SINGAPORE: Members of Parliament (MP) on Thursday (Feb 25) discussed issues involving women, youths, sustainability and Singapore’s fiscal position on the second day of the Budget 2021 debate.
In particular, they suggested how to better support women, hear youth voices, preserve parks and forests, and balance Singapore’s coffers, as the Government looks to revive its economy amid the global COVID-19 pandemic.
The Government has already spent nearly S$100 billion in five Budgets over the last financial year to help Singapore cushion the impact of COVID-19, racking up a deficit of S$64.9 billion or 13.9 per cent of GDP, its largest since independence.
Minister of State for Social and Family Development Sun Xueling (PAP-Punggol West) said on Thursday that COVID-19 has brought challenges to women, including increasing the stress of caregiving, financial instability or the risk of violence.
While Parliamentary Secretary for Health Rahayu Mahzam (PAP-Jurong) praised this year’s Budget for helping sectors with a high representation of women and addressing their immediate concerns, she acknowledged some gaps that need to be worked on.
“Gender bias and stereotypes and the disparity between men and women continue to exist,” she said.
“That is one of the reasons why the Conversations on Women’s Development was started, to encourage a whole-of-society discussion on this to nudge behaviours and call for changes that benefit not just women, but the whole community.”
READ: Singapore to embark on a review of women’s issues in move towards greater gender equality, leading to White Paper next year
The conversations, launched in September last year, seek to take a comprehensive look at issues that impact women at home, workplaces, schools and the community.
Mdm Rahayu said these efforts are ongoing, with “much still to be done” to spark meaningful change in mindsets and systems “so that our boys and girls in the future have equal opportunities to pursue their full potential”.
Moving on to women caregivers, MP Joan Pereira (PAP-Tanjong Pagar) called on the Health Ministry to better support caregivers of those with mental conditions, pointing out that Singapore’s rapidly ageing population would lead to more age-related mental health cases.
“They need better access to information and guidance with care navigation,” she said.
Ms Pereira urged the Government to train and upgrade more mental healthcare professionals to support persons with mental health issues as well as to help maintain the caregivers’ own mental health.
“We must provide career counselling, guidance and training for caregivers who would like to start or return to work, including part-time and flexi-work,” she added.
Ms Sun said women often play important roles as caregivers in families, noting that the Government is increasing its annual spending on the early childhood sector to more than S$2 billion per annum within the next few years.
“These efforts help women, by giving women real choices, as they give women peace of mind should they decide to go back to work when they have a young child,” she said.
As part of the Conversations on Singapore Women’s Development, Ms Sun said the Government has conducted 31 sessions and engaged more than 1,700 individuals so far, including youths, working mothers, homemakers, women leaders and men.
“Many women and men have shared feedback on how women can be supported in the workplace and in their career aspirations, such as having more women in corporate leadership positions and putting in place formal and informal mentorship and networking platforms for women leaders to support and learn from each other,” she said.
READ: WP MPs question lack of women in COVID-19 economic task force, role of President in use of reserves
Ms Sun highlighted the Council for Board Diversity (CBD) as one platform that looks into having more women on boards.
The CBD promotes “sustained increases” in the number of women on boards of SGX-listed companies, statutory boards and Institutions of a Public Character by encouraging organisations to be more diverse and proactively identifying and grooming potential board-ready women, she said.
“Our women leaders play key roles in our IPCs, as leaders or board members,” she stated.
LISTENING TO YOUTH
Several MPs also urged the need to pay youths more attention. For one, Nominated MP Shahira Abdullah noted that this group is concerned about issues such as job security, sustainability and mental wellness - often taking to social media to voice their opinions.
“Youth have a lot to say and contribute … It still seems like many would like to see the Government take note of their views and opinions, acknowledge that they have listened and show how their participation has helped to shape future policies,” said Ms Shahira.
She also noted the strong potential of youth in the Malay community, citing this group’s strong desire to contribute to society.
“We need to tap on our promising Malay youth bulge. I believe that the Budget should try to further leverage on this by providing more platforms to develop their leadership potential and volunteer with the community,” she added.
When it comes to helping youths facing adversities, MP Rachel Ong (PAP-West Coast) pushed for a “consistent long-term mentoring programme” amid the social and family development ministry’s plans to expand its Community Link, or ComLink programme.
She said that in her experience, consistent mentoring lasting at least a year has proven itself to be the most effective form of intervention.
