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Speech By Josephine Teo at the Debate On President's Address

21 Oct 2011

1         Mr Deputy Speaker, listening to the debate over the last few days, I had a sense of déjà vu. If my memory serves me right, I was seated, 5 years ago, where the honourable member, Mr Chen Show Mao, is now seated. On my right, was Mr Baey Yam Keng, on my left, Dr Fatimah Lateef.

2         I was looking around the Chamber, to find the oldest object here, and I think it must be the Mace. It is the symbol of the authority of the Speaker.

3         This particular mace at the head of the table has been a part of the legislative assembly since 10 Sep 1958 – just over 53 years ago, before many of us were born. The early mace was in fact a weapon of war – with a round-fisted head and sharp metallic spikes. The mace in this house has a head that is shaped like a lion with wings. Hopefully, Sir, it will never cross your mind to use it against us, even when we are engaged in heated wars of words.

4         More than anyone one of us, this Mace has been a part of Singapore's legislative history. It bore witness to all the historic moments in our young nation’s political development. And yet, if the Winged Lion Mace head were to come alive and be asked how things were different back then and now, I suspect it would say simply "some things have changed and some things have not."

5         Whether our GDP is USD400, as it was in 1960; or USD4,000 in 1979 or USD44,000 at the end of 2010. The lower income among us still find it hard to cope. Whether we live in muddy kampongs, 2-room rental flats or at The Pinnacle with its million-dollar views, we cannot avoid entirely episodes of job losses or poor health.

6         One significant change, however, is that we now have much better resources to deal with our problems. Significantly too, our politics has changed and is still changing.

7         I would like to say more about our politics. But before that, let me say something about our resources and our attitude towards growth.

Growth is still needed

8         Minister of State Lawrence Wong had on Tuesday explained how the PAP Government did not pursue growth for its own sake. He also explained how, without seizing growth, Singaporeans would have been worse-off.

9         I would like to add another perspective. Many of the programmes that MPs have asked for will increase our spending. So as not to burden our future generations, the responsible way to increase spending is to, at the same time, increase revenues. This way, we can keep a balanced budget.

10        One option, of course, is to raise taxes. If we don't, we must find ways to increase revenues. The question is how?

11        A quick study of our revenue structure shows that about 60% of it is contributed by four items. They are:

- Corporate Income Tax (CIT)
- Personal Income Tax (PIT)
- Goods and Service Tax (GST)
- Customs and Excise Duties (CED)

How sensitive are these revenues to economic performance?

12        In the 2001 recession, our GDP declined by 6.1% in nominal terms. It had a major impact on our tax collections in the following fiscal year. Our corporate income tax collections in FY2002, which was based on 2001 income, fell by 12.8%. Personal income tax fell 8.3%. GST grew marginally, but you have to compare it to the double-digit growth that we used to experience around that time. GST was growing, in that year, at 1.4%. Customs and Excise Duties fell 4.1% as well. In all, the revenue from these four sources dropped around 9%.

13        In 2007, our economy did well, and nominal GDP rose by 14.6%. This led to a 14.1% increase in corporate income tax collections in FY2008. Similarly, personal income tax grew 19.3%. GST up 5.2%. Customs and Excise Duties up 4%. Overall, the combined revenues from the four items increased by about 12%.

14        I have picked FY2002 and FY2008 because there were no major changes in key tax rates in those years. For example, GST rate increases, or reductions in corporate income tax rates. This allows us to see the effect of economic growth on revenues in a simplified way.

15        My purpose in taking members through these numbers is to explain that we really ought to have a healthy regard for growth. It helps to generate more revenues which allow for increased spending without having to worry about higher taxes.

16        Many countries, in addition to being profligate, did not pay enough attention to their economies, allowing themselves to lose competitiveness and for their growth to trudge along.

17        Many of them borrow money to keep up their spending commitments to their own citizens. But this is passing the burden to future generations, who are also citizens. For some, the day of reckoning has already arrived, and they are faced with the painful options of sharply raising taxes and cutting benefits. Singapore must avoid this.

18        Some other countries have resources such as oil and so can afford to spend a lot more for a lot longer before running into problems. We have no such luxury.

19        We must not pursue growth blindly, and certainly not in a way that does not benefit the broad majority of Singaporeans. But we must also not become disdainful of growth. Without growth, we will have fewer resources to make investments for the future.

20        Moreover, our needs and wants will always exceed our means. Therefore, we must spend wisely. It is not always possible to measure the value of our spending. But, we must still exercise prudence and resist the temptation to spend our way out of problems.

21        One area of spending which we have been able to do when revenue flows were particularly strong is the top-ups to our endowment funds. Having been part of the labour movement before I entered government, the investment I most appreciate is the Lifelong Learning Endowment Fund, or LLEF.

