SINGAPORE: Day Two of the Budget Debate in Parliament saw several MPs rising in support of a proposal to grant commuters free travel on public transport during off—peak periods.
One MP even called for a freeze in fare increases until service levels improve.
The House on Wednesday also heard some impassioned calls to help workers and companies struggling with the pace of restructuring.
On Tuesday, MP for Pasir Ris—Punggol GRC Dr Janil Puthucheary suggested free travel on public transport before peak hours to ease peak—hour congestion and change commuter travel patterns.
Several MPs picked up Dr Janil’s idea on Wednesday.
MP for Holland—Bukit Timah GRC, Liang Eng Hwa, cited the Melbourne experience where its train operator offers weekday free fares for early bird travel before 7am in the city zones.
Mr Liang, though, cautioned that any free fares should not be at the expense of other commuter groups.
Instead, he said it should be funded from other revenue sources such as the Certificates of Entitlement (COEs), car taxes or Electronic Road Pricing (ERP).
Mr Liang went one step further, suggesting a temporary freeze in public transport fare increase "until we see significant improvements in service level and enhancements".
"Operating costs may well have gone up for the PTOs (public transport operators) but that is just justifying it from the company perspective," he said.
From the public and commuter standpoint, he felt that the Land Transport Authority (LTA) and the public transport operators have not delivered their duty in providing reliable and convenient public transport.
Mr Liang said commuters felt they have been let down and were disappointed with the current under—provision of services and the series of disruptions in trains, LRTs and buses.
"LTA and the PTOs have to restore public confidence before we can even talk about fare increase," he said.
Others like MP for Tampines GRC Irene Ng said any free travel should be complemented with flexi—work.
Otherwise, people would end up working longer hours, she said.
She was not the only one speaking up for greater work—life balance.
Newly—elected opposition MP Lee Li Lian said flexi—work should be institutionalised.
She also said that while the reduction in foreign domestic worker levy is good, it should be completely waived for families with young children or those caring for the disabled or aged parents.
Ms Lee said: "Families today are saddled with so many expenses — housing, transport, education, childcare and medical. Many need helpers but simply couldn’t afford it. The only option then is for a family member, typically the woman, to quit her job to become a caregiver.
"Caregivers with assistance from domestic helpers can also consider remaining employed either on a part—time or full—time basis."
The struggles faced by not just workers but also companies in Singapore remained a key theme in the speeches by MPs on Wednesday.
Various issues were raised — not just the plight of low—wage workers but also professionals who have lost their jobs.
MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC Inderjit Singh made an impassioned speech about how the government may be pushing companies unnecessarily beyond the tipping point, with the pace of restructuring.
He said companies should be given at least a five—year plan, a pace that is more reasonable.
And he repeated his call for a minimum wage system, with government support.
Mr Inderjit Singh said: "Some say that the minimum wage adds to the cost problems for companies. I therefore am suggesting a government assisted, time—reducing minimum wage system, something like the Jobs Credit scheme where the employer pays a certain level of wages he can afford and the government tops up the rest needed to make up the minimum wage.
"There can be a 5—year decline in the government top—up which zeroes out in the 6th year and then the company needs to pay the full minimum wage from the 6th year.
"For companies, what this means is that they will have a clear roadmap of a reduction of the foreign workforce quotas — a 5—year reduction and also a 5—year roadmap of having to pay higher wages.
"This will be an excellent way to compel companies to restructure and work seriously on productivity and if they fail to do so, then they will know that it is not viable for them to operate in Singapore and may perhaps have to relocate. We will therefore not artificially kill companies too early.
"We must have greater confidence that Singaporeans with minimum wage will not be a deterrent for employers. We have many things going for us — good infrastructure, good connectivity with global markets, good financial system, stable government, hardworking workforce and low taxes. These will be enough to balance any negativity, if any, that may arise out of a minimum wage."
Mr Singh said that in Singapore, the minimum wage could be $1,500, which will allow Singaporeans and their families to have "a basic decent quality of life, based on current cost structures".
"If we pay people well, they will do the job," he said.
MP for Tampines GRC Irene Ng suggested setting a "living wage" that is calculated based on the basic cost of living in the country.
She said this is not a legally enforceable minimum level of pay. But it will help the authorities assess if employers are paying workers reasonably, she said.
While some MPs supported the idea of a "Singaporean first" policy at the workplace, Nominated MP Tan Su Shan cautioned against measures to excessively curb the flow of talent into Singapore and risk giving the country the xenophobic tag.
Ms Tan said: "We need to be mindful that the international community is watching. When the BBC and boards of international companies start asking ’if Singapore becoming xenophobic?’, we need to ask why.
"Whilst it may be that we were too open over the last ten years, are we now going cold turkey? Whilst I agree with policies in the Budget to help the lower—paid Singaporeans, I would caution against continued measures to excessively curb the flow of talents.
"After all, we should be proud of our Singapore brand and our international reputation as a good place to live and work, and we should accept that as long as we keep this reputation, there will always be people who wish to join us.
"While it’s healthy to slow down, to rebuild, to be more selective in our immigration process, we need to tell the world Singapore is not afraid to welcome good talent who can take us to the next stage of growth."
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