Three main benefits of such a programme are: Giving youth the assurance they are not alone; helping them recognise their value; and helping them break “self-limiting beliefs”, she said.
“My hope is that through ComLink, long-term mentoring will be of easy access for our 10- to 16-year-olds to effect mindset growth and a healthier worldview,” she added.
Building on the topic of mental health, Parliamentary Secretary for Social and Family Development Eric Chua (PAP-Tanjong Pagar) said a key issue is “to help youngsters suffering silently from mental health issues to normalise help-seeking”.
“For our youth, whether they're coping with home-based learning or transitioning from student to working adult life, the pandemic has only made an already stressful rite of passage even more daunting,” said Mr Chua.
Moving on to the environment, MP Dennis Tan (WP-Hougang) welcomed that the Government was aiming to plant a million trees by 2030 under the Singapore Green Plan, but called for greater legal protection for secondary forests.
He said that while activities that may damage trees within nature parks are regulated, the mechanisms by which these activities are regulated as well as the penalties for contravention are “much less robust than those applicable to areas designated as nature reserves in the same law.
Mr Tan pointed to the recent erroneous clearing of forested spaces in Kranji Woodlands as a “prime example”, where the offending contractor has “gotten away” with a stern warning and developer JTC has not faced any legal consequences so far.
READ: JTC accepts ‘supervisory responsibilities’ for Kranji woodland site; about 4.5ha cleared by mistake
“The Workers’ Party thus reiterates our call on the Government to commit to providing more secondary forests with greater legal protection, with some of these areas regulated as nature reserves, while simple recreational areas could be allowed in other areas, but with more stringent rules and penalties than is currently enforced in public parks,” he said.
“By legislating to this end, Parliament will send a clear signal to not only future generations but to various actors including contractors, ministries and statutory boards, and the Government itself that the destruction of forested areas will come at a cost.”
MP Hany Soh (PAP-Marsiling-Yew Tee) also welcomed the 1 million trees target, saying that it will provide natural infrastructure that cools the environment, improves air quality and provides more places for families to bond and stay active.
“With that said, I believe that there is a dire need for us to ensure that our parks and the facilities within them remain a safe environment of all users,” she said.
On Feb 18, a 38-year-old woman died after she was trapped under a fallen tree at Marsiling Park. The National Parks Board (NParks) said the 20m-tall Araucaria excelsa tree was last inspected in April last year and found to be healthy.
She suggested that the Government adopts measures such as selecting suitable trees and plants, locating planting areas away from crowded areas, and has “strict” maintenance regimes to check the health of trees periodically.
“At the same time, I also hope that NParks will work with the grassroots committees to organise more awareness workshops, sharing tips on how to recognise potential hazards in parks and what to do when a park-related accident occurs,” she added.
“Together, we can work as a community to prevent any unfortunate accidents from happening.”
A number of MPs also sought clarification about the country’s fiscal strategy and position, as Singapore dug into its past reserves for a second consecutive year to fund Budget measures.
MP Cheryl Chan (PAP-East Coast) expressed concern over national spending, asking if Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat will be outlining how and when these amounts would be returned to the coffers.
READ: Budget 2021: Expected deficit of S$11 billion; Government to draw on reserves for 2nd straight year
She said that such spending is presently justified, but cautioned against thinking of the Budget as an “annual rite” with “goodies”, for instance.
This is especially so against a backdrop of tighter government revenue and escalating costs, she said.
“It is important that we first try to think how to stretch our existing resources, our every dollar, instead of cultivating a mentality that we have a reserve to dip into,” Ms Chan said.
On the topic of borrowing, some MPs asked about the Government’s plans to issue bonds to fund major, long-term infrastructure under an upcoming legislation, the Significant Infrastructure Government Loan Act (SINGA).
MP Saktiandi Supaat (PAP-Bishan-Toa Payoh) asked about the likelihood - in a worst case scenario where the borrowing limit is hit - of making an exception to the principle that a government will not pass a funding deficit to the next.
In the name of inclusivity, Mr Saktiandi also suggested allowing the public to invest in any future green bonds or long-term infrastructure bonds by the Government.
Meanwhile, MP Jamus Lim (WP-Sengkang) mooted extending the maturity of SINGA bonds to 50, or even 100 years.
“This would lock in the currently very favourable low rates for a much longer period, as befitting truly long-term projects,” said Associate Professor Lim.
He also suggested benchmarking the speed of debt issuance against prevailing growth conditions. One warning sign, he said, is when the interest rate begins to consistently outpace growth rates.