ in where they think trade-offs should occur, he added, with the PAP tending to come down more on the side of capital. In contrast, the WP thinks that for every dollar of national income, workers are receiving an insufficient share.

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The debate featured the four political parties which are fielding the most candidates in this General Election. The PAP is contesting all 93 seats, followed by the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) with 24, the WP with 21, and the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) with 11.

In the latter half of the debate, Dr Balakrishnan traded questions with each of the opposition candidates in turn. He asked PSP Chua Chu Kang GRC candidate Francis Yuen what more the PSP would like the government to do to aid local PMETs (professionals, managers, executives and technicians), given that there are almost seven local PMETs for each foreign Employment Pass holder. 

Mr Yuen replied that the fact remains that there are more than 400,000 foreign PMETs here and some 100,000 local PMETs who are out of a job. (see clarification note) The government should be helping the local group to make a transition into jobs now filled by the foreigners, whether with incentives or measures such as quotas.

Mr Yuen queried Dr Balakrishnan on the government's plan to create 100,000 jobs and opportunities, to which Dr Balakrishnan replied that these are positions to be created within the next year to deal with the immediate crisis. In the longer term, the parties agree on the need to upskill the workforce, he said.

SDP chief Chee Soon Juan, who is contesting the single seat of Bukit Batok, was asked to name the total bill of all the schemes that the SDP is proposing, and who will pay for it. Dr Chee replied that two pillars of the SDP's campaign - retrenchment benefits and retirement income - would require an annual budget of about S$5 billion.

In his wrap-up statement, Dr Balakrishnan said that the SDP's plan to suspend the goods and services tax would result in a fiscal hole of S$11 billion each year. He asked the SDP to "have a care" that in its proposals for wealth taxes or estate duties, it does not engage in "class welfare".

The night's exchange showed the value of political debate, said Dr Lim. Although the PAP has argued that this General Election is about winning a mandate so it can lead Singapore out of the crisis, "the truth is the PAP, in all likelihood, will have this mandate at the end of this election", he said.

"What we are trying to deny the PAP isn't a mandate. What we are trying to deny them is a blank cheque, so we can actually have these debates," he added - not around a table on television, but in Parliament.

In his closing remarks, Mr Yuen agreed with Dr Lim, stressing the importance of a free contest of ideas and constructive voices in Parliament.

To that, Dr Balakrishnan - who had the last word - said he agreed with Dr Lim and Mr Yuen. The PAP does not claim a monopoly on wisdom and is not afraid of an open contest of ideas.

But regardless of the electoral outcome on Polling Day, there will be more opposition representation in the new session of Parliament due to the Non-Constituency Member of Parliament scheme, he said, repeating a point made by the PAP in the campaign thus far.

Clarification note: During the debate on Wednesday night, Mr Yuen said there are some 100,000 local PMETs who are out of a job. On Thursday morning, the Manpower Ministry clarified that according to the Report on Labour Force in Singapore 2019, released on Jan 30, 2020, there were 39,000 local unemployed PMETs as at June 2019. Data on unemployed residents by occupation is released annually.

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