Some weeks ago, a middle- aged lady came to see me at my MPS. She was not a resident in my constituency, but her mother was. She said that a group of boys playing football had broken her mother's window. She wanted the Town Council to pay for the repairs. It was a small sum, but I explained that the Town Council could only use its funds for common property. Where residents cannot afford to pay for their own personal repairs, I have arranged for contractors to help them. So I enquired about her family's circumstances. It turned out that they could afford to replace the window. So why the request? Her argument was simply that her family was already bearing the costs of her mother's medical bills, and she therefore believed that the government should help with other expenses.
Her request made me reflect on a larger point - what do we expect of Government? It is the same question other countries are asking. It was one of the major issues in the recent US elections. And in the UK, there has been a long debate over whether Government should do more, or less.
In Singapore, most of us will say we want Government to have a major role in making our lives better. But it gets more complicated when you get into specifics, simply because different people want different things, some of which are in direct conflict.
So what is Government's role? What are its (to use that horrid term) KPIs? How do we judge when a particular policy is good or poor, working or not?
That is an issue we should also be discussing in the Singapore Conversation. And when I say discuss, I mean with real specifics, because the previous debates on national issues have, in my view, been let down for lack of it.
For example, here are some areas which require more detailed discussion.
Most will say that it is Government’s role to provide affordable public housing. But:
- Should public housing be available to every Singaporean, regardless of financial circumstances? If not, what should the threshold for eligibility be?
- How should affordability be defined? MND uses the international benchmark of not spending more than 30% of salary to service your mortgage. If not that, then what? Currently, over 80% of HDB owners service their mortgages entirely from their CPF – in other words, no monthly cash outlay. Is that a good measure of affordability?
- Or is Government's role to ensure that everyone has a roof over their heads, whether owned or rented? If that is the KPI, it must follow that it is Government's responsibility to provide housing even for those who cannot live in their current homes because of conflicts with family members, or who cash out by selling their flats. These are two most common reasons given by my constituents who ask for rental flats. Should subsidised housing be provided to them on demand? If the answer is no, some will end up sleeping in public places. Do we accept that?
Most will agree that it is the government’s role to provide an efficient, affordable and extensive public transport and road network, and to ensure that traffic on our roads is reasonably smooth flowing. If so:
- Is it also Government’s role to make cars affordable to meet the aspirations of those who want to own one?
- If it is not, should it be concerned about the price of COEs for private cars or leave it to the market?
- If Government must keep COE prices low, what is “low”? And how should it determine who gets a COE?
- If Government should do away with COEs, how should it ensure smooth flowing traffic?
You can ask similar questions on other issues. The answer cannot be "it depends" or "case by case" - that is a cop-out. Government policies have to be clear and transparent, and applied properly and fairly. We should of course empower public servants to exercise discretion and make exceptions. But it is fundamental that the principle and policy are clear so that Singaporeans are able to make personal decisions which will affect their future.
Unless we get into specifics, we will not get anywhere. And part of that discussion must include what costs are we prepared to pay - not just financial, but social as well. Because there are consequences to every decision we make, and these cannot be left out of the equation.