SINGAPORE: Members of Parliament (MPs) welcomed the slew of economic and social initiatives announced in Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat’s debut Budget statement on Thursday (Mar 24).
“This year’s Budget has a lot of enhancements and new schemes to benefit workers,” said Mr Patrick Tay, chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Manpower.
“There are a few segments who will benefit greatly, such as the low-wage workers with the enhancements to the Workfare Income Supplement (WIS), bringing up the ceiling, having monthly payouts and also increased amounts,” he said. “For seniors, I’m glad to know the Special Employment Credit (SEC) will be extended for another three years to 2019. That will benefit employers and also encourage the hiring of older workers, what with our aging workforce.”
Mr Tay also praised the Adapt and Grow initiative, which aims to help workers with changing job and skillset demands. “The exact details are not out yet, but we know there’ll be greater wage support to help PMEs (professionals, managers and executives) get jobs and also encourage employers to hire them - including more Professional Conversion Programmes (PCPs) for PMEs who’ve been laid off or are doing mid-career switches.”
On the multiple measures to promote industry innovation, Mr Tay told Channel NewsAsia that the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and the Labour Movement have been pushing for the progressive wage model on top of “progressive practices in terms of innovation and productivity”.
“There’s greater support in terms of resources through this innovation fund, but I think more importantly it’s for employers and businesses, especially SMEs (small- and medium-sized enterprises) to have a major mental shift, to embrace technology and innovate in various processes and in the way they do business,” he added.
“COST” OF INNOVATION
Deputy chairman of the Manpower GPC, Mr Zainal Sapari, echoed Mr Tay’s points on the WIS and support for innovation. “I'm very heartened the Government will continue to give the WIS and raise the income eligibility criteria as well as the payouts,” he said. “But I think more importantly, support is being given to workers for them to acquire new skills for them to remain relevant and hopefully find new jobs.”
“I think it's important the Government continues to support companies to increase their productivity as well as take the initiative to innovate their processes,” said Mr Zainal. “What's required now is to simplify the process of applying for all these grants, and the Minister of Finance announced there will be a one-stop centre where all these grants will be consolidated and make it easier for SMEs to tap on all the support given to them. With this better support, there is a higher chance they'll remain in Singapore and create more employment opportunities.”
He added that it is often not a case of companies being reluctant to innovate, but rather hindered by cost issues. “With support given by the Government, there will be less obstacles for them to take the initiative to be more productive as well as review their work processes to innovate better,” he said.”
“GOOD NEWS” FOR FAMILIES
On the social front, MPs Channel NewsAsia spoke to hailed the potential benefits for young and lower-income families.
“I’m heartened and excited that the Government continues to focus and give priority to giving the children of Singapore a good start in life,” said Ms Tin Pei Ling, who is deputy chairperson of the GPC for Social and Family Development. “With the additional S$3,000 top-up to the CDA (Child Development Account) focusing on healthcare and even childcare, this will give a lot of financial relief to young parents and especially parents who may have lesser means to begin with and I think this is good news.”
She added: “At the same time, I see KidSTART, although it's a pilot programme, it's something I look forward to with great anticipation as well. I hope it will also focus on children who may come from more vulnerable backgrounds - perhaps single-parent families or families with very complex situations - because at the end of the day, I believe what we want to do is cultivate our young Singaporeans to make sure they have a good start and hopefully as equal lives as possible.
“So that despite the trying circumstances parents may be facing, they will continue to be able to thrive; they will not be deprived of the opportunity to learn; and they will flourish in our system,” said Ms Tin.
“HELP CHILDREN ACHIEVE DREAMS”
Mr Desmond Choo, who also sits on the GPC for Social and Family Development, agreed with Ms Tin on the relief offered for lower-income families.
“This Budget is very welcome news for young families, especially those in the ‘sandwiched class’ or lower-income ones,” he said. “The additional S$3,000 will pay for different medical expenses and will come in very useful. We also hear the Government is going to increase the amount you can take from Medisave for pre-delivery from S$450 to S$900. I thought this is very welcome as well, in terms of trying to raise a family. Any bit of disposable cash support I think will come in very useful.”
Mr Choo also praised the Budget’s focus on lower-income children “who might need some support to get ahead in life”. “I think this is part of the Government’s larger move to level up the playing field by allowing children from below six years old to tap on various Government resources to get better in school and better at home. This will go quite in some way to help children achieve their dreams and realise the Singapore dream.”
Meanwhile, Mr Saktiandi Supaat, who is part of the GPC for National Development, said that the Fresh Start Housing Scheme, put together with the CDA First Step grant, was about helping secure “the future”.
“Especially for families who've actually owned a home before, are currently staying in a rental flat, most importantly have children, and who want to own a home - they can probably move to a two-room flat and have a shorter lease, making it more affordable for them to own a new house,” said Mr Saktiandi.
‘WE WANT TO CREATE AN INCLUSIVE SOCIETY’
Ms Denise Phua, chairperson of the Education GPC, expressed delight that groups such senior citizens and those with special needs were “still remembered in the Budget as usual”.
“That’s really the right direction to go because we want to create an inclusive society,” she said. “The SEC has been something to incentivise employers to employ people with special needs and I think it should continue beyond two years. I also think it’s very good that the workfare training schemes definitively include people with special needs.”
But Ms Phua said there were two “gaps” which she hoped would be addressed for the next financial year. “One, how we can better support people with more severe needs, who have higher support needs, because this is the group encountering quite a lot of difficulties,” she explained. “The other is to ensure lifelong training and how all the good things happening in SkillsFuture have people with special needs solidly included.”
The Silver Support Scheme is also an essential “piece in the safety net” for senior and vulnerable groups, said Ms Phua.
“The Public Assistance Scheme, which has been ongoing for a while, reaches out to a very small number - the lowest income or no-income group,” she said. “Therefore one group just above that, the 20 to 30 per cent segment, this is the group we need to help and this is where Silver Support comes in, to ensure that those neither very affluent or poor enough to be on the Public Assistance Scheme are included in the safety net.”
‘INCENTIVE’ FOR YOUTHS
Ms Phua also weighed in on the National Outdoor Adventure Education Masterplan, noting that “building resilience in young people has always been part of the ministry’s masterplan in terms of character development”.
“This is one important piece to provide a structured way of learning and to reach out to as many students as possible,” she said. “But we all know that building resilience and character is more than a one-camp affair, and that on a daily basis we still need to see how we can develop a masterplan to allow people to develop good values, apply good values and to even ensure physical resilience and exercise … We need to ensure that youths’ character building in terms of cleaning schools and helping and caring for the rest of society must be included in their education.”
Nominated Member of Parliament Kuik Shiao-Yin said the new S$25 million Our Singapore Fund as “a great incentive” for young Singaporeans “to just go for it”.
“What the SG50 year showed was that there’s a great appetite on the ground for crazy ideas on how to build communities,” said the entrepreneur. “News that there’s continuation of that will sow even more excitement. Young people always love to have support from the state to do that.”