SINGAPORE: Members of Parliament rose in support of budgets that will draw an unprecedented S$21 billion from Singapore’s past reserves, even as some called for prudence in marshalling the nation’s financial resources.
Singapore could roll out support measures in quick succession amid the COVID-19 outbreak due to the foresight and diligence of earlier generations, who built up the reserves, said several of the MPs who spoke in the debate following Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat’s announcement of the Solidarity Budget.
Including the S$5.1 billion package unveiled on Monday, the Singapore’s Government’s response to COVID-19 will cost S$59.9 billion or about 12 per cent of GDP – which Mr Heng called an “unprecedented budget, for extraordinary times".
Solidarity Budget: Singapore spends another S$5.1b to save jobs, protect livelihoods amid impending circuit breaker rules
Singapore will also use S$21 billion from its past reserves in only the second time in its history the reserves will be drawn on.
“Thanks to the decades of careful financial management, today we are able to deal with this crisis in a position of financial strength,” said Holland-Bukit Timah GRC MP Liang Eng Hwa.
MacPherson MP Tin Pei Ling said that she was thankful the Singapore Government had “resisted siren calls in the past to spend our reserves”, while questioning if there was a “red line” which the Government should not cross.
“Essentially, how can we sustain help and at the same time, not deplete this pot of gold for our children and theirs?” she said.
Jurong GRC MP Rahayu Mahzam made a similar point, saying that it was apparent more funds would have to be injected to support those affected by COVID-19.
“Will this be something sustainable and what is the Government’s assessment now on our fiscal ability to weather this massive storm?” she asked.
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Some MPs also noted that Singapore needs to look beyond the current pandemic to keep the economy going, and to emerge stronger from the crisis.
“While we are fortunate to have strong past reserves that we can draw on to provide the needed relief as well as prepare workers and businesses for the recovery, unless there is business and economic growth, over the long term, this will not be sustainable,” said East Coast GRC MP Jessica Tan.
Among the measures on Monday were wage subsidies of 75 per cent for local workers, cash handouts for Singaporean adults and more help for businesses and for the self-employed, in a third batch of Budget measures announced in under two months.
The additional support comes a day before Singapore closes most work places, except for essential services and key economic sectors, and shuts schools, to try to stall the spread of COVID-19 with “circuit breaker” measures.
MPS CALL FOR MORE HELP
Several MPs asked to widen the criteria for inclusion for the Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme (SIRS), which provides self-employed people - including taxi and private-hire drivers, as well as sole proprietors - with S$1,000 per month for a total of nine months.
Tanjong Pagar GRC MP Chia Shi-Lu asked if the scheme could provide additional assistance to those self-employed people with dependents such as young children, elderly or disabled family members, asking also if they could defer their MediSave instalment payments.
Meanwhile Ms Joan Pereira, also an MP for Tanjong Pagar GRC, asked if the age for payouts under SIRS could be lowered from 37 to 30, noting many at that age would be planning for marriage or children, or already have children and elderly parents to support.
Dr Chia also asked if the Government would consider increasing the level of subsidy for more costly medications, up from between 50 per cent and 85 per cent currently.
“While the subsidies are generous, due to the high costs of certain drugs, the balance costs borne by patients and their families can still be fairly significant,” he noted.
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Ms Tan asked if more help could be provided to both individuals and businesses to transition to telecommuting, with more people required to work from home during the “circuit breaker” period.
West Coast GRC MP Foo Mee Har called for a new business model for food delivery services, noting eateries here would be dependent on such services for the duration of the “circuit breaker” period.
She noted that eateries typically pay about 30 per cent of meal prices in commission to delivery services such as GrabFood and Deliveroo.
“Under these circumstances, the sustainability of food establishments becomes untenable. I hope that the commission model of delivery platforms can be reviewed during this critical time, for the benefit of all parties,” said Ms Foo.
She noted though that such changes should ideally be made by businesses themselves, without “depending on the heavy hand of the Government or the law”.
OPPORTUNITIES IN CRISIS
Other MPs pointed out the opportunities in the crisis and how Singapore can emerge stronger, as the virus outbreak spurs companies to retrain workers and accelerate digitalisation with the move to telecommuting.
They also noted that Singapore’s long-term food security needs to be prioritised.
“Many Singaporeans are now aware of and appreciate the importance of Singapore’s target of producing 30 per cent of Singapore’s nutritional needs by 2030,” said Ms Tan.
“This is an excellent unifying platform to rally Singaporeans for a resilient Singapore.”
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Marine Parade GRC MP Seah Kian Peng, who is the group CEO of NTUC Enterprise and NTUC FairPrice group, assured the House that for now, the supermarket chain’s warehouses are full.
“We have rice, canned food, toilet paper, cooking oil, instant noodles. We have fruits and vegetable. We have meats – fresh and frozen,” he said.
Prices of certain items have gone up in recent weeks due to factors like higher demand worldwide, but he said FairPrice will try to moderate price increases.
He added that many in Singapore have rallied together to help each other through the pandemic - something that "money can't buy".
“We don’t make light of money, because we know it buys a lot ... But we know, better than most, what money cannot buy. Unity, resilience, solidarity and most of all, a shared history and a shared future,” he said.