by Sylvia Lim, MP for Aljunied GRC
[Delivered in Parliament on 3 Mar 2014]
SECURING OUR PIONEERS
The Workers’ Party supports Budget 2014.
While my colleagues and I have comments and suggestions regarding certain aspects of it, we agree with the Budget’s unique emphasis on the Pioneer Generation, helping businesses restructure, and the direction towards strengthening social safety nets particularly in healthcare. The specific recognition of Persons with Disabilities is inclusive. While the details of some schemes are not available yet and should be scrutinized later, we welcome these general thrusts.
We also note the relative absence of new taxes on the revenue front. This is thanks to the expected healthy continuing contributions of Singaporeans and others in existing taxes and charges, such as income and corporate taxes, GST, COE premiums and others. However, a significant additional burden is placed on those who involved in tobacco, alcohol and gambling activities. This is expected to bring in additional revenue of nearly half a billion dollars ($0.445b). Though some may argue that indulging in some level of such activities is essential to de-stress in Singapore, one cannot really quarrel with the rationale of preventing excessive indulgence in them.
This year’s focus on supporting the Pioneer Generation for the rest of their lives is a refreshing departure from public conversations of the past. Instead of just urging respect for our elders as a virtue, some public monies are being set aside to support this special group. Instead of attributing Singapore’s progress mainly to visionary leaders, we are recognizing the contributions of everyone else on equal footing, from followers to mothers and labourers.
Many of us who grew up in Singapore are children of the Pioneer Generation. Some of us are old enough to recall the early days of nation building, and how our parents muddled through uncertain and even stormy weather to forge a future for a small country. For instance, in 1967 when the British announced that it would be withdrawing its troops from Singapore, we were left with a huge defence lacuna, and had to dig deep to find manpower and expertise to build our own army. The search for instant officers and instructors led us to draw personnel from other services including the police force. I had the privilege of witnessing some of these events personally, through the lens of my father, who was seconded from the police to the army to become the first batch of SAF officers in the 1960s.
He and his colleagues from the Ministry of Interior and Defence had to quickly build our Armed Forces. They put their noses to the grind and learned from Israeli consultants, here and in Jerusalem. The early officers set up units and drew up SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures). They also had to manage the huge undertaking of compulsory National Service for all Singaporean males. The early political leaders too, were very hands-on and kept abreast of many details. I have seen old black and white photographs of my father giving briefings to then Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who used to visit army camps with his family dressed in shorts; these photographs told perhaps of a different working culture then, with little time for pomp and ceremony.
The contributions of the pioneer generation went beyond themselves and extended to those they coached, trained and influenced. Besides being our parents, we also encountered them in hospitals, schools, work places and in National Service. In 2006 when I was first sworn in as a Non-Constituency Member of Parliament, I had a brief conversation at the ceremony reception with the then Foreign Minister George Yeo. Mr Yeo told me that he had been taught Military Law by my father in the army, and that he believed the Prime Minister had been too. It is indeed quite mind-boggling to think of how many Singaporeans are inter-connected through their links with pioneers.
Turning now to the Pioneer Package itself, I agree that it should not be means-tested, unlike most other government schemes. This universality of entitlement is a very important recognition of all our pioneers, regardless of where they live now or how much they have earned over the years.
The focus of the Pioneer package is on healthcare financing needs. Some have reportedly lamented the lack of benefits while one is healthy. However, the pioneers I know by and large will welcome the additional financial support for illness. Sometime last year, I bumped into an elderly gentleman at Ghim Moh Hawker Centre who said he knew my father as a former colleague in the army. When I told him that my father had not been well after suffering two strokes, the gentleman replied wryly: “We are all not well”! To this end, enhancing subsidies for outpatient care at specialist clinics and polyclinics is appropriate. Including all pioneers in the Community Health Assist Scheme (CHAS) will also benefit those living in private property who consult outpatient General Practitioners near their homes. As for those who are disabled and unable to perform at least three of the six activities of daily living, they are probably saddled with very high healthcare bills; the annual cash assistance of $1,200 or $100 a month is a small token of support.
Another component of the Pioneer Generation package is the Medishield Life subsidy. All pioneers are promised subsidies to pay the Medishield Life premiums, ranging from 40% to 60% increasing with age. I would like to seek some clarification on this. The government has announced its intention to bring all pioneers into Medishield Life. However, some pioneers who are not currently on Medishield had bought their own Medisave-approved private healthcare insurance. Will the pioneers with private healthcare insurance be given the choice to use the premium subsidies for Medishield Life for their private insurance premiums, instead of being compulsorily brought onto Medishield Life?
Finally, one significant cost item for pioneers is medication. For patients who see specialists at public hospitals for chronic conditions, the consultation fees is usually much smaller compared with the cost of medication, which patients need to take daily for the rest of their lives. The majority of our pioneers have one or more chronic conditions requiring daily medication. The Budget mentions that the government intends to enhance subsidies for medication, with a higher subsidy for the Pioneer Generation. To be of optimum benefit to the pioneers, I hope the review will identify the drugs which are usually needed by this group, and focus the higher subsidies on those drugs. We await the details of the medication subsidies in due course.
Madam Speaker, my colleagues will be speaking on other aspects of the Budget but for now, let me conclude.
As we approach our nation’s 50th anniversary of independence, it is a useful time to reflect on how we are bound by ties through the Pioneer Generation. Their high sense of commitment to Singapore lifted us through hazy beginnings and daunting odds. They had little time to complain, but just got on with what needed to be done. Their fighting spirit inspires us, their children, to defend what they have built, and to bring our country to greater heights.