(Text of debate from the Singapore Parliament’s official records. Debate took place after my maiden parliament speech)
The Senior Minister of State, Prime Minister’s Office (Mr Heng Chee How): Mr Speaker, Sir, I would like to seek clarification from the hon. Member Mr Yee. When he referred to the NTUC group, was he saying that the NTUC group is a government-linked company or a grouping?
Mr Yee Jenn Jong: I am not referring to NTUC as government-linked. I am aware that it is Union’s. I am mentioning in my point that it as GLCs and cooperatives competing with local enterprises. It is “and”.
Mr Heng Chee How: Mr Speaker, Sir, may I remind the hon. Mr Yee that NTUC is not the only organisation that can form cooperatives. Anybody can form cooperatives. It is a legal form of business, and you can also do that and compete on an equal basis. I just also to want ask Mr Yee whether he is aware that NTUC co-operatives do not enjoy any special privileges.
Mr Yee Jenn Jong: Mr Speaker, I beg to defer on some areas from Mr Heng. There are certain areas I am aware about that NTUC do have privileges; for example, in the industry that I am fairly well acquainted with, the pre-school industry. Childcare spaces are given to organisations like the NTUC at a very highly subsidised rent. So, it is not true to say there is absolutely no advantages at all.
Mr Heng Chee How: Mr Speaker, Sir, I do not wish to belabour the point but with regard to the NTUC co-operatives of any sort, I wish to ask Mr Yee whether he is aware that these co-operatives have all been set up in relation to societal needs that have to be addressed and that this has been the Labour movement’s contribution to addressing and helping to address our nation’s needs. Where he referred to any perceived privileges that co-operatives might enjoy, that is because certain conditions might have been placed for community organisations that meet certain criteria and that it is not unique to the NTUC.
Mr Yee Jenn Jong: Let me just clarify that I am very well aware of the progress of NTUC and how it has provided many businesses from cradle to grave literally. And it has benefited perhaps many citizens. Today my speech is about the economy and about the impact of SMEs like organisations such GLCs and co-operatives. Sir, I will leave it to a future point where I will debate further about whether certain of these approaches by the co-operatives may be necessary. But today my speech is basically about the impact of SMEs and for the Government and even the co-operatives to consider whether they should play a smaller role in some of these areas because their presence has truly impacted SMEs.
BG [NS] Tan Chuan-Jin: Just two small points, Mr Speaker, related to the impact on big government, small government. For HDB public housing, the Member cited the example of DBSS to illustrate how that has gone awry. I am indeed puzzled as DBSS forms a very small percentage of what we are providing. A large bulk of our public housing is provided by HDB. So, that is a small point of clarification.
The other one is a small point on health care. We can agree to disagree, but the total expenditure of inpatient care for residents in 2009, for example, Medisave and MediShield financed 23%. About 51% was borne by Government and the remaining 27% by employers and patients. We could disagree whether 51% is significant, big or small, but I think that is something that we are looking at and that is the commitment of the Government on some of these areas.
Mr Yee Jenn Jong: Mr Speaker, the essence of what I was trying to say is that basically over the last decade, the Government has deliberately chosen a free-market approach. Now, there are certain merits in whether we use a free market approach or a planned, regulated approach as we have done so in the past.
By allowing the free economy to dictate things, you will over the long run let demand and supply sort itself out and things will eventually match up. But we have seen over the last few years that there are big problems in the three areas that I have just mentioned: housing, transport and healthcare. My premise for this that when you leave things to the free market, things do not catch up and people may be unwilling to take risks because having unsold flats, for example, does not look too good, and you will be questioned by the Auditor-General and so on. So, yes, on the DBSS, I am aware that there is not a big portion. I am citing it as a case that when you go too far and let the private economy take over the running, then there will be at some point in time when the profit elements from the private developers will set in and push things up. I do recognise that HDB provides the housing. What I am saying is that there is not enough drive by the Government to take a bigger responsibility, to take bigger risks to absorb more of these things, to plan the capacity ahead of time even if it means that it might not look so good on the books.
BG [NS] Tan Chuan-Jin: Mr Speaker, I think it is important to make this quite clear. Our commitment is to provide public housing for our people at affordable rates. We have acknowledged that demand exceeded supply in the last few years, and we will make that right and indeed with few subsidies. The Government plays a significant role and I will speak on behalf of my colleagues in HDB who, I think, have done a fantastic job of housing the bulk of population in good quality housing. We stepped in to provide a whole range of subsidies for our people. That is not the market. If we were to leave it to the market, we should just take a step back, close down HDB, let the market decide and you pay whatever price you deem fit for a country and city. That is the basis upon which we are committed to providing for our people and that is important to clarify.
