Now that Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat has delivered this year’s Budget, and with the Ministry of Finance (MOF) working to explain the different components of his speech, the brouhaha last month surrounding the MOF’s engagement of young “online micro-influencers” to publicise the Budget appears to be more symptomatic of a deeper malaise: That the government struggles to meaningfully communicate its policies. The communication is a familiar it-is-what-it-is approach, characterised by missed opportunities to explain how policy decisions – when compared against alternatives – were made, and in the process dispel myths or misconceptions.
This is especially important in the context of the Budget (and perhaps of socio-economic policies too), when issues are normative – based on subjective opinions – and not necessarily positive. Decisions on issues are, in the words of former NMP Calvin Cheng, “value judgements”. And only by building interest in and knowledge of these matters, can the government foster trust for civic engagement and policy discussions.
And it is these normative perspectives and value judgements – giving insights to policymaking processes – which have not been adequately fleshed out. Take for instance the planned increase of the GST from seven to nine per cent, sometime from 2021 to 2025, and how it has been communicated thus far. In his speech, Mr. Heng said the increase was necessary “because even after exploring various options to manage our future expenditures through prudent spending, saving and borrowing for infrastructure, there is still a gap”, and Senior Minister of State for Finance and Law Indranee Rajah echoed this during a radio call-in programme. “There are a few other things we have explored as well … But [the] GST is the one that will give you, over the long term, a sustained revenue of sufficient amount”, she said.
But what precisely were the “various options” and the “few other things” the government has explored? And how do they compare? An hours-long Budget speech may not be the best platform for these nuances, yet the explanations or discussions could have happened in its aftermath. One of the most common criticisms of the proposed GST hike is its regressive nature, because low-income Singaporeans pay more as a percentage of their income, and I was expecting the MOF to define its position more precisely. No higher personal income taxes for top income earners, because the last raise was fairly recent in 2015, and because the top 10 per cent of taxpayers already pay more than 80 per cent of personal income taxes? No higher corporate taxes, because of the recent tax cuts in the United States and a more competitive global environment? And what about introducing (or reintroducing) wealth taxes, estate duties, or capital gains taxes? To what extent are they feasible or sustainable?
MOF does not necessarily have to share its projections (though researchers or well-informed individuals outside the government could potentially produce useful insights with the data), but the motivation is to allow for more meaningful communication with and among Singaporeans. On one hand it is a move away from the government-knows-best conception, and on the other the increased responsibility-sharing engenders greater trust too.
Fears that such discourse or information may be too esoteric are unjustified. Two related arguments follow. First, the present lack of depth perpetuates a wicked chicken-and-egg cycle, and as a result attempts at communication or even consultation – such as the micro-influencers endeavour – remain superficial. Second, when this easy way out is taken, Singaporeans would become increasingly sceptical, and even turn to online attempts at grandstanding. One of the more viral social media posts lamenting the planned GST hike, which has been reposted by former CEO of NTUC Income Tan Kin Lian, is a list of six generic questions on, among others, the infrastructure expenditure and the defence budget.
It is tempting to dismiss posts like these as uninformed online chatter (which I am oftentimes guilty of doing), yet at the same time they speak to an urgent need for the government to improve how it communicates and consults. It has to, in other words, convince, anticipate counter-arguments, and acknowledge that subjective opinions and value judgements can also be valid. Likewise, Singaporeans who hold opposing views on policies like the Budget ought to talk more to one another. With reference to the aforementioned post, Singaporeans who are convinced of the external threats facing the country will have no issues with the defence budget – and conscription, by extension – though others may not feel the same. The government may be worried that further increases to personal income taxes for top income earners could drive them away from Singapore or may only yield marginal increases in government revenue, but can this be quantified or estimated to present a clearer picture?
Against a background of rising socio-economic inequality and a growing class divide, I agree with sociology professor Teo You Yenn’s argument that public policy regimes – in the context of the Budget and the determination of how public goods are allocated – “must make space for the concrete practice not just of individual choices but also social solidarity” (ST, Feb. 23). As she acknowledges, shifting institutional mechanisms and mind-sets is not a straightforward proposal, and I would add that any broadening of the public discourse starts with the government being more deliberate with its communication and more receptive to feedback, and then reciprocated by a more knowledgeable and trusting citizenry.