Budget Debate: The Story of the Mousetrap
Mr Speaker, sir, Budget 2012 calls for efforts to build an inclusive society and a stronger Singapore.
Having heard many of the speeches by fellow members of the House yesterday, most are in agreement that we have before us a caring Budget, one that serves to fill the gaps that previous Budgets did not address.
Let me begin with a story. One day, a mouse saw the farmer and his wife come home with a mousetrap. Worried, he retreated to the farmyard and shouted: “There is a mousetrap in the house!”
The chicken clucked and said “Mr Mouse, I can tell this is a grave concern to you, but I cannot be bothered by it.”
The pig sympathized, but said “I am so very sorry, Mr Mouse, but there is nothing I can do about it but pray.”
The cow said “Wow, Mr Mouse. I’m sorry for you, but it’s nothing to do with me.”
So, the mouse returned to the house dejected, to face the farmer’s mousetrap alone.
That very night the mousetrap snapped shut…
The farmer’s wife rushed to see what was caught but was bitten by a venomous snake whose tail the trap had caught. The farmer rushed her to the hospital and she returned home with a fever.
Everyone knows you treat a fever with fresh chicken soup. But his wife’s sickness continued, so friends and neighbours came to keep vigil. To feed them, the farmer roasted the pig. The farmer’s wife did not get well and she died. So many people came for her funeral that the farmer had the cow slaughtered to provide enough meat for all of them.
The mouse looked upon it all from his crack in the wall with great sadness.
What the story tells us is that there is no problem too small or insignificant that it does not affect all of us eventually. We are all at risk even if we do not seem to be directly affected.
Therefore, amidst the tremendous rate of growth that we have experienced as a nation for the past few decades, we must ensure that those who may lag behind for various reasons are not left behind.
The Budget seeks to address this at many levels. Yet, just as there is no Budget that can address all groups, this Budget is not a magic cure all.
Yesterday, the honourable member for Zhenghua, Mr Liang Eng Hwa, spoke passionately for small businesses struggling against the tide of competition and rising costs.
While from an economics point of view unproductive business should be shown the door, let us pause and remember the story of the mousetrap. It is easy for us to lose sight of the reality that many of these mom and pop shops, small factories, family-run, community-supported form the backbone of our real economy.
They work hard to earn a living and support their families. The few foreign workers they have supplement what is often a dwindling workforce for crafts that cannot solely rely on mechanisation to replace.
As such the reduction in the Dependency Ratio Ceiling is a major sledgehammer to their businesses. Many lament that they are, as is the oft-repeated phrase, working just to pay the rent.
One real life example is Mr Chua Lian Thye. A carpenter and a family man at heart. I met Mr Chua recently during my regular house visits. Supporting a family of 5, including 3 lovely children aged between 6 and 15, he and his 3 brothers have been running a small carpentry & woodwork factory for close to a decade. His eldest brother who heads up the operations has been in the business for almost 20 years.
As the years progressed, what was perhaps a viable way of really using their hands to make a living has proven to be getting from challenging to nearly insurmountable odds.
Not only has their rental increased exponentially in just a short few years, they are now facing intense competition from Malaysia where costs of material and workers are much cheaper.
Very few if ever younger Singaporeans willing to take up an apprenticeship to do woodwork – hard work, dusty environment, tough conditions. Many of their own staff are already in their 60s, getting on in years and looking at less strenuous work already.
The revisions to the DRC for them could not have come at a less welcomed time. It is not for the want of trying that they don’t have enough locals wanting to enter the industry. For a small outfit like theirs with low capital outlays, investments in technology and machinery do not make a whole lot of sense. Many like Mr Chua and his brothers are simply doing what they do best with their hands to make an honest living.
It may seem callous that we must keep up with the times and get onto the productivity bandwagon. From a labour movement perspective, I applaud the pumping in of billions to help increase productivity to benefit especially low wage workers. But I cannot but feel that ordinary Singaporeans like Mr Chua and his siblings, though business owners are workers too.
