03 December 2014

Rejecting Sensible Amendment To Pioneer Generation Fund Bill

During the debate on the Pioneer Generation Fund Bill on 3 November 2014, Nominated Member of Parliament Chia Yong Yong said:

"I speak in support of the Pioneer Generation Fund Bill.…

It is heartening that the healthcare-related schemes announced to-date by the Government under the Pioneer Generation Package do not require means-testing.…

In this context, it is noted that clause 3 of the Bill states the purpose of the Act as 'to recognise and honour the participation and sacrifice of Singapore's Pioneers in the development of Singapore by providing to them who are now elderly and are or may be in need of financial relief, assistance or other support to meet their healthcare costs, and other costs of living in Singapore.' The Explanatory Statement to the Bill is similarly worded.

… I would like to draw the attention of the House to the phrase 'and are/ or may be in need of financial relief'. This phrase suggests that for a scheme to qualify for funding under the Pioneer Generation Fund, the disbursement of monies or provision of benefits to any Pioneer must be subject to means-testing or differentiation on the ground of financial need. If so, a scheme that benefits Pioneers without the requirement for means-testing would not qualify for funding under the Pioneer Generation Fund. That would be inconsistent with the declared intentions that the existing, the announced healthcare-related schemes should be drawn from the Pioneer Generation Fund because the current announced schemes do not require means-testing.

To address the foregoing concern, as well as concerns as to whether a Pioneer participated and made sacrifices in the development of Singapore, the language in clause 3 may be amended by replacing 'them who are now elderly and are or may be in need of' with simply 'Pioneers'. This would remove doubts as to whether the Pioneer Generation Package healthcare-related schemes as announced are eligible for funding under the Pioneer Generation Fund and would also grant the Government greater flexibility in designing and qualifying future schemes under the Pioneer Generation Fund. I do recognise that there are other possible interpretations of clause 3. But I would suggest that we should make a plain reading plain."

Senior Minister of State for Finance and Transport Josephine Teo replied:

"The Government does not intend to introduce means-testing to the Pioneer Generation Package. The intent of the Package is to honour and recognise the contributions of all Pioneers in nation-building regardless of their financial status. As such, they receive similar special benefits on top of healthcare subsidies which the Government already provides for all Singaporeans.

… [S]ection 3 is an acknowledgement that our pioneers are likely to be less well-off and be in need of greater assistance. It is meant to reflect a fact and not to signal the Government’s intent to restrict pioneer benefits to the financially needy. So, I want to make that clarification and I hope that Ms Chia would be willing to accept this clarification, which is also a matter of record in this debate."

The Bill was read a second time and committed to a Committee of the whole House, which immediately resolved itself into a Committee on the Bill.

Ms Chia distributed copies of her amendment to Members, the effect of which would be to amend clause 3 from:

"The purpose of this Act is to recognise and honour the participation and sacrifice of Singapore's Pioneers in the development of Singapore by providing them who are now elderly and are or may be in need of financial relief, assistance or other support to meet their healthcare costs, and other costs of living in Singapore."

to:

"The purpose of this Act is to recognise and honour the participation and sacrifice of Singapore's Pioneers in the development of Singapore by providing Pioneers financial relief, assistance or other support to meet their healthcare costs, and other costs of living in Singapore."

As Ms Chia had not given adequate notice of her amendment, it required, and was given, the consent of the Chair and the general assent of the Members present. Mrs Teo again tried to persuade Ms Chia to drop her amendment:

"I would like to humbly request Ms Chia to reconsider tabling this notice of amendment. As I have explained … the intent of the Pioneer Generation Fund Bill is really not to restrict the benefits at all. The line in which she referred to in section 3 in fact is merely a statement of a fact. This clarification would already stand part of parliamentary records."

Ms Chia responded:

"I have heard the Senior Minister of State. I think, all the more, if the intention is that we do not wish to conduct any means-testing, that we should remove any doubt that financial need may be a criterion in any scheme that is to benefit under the Fund.

This is to avoid any argument subsequently that a scheme had been improperly administered because it fell outside or did not satisfy clause 3 because there was no requirement for financial differentiation. I would urge the Senior Minister of State to consider and advise me accordingly."

