Budget 2024 Speech – by LO Pritam Singh

Budget Debate Speech – 26th February 2024

Pritam Singh

Mr Speaker, it is not mere coincidence that the slogan of Forward Singapore is “Building Our Shared Future”, while that of Budget 2024 is the substantially similar “Building Our Shared Future Together”. The Government intends for Budget 2024 to be a step towards Forward Singapore.

The Forward Singapore exercise has three major goals for the decade and the next. Singapore must: first, have a strong and growing economy; second, develop a fairer society; and third, deepen our sense of unity. In doing so, the shared future that was distilled from various engagement sessions with the public was a Singapore that will be vibrant, fair, resilient, inclusive, thriving and united.

 Sir, it would be fair to say that these are broad strokes that capture the Singapore that all of us seek. In the way it fleshes out the direction of the Government, Budget 2024 is not objectionable, and so the Workers’ Party (WP) supports the Budget.

 The real challenge to the People’s Action Party (PAP), however, is for it to be open, and the extent to which it is prepared to accommodate the diverse views of Singaporeans on how to journey towards the destination envisaged by Forward Singapore. No doubt, PAP has asked for diverse views by demanding that the Opposition come up with alternative proposals, although one suspects they do so rhetorically. WP has responded sincerely and we have not been short of proposals that have ultimately been accepted by the Government in some shape or form, albeit after initial and sometimes significant resistance.

 Indeed, this year’s Budget includes WP proposals; the announcement by the Finance Minister of a temporary financial support scheme for our workers is a case in point. While the details may differ, the philosophy of supporting our involuntarily unemployed is one which WP championed.

 The same can be said for the WP proposals for anti-discrimination legislation to better protect our workers. Unlike PAP, WP clearly stated these proposals in our election manifesto, and our Members of Parliament (MPs) have systematically and repeatedly raised these points along with others in Parliament.

 Mr Speaker, let me now put forward five points which form the basis of my response to the Budget.

 First, the Government needs to be more forthcoming with information so that Singaporeans can participate more actively in policy discussion. Second, there is a growing mismatch in Singapore between aspirations and reality, which must be addressed. Third, the Government must improve retirement adequacy. Fourth, employers need to show more support for employees. And fifth, we must work towards further strengthening unity among Singaporeans in this uncertain world.

1.      Active Participation: The Heartbeat of Forward Singapore

 My first point is that the Government needs to be more transparent and forthcoming with information so that there can be meaningful participation by Singaporeans in the most critical matters affecting us. This is a recurring theme in my speeches, but I am by no means the only Singaporean to hold this view.

 The Straits Times carried an article dated 19 February 2024 titled, “Economists applaud 2024 Budget but some worry about sustainability.” The economists quoted were concerned about the combination of large cash handouts with the lack of information about the sources of Singapore’s fiscal strength. In the report, one former Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) called on the Government to provide more information on how it funds its expenditures.

 Another economist noted that Singapore is unique and does not follow standards set by global bodies, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), with regard to the difference between revenues and expenditures in the management of the fiscal balance. Yet another economist was quoted as saying, “As a society, we now have some very important choices to make and, unless we are well-informed, we will not be able to make those choices well.” Sir, the latter point was about the Reserves, a subject which we debated earlier this month and where WP set out its five points of principle.

 On 20 February, an opinion piece in The Straits Times was titled, “It’s getting harder to project future Government revenue”. The author noted that it would become more difficult to achieve Budget marksmanship as there could be variations of 17% to 27% in specific tax collections. His view was that gone are the days when Budget marksmanship of 2% was normal.

 Two Budgets ago, I asked what the total estimated amount collected by the carbon tax would be. The Government did not tell us, even though the preliminary numbers would not have been difficult to estimate and probably had already been tabulated by the Ministry of Finance. Similarly, in 2016, the Government announced a $4.5 billion industry transformation roadmap. No proactive update on how monies were spent on these programmes was provided until Parliamentary questions were put to the Government. Surely the Government can do better here.