Mr Yee Jenn Jong: Sir, I would thank Brigadier-General for clarifying. Yes, I am heartened to know that HDB has indeed done more and I believe it reflects that the Government has started to listen to the voices of the people after the last General Elections.
BG [NS] Tan Chuan-Jin: I fail to understand how as a result of your entry into Parliament, we suddenly started responding on that front. We have been providing good public housing for our people for many years. And, in the same vein as I responded earlier — perhaps imitation is the best form of flattery, and if you feel that it is important to take credit, it must be something good. So, thank you very much.
Mr Lawrence Wong: Mr Speaker, Sir, if I may seek clarification from Mr Yee. If I am not mistaken, he mentioned earlier that GLCs have been growing in size in the economy and that is crowding out SMEs. Then I would like to know: first, what is the basis for saying that the GLCs’ share of the economy has been growing over the years? Because the Government has been divesting. So, I would like to know what is his basis for saying that?
Secondly, because of the divestments, some things are now being done by the private sector but Mr Yee seems to think that that is not a very good thing and he cited the case of JTC Industrial Estate going out. He said that this is negative from the point of view of the SMEs. It seems to be conflicting because on the one hand Mr Yee advocates divestment, smaller GLCs, but on the other hand, when there are companies that are divested by the Government, Mr Yee mentions that it is not such a good thing. Perhaps he would like to clarify on these points.
Mr Yee Jenn Jong: Mr Speaker, I thank Mr Lawrence Wong for bringing up the case about JTC. I observed from JTC’s website whom they have divested to. I noticed that it is mostly to Mapletree. When I checked the shareholding of Mapletree, I think I would consider it as also a GLC. Some of it may have gone to Ascendas. So, while we may have moved it off a statutory board, we have actually moved it into a government-linked company of some sort.
The observations that I mentioned are just not my own observations. As far back as 2002, there was an Economic Review Committee that made various recommendations and I was very happy with those recommendations. But over time I have not seen many of them implemented especially on the SME space. I would like to see more aggressive moves to implement some of these measures. I am aware that perhaps a competition council has been set up. But in the areas of, for example, providing more support for the SMEs, I think that is also quite lacking. And the observation then in this report was that the GLCs have grown too big and that is also time for them to divest.
Mr Lawrence Wong: Mr Speaker, Sir, Mr Yee has not answered my first question: What is the basis for his claim that GLCs’ share is growing? As he said, in his speech, GLCs are growing in the economy and crowding out SMEs over time.
Mr Yee Jenn Jong: Sir, I think I have answered the question. It is not just my observation but in this particular report it did mention that the role of GLC has grown big and it is time to divest. This is a Government Economic Review Committee report.
The Minister for Trade and Industry (Mr Lim Hng Kiang): Mr Speaker, Sir, on the clarification of JTC divesting in industrial properties. In the latest exercise that JTC did so, it was opened to everybody. JTC awarded half to Soilbuild which is a private company, and the other half to Mapletree which is also a private company.
The Senior Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education and Minister for Law (Ms Sim Ann): Mr Speaker, Sir, as the Vice Chairman of Compass, I am always on the lookout for interesting new ideas from parents and the community about how we can improve our education. And I notice in the hon. Member Mr Yee’s speech just now that he introduced several ideas which we have also heard from lots of parents. We share these concerns but one idea so far which I have not come across from parents is the introduction of political education in schools. I find this very interesting and I would like to seek a clarification. Does the hon. Member think that our schools are an appropriate platform for us to introduce politics and, if so, what form should such education take and from what age?
Mr Yee Jenn Jong: Mr Speaker, on the question of political education, I think something very simple that we can start with is, for example, to understand the Constitution. So, perhaps, at the secondary schools, we can start looking at what does our Constitution mean, what are the roles of the Parliament, the Executive and the Judiciary. I am pretty surprised myself, talking to even students at university level where I used to teach at the start of my career, that there are actually many people who are totally politically apathetic about the environment. And one business leader I met several years back, who gives out scholarships, told me that he was rather disappointed with the quality of discussion with the university scholarship holders that his company has given out the scholarships to, because they cannot hold a proper discussion with him about ASEAN. So I feel that, yes, we should start. On exactly at what level – at secondary, it would be appropriate; at primary, perhaps, with some simple introduction.