SM Tharman: ‘No one has a monopoly over compassion’
Tharman and Jamus Lim in spirited debate over minimum wage, policy-making
Raising the standard of living for the poor is a complicated matter, and although there has been significant progress in the past decade, the Government will go further, Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam told Parliament yesterday.
Rising to speak in the midst of a strong debate over Workers' Party (WP) MP Jamus Lim's maiden speech, Mr Tharman said the Government truly believes in the importance of raising the wages of Singapore's lowest-paid workers.
He said: "How do we do it without losing that wage earners' ability to have the pride of having a job and earning a wage?
"We do it through the Progressive Wage Model (PWM), which has to be expanded. We do it through Workfare. We do it through a range of other subsidies... It is not a job that's done for good. We have to do more."
In his speech, Associate Professor Lim (Sengkang GRC) called for greater injection of compassion and thoughtfulness in designing policies, and said the Government privileged efficiency at the expense of equity.
Mr Tharman, however, said no one should assume to have a monopoly over compassion.
"I've listened to speeches over the last few days... some of my PAP (People's Action Party) colleagues really made an impression on me, not just for the very forceful proposals they were making, often going beyond what the Government is doing, but the force of their conviction."
Mr Tharman also warned against making straw man arguments like saying the Government is only interested in efficiency and not equity.
"That's frankly laughable," the Coordinating Minister for Social Policies said.
He sought to play down the differences between universal minimum wage and PWM, calling the latter "minimum wage plus", a phrase also used by Manpower Minister Josephine Teo on Tuesday. He said PWM's sectoral approach allowed the Government to set a minimum rung that is not too low or too high.
Prof Lim, in his speech, called for the implementation of a minimum wage, arguing it would have a limited impact on unemployment. This drew a sharp rebuke from several PAP MPs.
Minister of State for Manpower and Education Gan Siow Huang agreed that policymakers should exercise and demonstrate compassion.
But she said a minimum wage could cause more distress.
"Under current times, when businesses are being challenged and we are in a period of recession, there is a very real risk that if we were to introduce minimum wage... across all sectors, I think many of our lower-wage workers may lose their jobs."
Senior Minister of State for Manpower and Defence Zaqy Mohamad said it takes time to expand PWM to more sectors as the union, the Government and the employers have to come to a position that is bearable.
In response, Prof Lim argued that Singapore should think about implementing policies such as a minimum wage in a time of crisis because it "concentrates the mind".
"There is no doubt that at this very moment, such a policy may not be ideal. But let us come together and agree that this is a principle we want to roll out. So when we set these plans in place after the storm has passed, we can easily bring them to pass."
Prof Lim said over-engineered systems run the risk of being gamed, and he argued in his speech that the PWM's upskilling incentives were loopholes for employers to retain workers on the lowest wages.
WP MP Leon Perera (Aljunied GRC) asked Mr Zaqy if there was room for policy improvements for low-wage workers not covered by PWM. He also said a considerable body of academic research suggests minimum wage is not a danger to jobs, rather it is setting the minimum wage too high.
Prof Lim said he was not suggesting that he, his party nor any individual had monopoly over compassion. "That was explicitly why I did cite cases where I felt existing policy demonstrated oodles of compassion. I even cited other members not from our party who have also talked about compassion.
"I actually believe, like Minister Tharman does, that there is not as much of a gap between the thinking of the two (on the need for compassion."
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