SINGAPORE: Parliament’s debate on Budget 2017 continued on Wednesday (Mar 1), with the focus remaining squarely on support measures for workers and businesses amid a challenging economic landscape, as well as the impact of the water price increase.
Apart from that, Members of Parliament (MPs) also spoke on the rise of the gig economy, fostering an inclusive society and cultivating a collective responsibility for the environment.
Here are six themes that came out of Day 2 of the debate.
1) HELPING WORKERS
There were suggestions aplenty on how to support the local workforce as six labour MPs, including labour chief Chan Chun Sing, rose to speak.
Amid calls for workers to adopt digital skills, West Coast GRC MP Patrick Tay suggested setting up a Digital Disruption Awareness and Development programme - an initiative similar to the Best/Wise programme decades ago that focused on building the numeracy and literacy skills of workers.
Mr Tay also proposed SkillsFuture Credit top-ups of S$500 every three to five years, so as to nudge workers to continue the path of learning and engage the services of professional career coaches.
Nominated MP K Thanaletchimi mooted the idea of the Government partnering the labour movement to assist workers employed by struggling firms. “These workers can leverage programmes such as the ‘Adapt and Grow’, and transit into new employment before the company winds down. These workers can plan and start to up-skill and re-skill to enhance their employability.”
Labour MPs also called for a lending hand to be extended to workers who face difficulty in their job search. In particular, Singaporeans who have returned to the country after spending time overseas are among those who have “fallen through the cracks”. To help these workers, Jurong GRC MP Ang Wei Neng suggested the establishment of a cross-ministry working committee.
In the meantime, as the tax-filing season draws near, MP for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC Saktiandi Supaat suggested a tax relief of 20 to 30 per cent for displaced workers, as well as for tax payment to be spread out over a longer period or even be deferred under unique circumstances.
2) MANAGING THE GIG ECONOMY
The technology-fuelled rise of the gig economy was another hot topic on Wednesday.
While acknowledging the benefits, several MPs noted that this new form of employment renders workers at risk of income stability or late payment issues. They could also miss out on statutory protection and benefits which may mean inadequate savings for medical and retirement needs.
Freelancers could also “end up doing the same role forever” given the lack of opportunities for skill development and career progression, said Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC MP Ong Teng Koon.
Labour MP Ang Hin Kee suggested the taxi industry be an inspiration for ideas on how to forge a support network for freelancers.
“A mediation centre was set up in 2014 as a collaboration between the Land Transport Authority, the National Taxi Association and taxi operators, to handle disputes … The union also works with the taxi operators to facilitate training of the drivers, setting up of a hardship fund to offer financial aid to taxi drivers in need. Furthermore, taxi operators also co-contribute to their hirers’ Medisave contribution to help them save up,” he explained.
Jurong GRC MP Tan Wu Meng proposed the use of data to “testbed new ways to assess an employer’s CPF contribution responsibilities”. This could be done in sandboxed sectors where the gig economy can be clearly defined, he suggested.
Mr Saktiandi said the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices (TAFEP) needs to have “more investigative and authoritative powers”. Apart from protecting vulnerable groups such as older workers, the TAFEP can help to ensure that workers who perform on-demand tasks “are treated fairly and are not exploited by employers”, he said.
3) RAISING PRODUCTIVITY, DIGITISATION OF SMES
Commenting on the support measures for local businesses, Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC MP Chong Kee Hiong suggested introducing a “Buy Singapore” requirement.
“Buy Singapore should apply to both goods and services. From locally produced fish and vegetables when catering for meals at events to engaging the services of a Singaporean IT company, as long as the specifications are met and fees are reasonable, we should support Singapore suppliers and vendors,” he said. “Such a campaign will also send a signal to market and individual consumers. If you don’t support our own, who will?’”
On how Singapore can better achieve progress in productivity, Tanjong Pagar GRC MP Melvin Yong said centralising and pooling resources could help small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) tap economies of scale and raise productivity levels.
While many MPs agreed on the need to digitise, Hougang MP Png Eng Huat warned that technology could become a novelty, instead of a productivity-enhancing tool.
He raised the example of a dessert stall in People’s Park Complex Food Centre which in 2006 invested in a touchscreen computer to take orders.
“I proceeded to order via the touchscreen and waited. The lady looked at me in anticipation. I looked back at her and tried to hint with my eyes that I had just ordered my dessert via the touchscreen system. There was a queue forming and she snapped suddenly and said, ‘Ai simi?’, which means ‘What do you want?’. The touchscreen system was not broken but it was not much of a use,” Mr Png recalled.
4) THE WATER PRICE INCREASE
The water price hike remained a hot topic for MPs.
MP for Marine Parade GRC Seah Kian Peng suggested that the Government consider introducing periodic water rationing. Describing the move as an “inoculation against the environmental realities that are to come”, he said this water rationing could be done not just in times of drought, but during “peace time”, similar to Australia’s “water restrictions”.
“Singaporeans born after 1964 have never experienced water rationing,” he said. “They do not know the experience of having to go without water, or bear the weight of 130 litres of water that we would need if we take a long shower of 15 minutes.”