I have spoken about the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Base Erosion and Profit Shifting regime, or BEPS, for some years now. The Finance Minister has laid out two possibilities that could affect us: one, of more corporate income tax being collected; and another of some multinational enterprises (MNEs) leaving Singapore. Both could happen at the same time, if recent media reports are anything to go by: one, predicting the move of more MNE headquarters to Singapore from Hong Kong; and another reporting on the move of Electrolux’s regional headquarters from Singapore to Bangkok.

 In view of the implementation of Pillar 2, what are the estimated collections in either an optimistic scenario or a conservative scenario?

 At the first Budget debate of this term, WP called for the setting up of a Parliamentary Budget office, which was rejected by PAP as an idea that would only benefit the Opposition. In the spirit of Forward Singapore and in view of a greater need to track the effectiveness of Government policies and their expenditure outcomes, such institutions should be a feature of our democracy and the Singapore that the Forward Singapore report demands.

 One economist quoted in the 19 February The Straits Times article said that Singaporeans outside this House desire to analyse and understand to a deeper degree what the Government is doing. These examples I shared put into relief the types of differences we can expect between the political Opposition in this House and non-politician Singaporeans outside of it on the one hand, and the PAP Government on the other. Such calls for information cannot be set aside as red herrings. If the Government was doing well on this score, we would not have private sector economists making the arguments and the points they do.

 These calls represent a desire to shape a political environment that is fit for Singapore’s purposes. Singaporeans need to know how much there is to spend and where the money comes from. These are basic requirements for having rational discussions on fiscal matters and for realistic alternative visions to emerge. In any democratic society, the Government must facilitate such discussions and it should do so proactively by declassifying more information if necessary. Sengkang Group Representation Constituency (GRC) Member Ms He Ting Ru will speak on the themes of deliberative democracy, transparency and accountability in her speech.

 Coming back to the financing of Forward Singapore’s goals, the Deputy Prime Minister announced that $5 billion of this Budget has been set aside for Forward Singapore policy moves, with around $40 billion to be used by the end of the decade. Will the Government spell out these initiatives in view of the commitment made in the Budget Statement, since some thought appears to have been applied to how much it will take to fund Forward Singapore plans?

 Sir, PAP must tell us how the Government will deploy the $40 billion for Forward Singapore policies so that Singaporeans can understand what PAP believes the social compact of tomorrow requires. Just as PAP calls on WP to lay out its alternatives, surely PAP must lay out its proposals, too.

2.      Aspirations and Reality –  SkillsFuture

 Mr Speaker, my second point is that there is a growing mismatch between the aspirations of Singaporeans and the reality facing them. Steps must be taken to address this. A reference in the Forward Singapore report to the 5Cs of decades past was scrutinised by some in the media. The 5Cs captured the aspiration to have cash, car, credit card, condominium and country club membership. The Forward Singapore report calls on Singaporeans to move beyond the 5Cs towards wider definitions of success. Surely, that is an admission, perhaps unintended, that a fair number of the 5Cs are unattainable for most Singaporeans today.

 But I would go further. The reality is that things are very difficult for not a small number of Singaporeans, regardless of what definition of success one deploys. A Business Times article from late 2023 reported the findings of an OCBC financial wellness survey. Fewer Singaporeans can comfortably spend on things beyond the basics. And more do not have sufficient emergency funds or savings to meet their families’ needs. Just 40% of Singaporeans can afford to spend beyond the basics most of the time, down 8% from 2022; and 23% can only afford the basics; while 79% of Singaporeans either do not have a retirement plan or are not on track with their retirement plans. This was a rise from 71% in 2022.

 If the sentiments captured in this survey are anything to go by, there is a likelihood that the social compact may be precarious and uneven, particularly if the middle of society feels insecure about their financial future. To address this possibility, the structural moves to invest more in the future, particularly through SkillsFuture, are important and critical, even as the temporary cost of living support with the Budget are acknowledged and welcomed.