22        In the depths of the global financial crisis in 2009, I received a phone call one day. It was about the retrenchment of 700 workers from a garment manufacturing company where we had a union branch. 90% - women, seamstresses who had no other skills. And 3 out of 4 of them aged 50 and above, with rather bleak prospects for finding the next job. Their last day was to be a Thursday, which was just four days before Chinese New Year.

23        My fellow union leaders and I were, to put it in an understated way, quite devastated. We tried our best to persuade the employer to at least hold the workers till after Chinese New Year, to no avail. So we had to do the next best thing: keep our chins up, grit our teeth and set in motion a series of measures to lessen the pain for the workers.

24        The big lesson I learnt then was that there is nothing more risky to workers than a job they feel contented in. It’s a great irony for union leaders seeking to improve working conditions of our workers. Because the more contented our workers feel, the more likely they are to postpone training, and the less motivated they are to upgrade themselves. And so when the game is up, they are caught unaware.

25        That is why I believe, more than Workfare bonuses, more than CPF top-ups and GST credits, we need to give our workers the chance to build lifelong employability so that they need never be caught in the terrible situation those 700 seamstresses faced.

26        Since 2000, we have topped up the LLEF by $3.6 billion. The monies from the fund have contributed to the development of our Continuing Education and Training (CET) system, which will benefit many Singaporeans by helping them upgrade, stay employable and earn a better living. These are the real investments worth every dollar we put in.

27        If we continue to grow at a reasonable pace, we can generate resources that will allow us to continue fruitful spending on such programmes.

Shape an exceptional political culture

28        Sir, my second point is on shaping our political culture. After the General Election, many have noticed a marked change in the way people interact with their MPs. I'd like to share some observations.

29        One type of interaction – I would characterise it as sort of a Transactional Relationship. Resident comes and sees us, and says, "I voted for you, so now, please get me my HDB flat, or approve my wife’s PR application, or get my son into this primary school. There are 8 votes in my household." That is one type.

30        The second type is accusatory and sarcastic in tone. Emails that are sent, words that are used. For example, saying, "Is this how the government puts Singaporeans First?", if they don’t get what they want. Or anything can be labelled as, "The Government cares only for foreigners."

31        The third is also worrying. It’s the attitude of "My-way or no-way". This happens when solutions proposed by agencies that balance the needs of all the stakeholders are rejected without consideration for others. "It doesn’t suit me, so no-go."

32        It was not like this before. And frankly, I’m quite saddened to see my country develop in this direction. If this is the 'New Normal', in my mind, there’s nothing to celebrate.

33        But there is a different kind of 'New Normal' which we can aspire to – one where it is not uncommon to admit mistakes and accept apologies.

34        One good example is the Central Narcotics Bureau. Volunteering information that past statistics had not been entirely correct. They took the flak but I was very heartened that at least a small group of people were prepared to say, "Bravo for owning up, but please work harder, do better."

35        But not all are so forgiving. And it makes me think, that if we always crucify people for honest mistakes, for owning up to the honest mistakes, what we will have is not the "absence of mistakes", (but) only the "absence of honesty". Is this what we want in the `New Normal’ of our politics?

36        In the 'New Normal', it should not be unusual for parties, political or otherwise, to adjust our positions. I recall very vividly, a visit that I made to the French National Assembly. There, in front of the Speaker, sort of a semi-circle theatre-style, are where all the legislators are seated. And I was told, if you are from a Left party, you sit to the left from where the Speaker sees you. And if you’re from the Right, you sit on the right. And you’re either on the left or on the right, and your position is fixed. And no matter how the debate develops, no matter what new information is brought up, the Speaker says, what does the Left have to say, and what does the Right have to say? And so your physical position fixes your mental position!

37        I was very frightened by that sort of a positioning. It is necessary for us to adjust our positions from time to time with new information, new knowledge, new understanding, new developments. Further good behaviour norms that should apply equally on both sides of the bench, front and back, and across party lines, include the willingness to acknowledge trade-offs.

38        A good example is in transport. If we have more vehicle quotas, COE prices will be lower, but we will also have more congested roads and more illegal parking. If we have more stringent immigration measures, fewer men can get PRs for their foreign brides.

39        In these issues, a responsible Parliament must find consensus on where the balance should fall, and from debate, move to action. In some cases, we can agree to disagree. Like in the exchange that we just had, Mr Pritam Singh, the honourable Mr Singh is not here, I wish he had just made his position clear, as the Prime Minister has, during his speech, which is that we don't agree with the perception that the media is controlled by the government. It is alright for Mr Singh to disagree, but because he has not been willing to make known where he stands, I really don’t know what to make of his proposals.