I therefore urge the Ministry of Manpower to handle with a delicate touch some of our SMEs who are truly feeling the heat from all sides. Perhaps a review of the mousetrap of DRC categories to broaden the categorisations and therefore allow for higher ratios for deserving firms. It will not be easy, but they deserve an equal shot at playing their part in our economy, no matter how mouse-like a player they may be.
There are also many existing programmes to assist SMEs but for varying reasons many have not come on board. Perhaps more information is needed to encourage SMEs to do so.
I mentioned lower wage workers earlier, and I would like to turn my attention to a group that will have much to benefit from the cash-cow of a Budget. These are older Singaporeans, especially older workers.
On area is of course the reinstatement of CPF rates for older workers. This is something that the Labour Movement has pushed for for many years and it is definitely welcomed.
Yet, comprehensive though the Budget may be in attempting to address the concerns of older Singaporeans, the test of the pudding is in its implementation.
Last evening, after the end of Parliament, I went with my wife to a hawker centre in the Chinatown area to have dinner. Finishing the meal, out of our usual habit, we cleared our bowls and carried the tray over to the elderly cleaning lady who was clearing tables.
The elderly lady gestured to the table she was cleaning and asked that I place the tray on it. I did so, smiled, and the elderly lady said in Hokkien and I translate: “Next time, just leave the table we will clean, if any TV crew around take video of you and me, then dai-ji-liao-liao (we will have lots of problems)”
I was kind of taken aback but said goodnight and shrugged to myself as we walked away. But somehow it nagged at me to no end. I then found out that she was worried about being told she was not doing her work and diners had to clear their own tables. For someone, bent of back and with halting steps, it somewhat pained me that this could not possibly be the face of reemployment of older workers.
Again, though the Special Employment Credits will be welcomed by employers and I welcome the prospect of older Singaporeans who want to continue working being able to do so. I also urge the government to ensure that we do not create a scenario of phantom workers or older workers made to go through unsuitable work simply because they are now “subsidised workers”. Let us not have the cash-cow of SECs become a mousetrap for older workers.
For younger workers, many whom I have had the privilege of interacting and speaking with since the Budget announcement have seen it from two extremes. On the one hand, they see it as a caring Budget, the compassionate community moving forward together. In the same breath, young Singaporeans are concerned too about their own prospects especially those working on contracts.
Young couples wanting to start out in life still see some bleakness in the housing market, the rising costs of living standing partially in the way of starting a family. It is hoped that some of these measures may become clearer during the COS and I look forward to hearing from the respective Ministries.
Sir, we have a good opportunity to set the groundwork for the coming years with this Budget. Yet what is being called a “Budget for the Future” cannot but raise questions in my mind that as a younger Singaporean, the future cost of this Budget is not immediately clear.
GST vouchers, SECs, productivity push, new buses, all this is certainly not a once off capital cost. Some call this a social budget; others refer to it in hushed tones as creeping welfarism. But whatever it is, we must be sure that we are spending responsibly and within our means and not just be populists for populism’s sake. Are the reserves that our forefathers worked hard to build being eroded? What does the future hold for young Singaporeans? Is this “Budget for the Future” also getting its budget from the future?
These are major social investments that we are introducing and they will have their costs, I therefore hope that DPM Tharman would be able to help Singaporeans understand how these will be paid for and more importantly clarify if higher taxes are to be expected or even dreaded in the near future. So just like the mousetrap, everything may seem to be going great at the moment, but how will our economy look like 10-20 years from now?
As NTUC Secretary-General Mr Lim Swee Say said earlier, the price of the failure of our efforts is too great to be ignored.
Mr Speaker, sir, in closing, as we progress, let us progress together, as we strengthen our own individual capabilities, let us also strengthen this nation we call home. Just as in the story of the mousetrap, we are all part of each other’s tapestry of life, all on the same journey. We should keep an eye out for each other and make an effort to encourage each other along the way.
With that Sir, I support the Budget.