 The WP foresees a need for even greater investments in our human capital in future, especially in view of how rapidly the workplace landscape is changing and with more well-paying jobs requiring high-order skillsets, a point that will be further expanded by Sengkang GRC Member Assoc Prof Jamus Lim.

 The $4,000 SkillsFuture credit, which is ringfenced for selected programmes with better employability outcomes, can be used for part-time diploma, post-diploma and undergraduate courses as well as PWM-specific courses. The WP sees the deployment of SkillsFuture credits towards economically productive courses with employment outcomes as an important policy initiative of this Budget. But we believe that many of the courses are likely to cost more than $4,000.

 To further facilitate skills training and help Singaporean workers, the Government should introduce an interest-free SkillsFuture education loan. The WP put this proposal front and centre in our General Election 2020 manifesto. To start with, these loans can be calibrated towards courses, in either high-growth industries that lack Singaporean manpower or in other economically important areas.

3.      CPF – Adequacy for Singaporeans in Retirement

 Sir, my third point, is that the Government must improve retirement adequacy. The changes to the Central Provident Fund (CPF) Special Account (SA), announced by Deputy Prime Minister, will be addressed by Sengkang Group Representation Constituency (GRC) Member of Parliament Mr Louis Chua.

However, I speak of retirement adequacy more broadly and as an ongoing concern for the decades to come. It did not escape many Singaporeans, that all three core components of the Majulah Package: the annual earn and save bonus, the one-time retirement savings bonus and the one-time MediSave bonus, for Singaporeans born between 1960 and 1973, involved CPF top-ups. The Merdeka and Pioneer Generations will also get them. In total, 1.4 million Singaporeans will see CPF top-ups.

 From the vantage point of the WP, Sir, these moves make it clear that sufficiency of CPF balances for retirement is a serious and ongoing concern. The moves to raise employer’s CPF contributions through to the year 2030, must also be seen by employers in this light – of ensuring that all the workers are not left behind when retirement beckons. Employers will have to redesign jobs, so that seniors can continue to work for far longer if they wish to. The real risk of more redundancies in the years to come, arising from job displacement, adds impetus to the need for job redesign.

 Recently, in a social media post, the Minister for National Development celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Housing and Development Board’s (HDB’s) Home Ownership Scheme. History shows that the reception to the HDB Home Ownership Scheme, per se, was initially lukewarm. The popularity of HDB flats exploded only when the CPF Act was amended in 1968, allowing Singaporeans to use their CPF funds for down payments and mortgage instalments of HDB flats.

It would not be hyperbole to say: that the CPF changed from a statutory board in charge of Singaporeans’ retirement to a subsidiary of the HDB, with the aim of helping Singaporeans purchase property. Of course, many aspects of CPF policy have evolved since then.

 But what is clear, is that Singapore is in a far different place compared to where it was in the early years of Independence. Specifically, younger Singaporeans cannot expect the same home equity appreciation that Singapore experienced from the 1990s. Today, HDB affordability continues to remain an ongoing concern in the minds of many Singaporeans, in spite of the new Build-To-Order (BTO) classification system – which adds new restriction and increases subsidies for new flats.

 In substance, the Government appears to acknowledge the point that affordability is an ongoing concern. A point made by the WP in our speeches during the Housing Motion that was debated in Parliament last year, when we sought to bring focus to the People’s Action Party’s (PAP’s) amended Motion.

 It was not coincidental that the Prime Minister in his 2023 National Day Rally, referred to the now infamous $877,000 five-room BTO flat in Ang Mo Kio as an example of a BTO flat that should become slightly less expensive under the new Standard, Prime and Plus BTO classification system – thanks to added taxpayer subsidies.

 More money set aside for HDB flat purchase means less funds available for retirement, notwithstanding options to downgrade. If property prices and general inflationary trends rise faster than wages, plans for retirement will have to start later for many – since they would have less to set aside for their nest egg, with mortgages to serve today.