40        Importantly, in the 'New Normal', we should aspire to have the moral courage to avoid polarising the public on issues which are divisive. And by this, I mean not just race, religion, but increasingly, issues pertaining to our heritage, and the environment, but also, the treatment of foreigners.

41        In the last two days, we talked about Former Minister George Yeo's encounter with a Catholic priest and Minister Khaw Boon Wan’s recent interactions with the Chief Monk of Bhutan. And it reminded me of a story I first read about 12 years ago. It is titled "The Rabbi’s Gift". And I seek the Deputy Speaker’s permission to share the story.

42        The story concerns a monastery that had fallen upon hard times. Once a great order, as a result of waves of anti-monastic persecution in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the rise of secularism in the nineteenth, all its branch houses were lost and it had become decimated to the extent that there were only five monks left in the decaying mother house: the abbot and four others, all over seventy in age. Clearly it was a dying order.

43        In the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a little hut that a rabbi from a nearby town occasionally used for a hermitage. Through their many years of prayer and contemplation the old monks had become a little bit psychic, so they could always sense when the rabbi was in his hermitage. As he agonised over the imminent death of his order, it occurred to the abbot at one such time to visit the hermitage and ask the rabbi if by some possible chance he could offer any advice that might save the monastery.

44         The rabbi welcomed the abbot at his hut. But when the abbot explained the purpose of his visit, the rabbi could only commiserate with him. "I know how it is," he exclaimed. "The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore." So the old abbot and the old rabbit wept together. Then they read parts of the Torah and quietly spoke of deep things.

45        The time came when the abbot had to leave. They embraced each other. "It has been a wonderful thing that we should meet after all these years, "the abbot said, "but I have still failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me that would help me save my dying order?"

46        "No, I am sorry," the rabbi responded. "I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you."

47        When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, "Well what did the rabbi say?" "He couldn't help," the abbot answered. "We just wept and read the Torah together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving – it was something cryptic – was that the Messiah is one of us. I don't know what he meant."

48        In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered this and wondered whether there was any possible significance to the rabbi's words. The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery? If that's the case, which one?

49        Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant Father Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation.

50        On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Certainly Brother Thomas is a holy man. Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light.

51        Certainly he could not have meant Brother Elred! Elred gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people's sides, when you look back on it, Elred is virtually always right. Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother Elred. But surely not Brother Phillip. Phillip is so passive,

[interruption by Deputy Speaker of Parliament].

52        Phillip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for somehow always being there when you need him. He just magically appears by your side. Maybe Phillip is the Messiah.

53        Of course the rabbi didn't mean me. He couldn't possibly have meant me. I'm just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did? Supposin I am the Messiah? O God, not me. I couldn't be that much for You, could I?

54        As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one among them might be the Messiah. And on the off, off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.

55        Because the forest in which it was situated was beautiful, it so happened that people still occasionally came to visit the monastery.

56        As they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed the aura of extraordinary respect that now began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out of them and permeate the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely attractive, even compelling, about it. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery more frequently to picnic, to play, to pray. They began to bring their friends to show them this special place. And their friends brought their friends.

57        Mr Deputy Speaker, Sir, I love the story. I’m sorry Mr Low doesn’t. For one thing, I love the difference we can make when we start to treat one another with, as the PM says, grace, courtesy, respect, regardless of our station in life.

58        I wish we do this all the time – with cleaners, security guards, bus drivers, hawkers, foreign construction workers….Can you imagine what a powerful force we can be if Singapore were exceptional in this way?

59        I love the story too for the imagery of revival, of spiritual uplift. It never fails to give me a high.

60        Most of all perhaps, I love what the story suggests about accountability. The Rabbi had no solution. All he did was to change the standard by which each monk benchmarked himself – to that of the Messiah!

61        You see, the real difference we make is not when we hold other people accountable. That is too easy. It’s not even when we hold each other accountable. The highest order of accountability is that we hold ourselves to. It is when we hold ourselves accountable to the highest standards of civility, honesty, integrity, good faith, good sense, that we have the best potential of changing the world.

62        Sir, the elections are done. We now have the duty of living up to voters’ high expectations. At the same time, we have the privilege of setting new political norms for Singapore.

63        Let us, in our hearts, place upon ourselves this burden and this honour. Let us persuade Singaporeans to join us in shaping a political culture we can all be proud of. If the Winged-Lion Mace head could speak, let us hear her call us "An exceptional Parliament".

64        Then, these watershed elections would truly yield something good for Singapore’s political development, something worthy of celebration.

65        Sir, I support the motion.