Mrs Teo tried again:

"[Clause 3] more or less falls within the preamble of the Bill. In the preamble of the Bill, we described the intent of the Bill. In describing the intent of the Bill, we provide the background as to why the Government has decided to put forward a package that would provide relief to Pioneers in their twilight years. It is meant to focus on supporting them in their healthcare expenses.

One of the reasons that we provide for putting out the Pioneer Generation Package is to record the fact that in the earlier years of nation building, many of our citizens would not have been in a position to save very much or to accumulate balances that would help them in their retirement years. And that is primarily because their wages were not very high in those years. So it is really intended as a provision of a background, and I think it has to be read in that context. That is why I reiterate, and really hope that Ms Chia can take it from that perspective."

Ms Chia was undeterred and determined to have her amendment put to the House. It was defeated, however, and the Bill was passed without amendment. Mrs Teo then said:

"As you have indicated, Madam, the notice for amendment came very late. It really has not given us enough time to consider this. I wonder if it may be possible to put this to a vote at a later time, possibly tomorrow, because we are likely to have to sit tomorrow."

The Chairman corrected Mrs Teo:

"Mrs Teo, assent has already been given to move it, but Members have not agreed to the amendment. There has been a strong endorsement to say "No" to the amendment.… So, the amendment is not accepted because majority of the Members of the House do not agree to the amendment."

Mrs Teo said:

"Although the Bill would be passed, I think we want to make a note that we will still take a look at the Bill again, and if it is possible to do so, introduce a Notice of Amendment. So, I just wanted to put that on record."

On the following day (4 November 2014), Mrs Teo told Parliament:

"We have taken a look at the Bill in the short time since, and agree that we should refine clause 3 to better convey the intent of the Pioneer Generation Package and avoid any doubt that the fund could become restricted to providing relief to only the financially needy. We will formulate this amendment and bring it to Parliament when it is opportune to do so, most likely together with a Bill of an appropriate nature."

Conclusions
I have reproduced relevant parts of the debate in detail because it is necessary for an appreciation of its absurdity.

Although Mrs Teo agreed with Ms Chia that means testing was not intended at any time, she was determined to convince Ms Chia not to proceed with her amendment. Instead of resolutely defending an indefensible position, she could have saved everyone's time by agreeing to Ms Chia's amendment, which would have made a plain reading plain.

But it isn't simply a matter of saving time; it is a matter of principle. Unfortunately, most of the Members present did not grasp the important principle.

The Members strongly rejected the amendment. Since the ruling People's Action Party ("PAP") has an overwhelming majority in the House, this probably means that most (or all) of the PAP Members rejected a common sense amendment that almost anyone else would have easily understood and readily accepted.

Was this because the Government Whip (Minister for Health Gan Kim Yong) or, in his absence, the Deputy Government Whip (Senior Minister of State for Health Amy Khor Lean Suan) did not lift the Government whip — in which case, we must wonder why Mr Gan (or, in his absence, Ms Khor) did not, could not or would not see the wisdom in Ms Chia's amendment?

If it was not a question of lifting the Government whip, we must wonder why many (or most or all) of the PAP Members did not, could not or would not see the wisdom in Ms Chia's amendment, and vote accordingly. Were they really persuaded by Mrs Teo's flimsy arguments that no amendment was necessary?

Ms Chia's amendment is straightforward and simple to understand. If the Government's position is that the Pioneer Generation benefits will not be subject to means testing, the Government has no choice but to adopt her amendment. It is pointless and silly to argue that there will not be any means testing on the one hand and have a phrase in the Bill that states that the Pioneer Generation benefits will be provided to Pioneers who are or may be in need of financial relief, assistance or other support to meet their healthcare costs, and other costs of living in Singapore. Rejecting the amendment leaves a serious contradiction in the Bill.

What were the Members thinking?

By the way, Ms Chia is not a member of an opposition party.

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Notes

1. Excerpts were taken from Singapore Parliament Reports 3 Nov 2014 and 4 Nov 2014.

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