“These things are not learnt by increasing water bills from S$30 a month to S$35 or even S$40,” he added. “They are learnt by personal experience and emotions.”
Mr Png, who is from the opposition Workers' Party, called on the Government to be more transparent with the justification for the price hike.
“No time is a good time to increase prices, but if this Government is bent on raising the price of an essential commodity by 30 per cent, it is certainly the right time to open the books to Singaporeans to justify the increase,” he said.
In response to the points made by MPs, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli stressed that water will still be affordable overall and will remain at about 1 per cent of household income.
He added that despite Singapore’s investments in desalination and NEWater, the truth is that Singapore is still a water-stressed nation. “We hope (that) through right pricing, everyone will cultivate the habit of water saving as part of our DNA, whether we are a household or business."
5) KEEPING SOCIETY INCLUSIVE; NOT LETTING ANYONE FALL BEHIND
MPs also spoke on the importance of ensuring that the disadvantaged in society do not get left behind.
Nominated MP Kuik Shiao-Yin spoke at length highlighting the plight of Singapore’s working poor. “GST U-Save vouchers, education subsidies, weekly food donations ... these are all greatly appreciated things,” she said. “But for some of our struggling families, all these good and helpful gestures still feel like drops in a constantly leaking bucket.”
These people, she said, are the ones who are left out and left behind by Singapore’s “yearly calls to upskill, internationalise and innovate ... Not because they don’t care, not because they’re lazy, but because they’re just busy trying not to drown under wave after wave of new demands and new costs, and new changes to their world.”
MP for Jurong GRC Rahayu Mahzam pointed out a “whole spectrum” of people with varying needs and called on the Government to ensure that it does not lose sight of them in crafting policies and programmes.
She also stressed the need to rally people to help each other. “It is very easy for people to forget about others when they are caught up in their own issues and difficulties,” she said, suggesting that there should be efforts to promote a culture of giving back to the community through education and conversations with people in the community.
In light of the increase in diesel costs and water prices, NMP K Thanaletchimi lauded the support schemes for families to cope with the cost of living. However, she noted that middle-class Singaporeans in particular would feel the brunt of these increases.
“Short-term help for such families would be welcome, especially when companies are expected to be prudent with wage increase and bonuses,” she said. “More should be done to assist them.”
Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Chan Chun Sing also spoke on the issue. He said he is “very proud” that when it comes to “the kind of society that we aspire to be”, members in the House always mention two words - inclusive and mobile.
“But every time we talk about the difficult issue of tax increase, or even taxes, we hear a lot of calls from many Members (of Parliament) to say, can you give a bit more to some sectors of society?” he said.
Mr Chan said that every additional dollar that the Government gives to someone will mean a dollar less for someone else. “If we are all politicians, we will all speak up for those who need more,” he said. “But if we are political leaders, then we have to face the issue squarely. That in every society, how do we distribute the finite resources that we have?”
Mr Chan stressed that in order for Singapore to “make a statement”, “we as a society will lean forward to help those who need a bit more help”, and it is necessary that “some of us who are more privileged will have to foot a bigger bill”.
6) MORE LOVE FOR THE ENVIRONMENT
Nominated MP Randolph Tan urged the Government to consider “price corrections” in dealing with other environmental issues in “urgent need of attention” such as electronic waste generation.
He said: “The issue is not how much clean water we still have or where the current threats to our environmental air quality lie. The issue is much broader and has to do with our collective responsibility for the environment and societal development."
“By ensuring that pricing is imposed on both water and pollution, Singapore is not just taking a responsible leadership role in pushing forward the agenda for dealing with climate change. We will also be putting in place incentives for nurturing the development of technologies whose global economic potential is rapidly expanding,” Mr Tan added.
Nee Soon GRC MP Lee Bee Wah outlined five points the Government could do more in this aspect: Invest more in infrastructure for green energy; step up efforts to reduce consumption while making recycling more accessible and raising awareness of what will contaminate recyclables; promote the use and production of electric vehicles; apply the same emission standards on foreign cars coming into Singapore; and lastly, mitigate the impact of higher water prices on local production costs that could in turn help local companies to maintain their competitiveness.
Bukit Panjang MP Teo Ho Pin said that while he thinks the upcoming carbon tax could motivate firms to innovate with cleaner and greener energy sources, he is concerned about whether it would increase business costs which will ultimately be passed down to consumers.
Meanwhile, Sembawang GRC MP Lim Wee Kiak said he was “deeply concerned” and asked for the Government’s take on how challenging it would be to cut greenhouse emissions to meet Singapore’s commitments under the Paris Agreement. He also wanted to know how Singapore is performing in terms of carbon emissions and whether the Government would introduce a new climate bill to complement the carbon tax.
Both MPs called for the Government to explore greater use of solar energy, given that the cost of solar panels has reduced over the years. Mr Teo suggested the provision of a one-off grant to expedite the greening of community centres in Singapore. Citing the example of Bukit Panjang CC which spent S$400,000 to install energy-efficient air-conditioners and LED lights, he said that community centres can play a pivotal role to encourage residents to adopt a green lifestyle.