Singapore Budget 2018 debate: Old wine in new bottle solutions will not work anymore

Four civil society players came together yesterday to discuss their beliefs on what Singapore’s economic direction should be for the next year, ahead of Budget 2018 which will be delivered by Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat next week.

The forum, organised by The Independent and Maruah a human rights NGO in Singapore, saw a turnout of about thirty individuals keen to explore how this year’s budget should be structured.

The event, moderated by The Independent’s publisher Kumaran Pillai, saw Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) chairman Dr Paul Tambyah, former presidential candidate Tan Kin Lian, and Maruah president Leong Sze Hian share their views on where the government should place economic emphasis this year.

In his opening remarks, Pillai recounted an interesting tidbit from history about the spinning wheel invented in India, around 500 BC. The Indians were so satisfied with the spinning wheel that they neglected to further innovate, preferring to simply use the same method for centuries, until the British arrived in India, bringing mechanisation and industrialisation with them.

Suddenly, the Indian spinning wheel became obsolete and the East India Company exploited and decimated the cotton yarn industry in India.

Pillai said that ultimately, it was too late, for innovation. When the British brought mechanisation and industrialisation to India, it suddenly did not matter how well the spinning wheel worked or how fast it spun yarn or cotton – the entire paradigm had shifted.

With the threats of globalisation and digitisation posing severe challenges for a nation like Singapore, Pillai questioned how the government plans to innovate to remain relevant. Opining that innovations like the Industry Transformation Map still follow a very linear progression, Pillai asserted that the usual solution of packaging old wine in a new bottle will not work anymore.

Instead, he said, that there needs to be a creative disruption and a paradigm shift in Singapore. Pillai called for a change in policies and for a fresh start, “not a refresh every April.”

Pointing to how innovation in Singapore is largely state-sponsored and not grounds-up, Pillai elucidated on the dangers of such a model and added: “Lapses are forgivable but we cannot take an inevitable decline in leadership and quality lying down.”

Dr Paul Tambyah echoed the need for a change in policy. Speaking in his personal capacity as an activist and politician, Dr Tambyah said that he has three wishes for this year’s Budget plan:

  1. That MediShield Life is expanded to cover evidence-based healthcare interventions;
  2. That the government will not use the “aging population” excuse to raise taxes; and
  3. That the government should do something to remove structural inequalities and help all Singaporeans to do their best.

Read the opposition politician’s full comments, along with the views of Tan Kin Lian and Leong Sze Hian, are here.

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