Measures in Budget 2020 appropriate for now to deal with COVID-19 challenges: DPM Heng

Measures in Budget 2020 appropriate for now to deal with COVID-19 challenges: DPM Heng

heng swee keat Feb 28
Heng Swee Keat speaks during the Budget 2020 debate on Feb 28, 2020.

SINGAPORE: Singapore’s overall spending in Budget 2020 is “appropriate” for the current challenges brought on by the outbreak of COVID-19, with support being applied to where it matters most, said Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat on Friday (Feb 28).

In the first part of his wrap-up speech delivered on the third day of the debate on the Budget Statement, Mr Heng said: "We have calibrated it to put sufficient purchasing power back into the economy, while injecting a boost of confidence.

“In fact, our budget is higher than what most economists had expected. This took into account the context of the global slowdown and wider uncertainties," he added in a speech where he also announced a special bonus for frontline officers, as well as pay cuts for political office holders and Members of Parliament.

READ: COVID-19: Bonus for public officers on front line; political leaders to take pay cuts

READ: 10 things you need to know about Budget 2020

In his Budget statement on Feb 18, Mr Heng, who is also Finance Minister, announced that Singapore would set aside S$6.4 billion to support frontline agencies, businesses, workers and households to tide through the COVID-19 outbreak.

From this amount, S$800 million will go to supporting frontline agencies in their efforts to contain the COVID-19 outbreak, with the bulk allocated to the Ministry of Health.

There are also two other special packages worth more than S$5 billion. The first is a S$4 billion Stabilisation and Support Package to help firms with their cash flow and retain workers, as well as support sectors that are directly affected. The S$1.6 billion Care and Support Package aims to support households with their expenses.

The Government’s first priority is jobs, with the Jobs Support Scheme and the Wage Credit Scheme – the two biggest items in the special Stabilisation and Support Package – focused on preserving and enhancing jobs, he said.

Small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which employ the bulk of local workers, are a key focus of these two schemes.

“With greater job assurance, workers are in a better frame of mind to go for training. It will also avoid them having to cut down too much on consumption," said Mr Heng.

Sectors that are most impacted by the coronavirus outbreak, such as tourism, accommodation and aviation, also receive extra support that have been calibrated according to the extent to which each sector has been affected. These total up to  more than S$400 million, he said.

Support has also been extended to other groups who have felt the ripple effects of COVID-19, including self-employed persons (SEPs) in the transport, food and beverage and tourism sectors.

“This additional support totals over S$200 million, and is over and above the support from broad-based measures, which form the bulk of the support for them,” said Mr Heng.

The minister noted that several MPs have asked if more could be done for other groups of SEPs and freelancers who are more affected by the outbreak. Details will be announced by the relevant ministries subsequently, he said. 

Meanwhile the measures have also been designed to reach enterprises as quickly as possible, said Mr Heng.

In response to questions from MPs on whether the flow of the payouts under the Jobs Support Scheme can be expedited, he said the initial projection was for the payouts to reach companies by the end of July as the disbursement of payouts “is operationally more complex” due to the need to check and validate information on workers, employers, and payment mode.

READ: Businesses welcome S$4 billion package as timely relief, but some say more help needed

But over the last few weeks, government agencies have redoubled efforts and are now targeting to bring forward the payment for JSS from end-July to end-May.

Employers using bank crediting will get the payout about a week earlier, he added, while enhancements to the Wage Credit Scheme will be provided in the second half of this year.

He noted that these new measures come on top of the existing support schemes for firms, such as the Wage Credit Scheme payout of more than S$600 million to firms next month based on the parameters announced in Budget 2018.

Mr Heng said the Stabilisation and Support Package should be looked at in totality, given how there are other measures such as the property tax rebate to qualifying commercial properties and rental waivers for Government commercial tenants.

On questions raised by MPs if more can be done for businesses over a longer period of time, he said: “We hope that will not become necessary. But if it does, for example if the outbreak becomes a worldwide pandemic, and the global economic impact is deeper and longer, we have the fiscal resources to do so, and the will to act.

“But for now, let’s go forth and make the fullest use of the support available out there, before we review what more needs to be done.”

ONE-MONTH SPECIAL BONUS FOR FRONTLINE HEALTHCARE WORKERS

Touching on the theme of “unity” in his Budget speech, Mr Heng said there have been stories of businesses and workers who are not just making full use of the Government’s support, but taking it a step further to help each other and share the burden during this time of fear and uncertainty.

For example, landlords, such as CapitaLand and Frasers Property, have promised to pass on the property tax rebates to affected tenants.

Many businesses have also responded to the challenge by taking the opportunity to accelerate innovation and invest for the future, he said.

The labour movement has also been hard at work to help workers cope and emerge stronger from this difficult period.

“This is a time for all of us do our part,” he said. “People from all walks of life have come together to help others, at a time when it is tempting to just look out for oneself.”

Mr Heng also paid tribute to the country’s frontline healthcare workers who have shown “outstanding courage and dedication”.

On that note, he announced that public officers on the frontline who are directly battling with COVID-19 will get up to one additional month of special bonus. This includes many healthcare officers in the Health Ministry and the restructured hospitals and some officers in other front line agencies who have been directly involved.

Other public officers who have contributed significantly will be recognised in "appropriate ways", he added.

The Government will also make a one-off COVID-19 grant to the public health preparedness clinics to support them in their active role in caring for patients with respiratory symptoms, he said.

"This gesture, plus the many words of encouragement and acts of consideration and kindness is our way to express to you - we salute you," he said.

PAY CUTS FOR POLITICAL OFFICE HOLDERS

Mr Heng said Singapore has been able to respond strongly and effectively to COVID-19 because there is “strong trust between the people and the Government and the sense that we are all in this together”.

"The political leadership will do our part to show solidarity of fellow Singaporeans," he said.

On that note, he announced that all political office holders will take a one-month cut in their salary, while all MPs will also take a one-month cut in their allowances.

President Halimah Yacob will also be taking a similar one-month pay cut, said Mr Heng.

Senior public service officers will take a half-month pay cut.

"In the weeks and months to come, we will need to draw deeply on Singapore's reserves of resilience trust and solidarity. This unity of purpose across our whole society is what will see us through this challenging times.

"If we conduct ourselves well in this crisis, we will replenish those reserves and strengthen our resilience and unity for another generation," he said.

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Source: CNA/sk

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