 It is time to closely examine how much CPF money should be set aside for housing. But if HDB prices continue to escalate, any move to reduce the CPF funds that can be set aside for housing, in favour of retirement adequacy, may backfire.

 The Government may then have to commit itself to making HDB flats even more affordable by increasing subsidies further. Make no mistake, direct subsidies for HDB flat purchases do not make HDB flats cheaper. They merely transfer the cost to current taxpayers. The WP will continue to closely monitor PAP’s moves on this point. We will be sure to hold it to account, if it allows HDB flats to continue to rise in price beyond wage growth and if it allows the retirement adequacy of Singaporeans to be compromised. My colleague, Aljunied GRC Member of Parliament Mr Faisal Manap, will make some related points covering housing and low-income households in his speech.

4.      Employers and Employees

 Mr Speaker, my fourth point, is that employers need to show more support for employees. Business groups have expressed concerns about the new Local Qualifying Salary cap of $1,600, which is widely considered as the de facto minimum wage.

 However, if Singapore really wishes to embrace the philosophy of Forward Singapore, then we need to show stronger support for our financially vulnerable workers. This is such an important ingredient of the future social compact. Increases of the de facto minimum wage, should be seen as a step towards an inclusive and fair Singapore. If we have a shared future, where there is a lack of support for paying our lowest-paid workers in step with economic fundamentals, that would reflect very poorly on Singapore.

 When the economy grows or when support measures are extended to companies, workers must also benefit. But consumers too, must be prepared to pay more for goods and services and it cannot solely be left to businesses to absorb the additional cost of wages.

 The strong social compact promised by Forward Singapore also offers an opportunity to think about protections for our workers beyond wages. Much has been said about the lack of recognition in Singapore for blue-collar workers who use their hands to perform skilled work. As the next step, Singapore should legislate retrenchment benefits or introduce redundancy insurance for these workers. I will speak more about this in the COS debate for the Ministry of Manpower.

 But there are areas where some employers have done well and displayed solidarity with the Singaporean worker. For example, by implementing Flexible Work Arrangements (FWAs) in concert with the demands of a more modern Singaporean workforce. But FWAs are just one area. We must also improve workplace culture and change attitudes towards skills upgrading and training, if Forward Singapore is to become a reality.

 In a recent Ipsos survey titled “What Singapore thinks, feels and does”, it was revealed that three in five Singapore employees – or 60% of Singapore employees – said that they were proud to work for their employer. But this was some 14 to 19 points below the global average; 29% said that they plan to leave their current employer in under two years – nine points more than the global norm.

While pay is one reason, feeling unrecognised and a lack of career progression, are the two additional factors that drive employees to leave. With the advent of artificial intelligence (AI) and the need to improve productivity, this is as good a time as any to significantly review HR policies: to align them with national imperatives and the lived experience of Singapore workers. Member for Aljunied GRC Mr Gerald Giam, will speak more about productivity improvements in his speech.

 A citizens panel on employment resilience concluded, as part of Forward Singapore, noted that many workers did not proactively manage their careers until a need arose – due to a lack of awareness of resources for upgrading; or to there being too much information that is too daunting to navigate.

 The SkillsFuture Enterprise Credit aims to encourage employers to invest and enterprise, and workplace transformation. It covers an array of programmes, including support for job redesign under the Productivity Solutions Grant. These initiatives can be superimposed on the key HR workplace pain points identified by employees – particularly older workers. Aljunied GRC Member of Parliament Ms Sylvia Lim will speak more on this subject.

 This year’s Budget sees the SkillsFuture Enterprise Credit extended for another year. As in previous years, the WP calls on the Government to report on the success, or otherwise, of these enterprise schemes that cause huge amounts of money. Reporting on outcomes is a fundamental requirement for accountability. Please give us information on what outcomes, if any, have been achieved on an industry-wide level. Please let us know so that this House and industry experts outside this House can give inputs on how these schemes can be improved, if necessary.

5.      Strengthening Unity in this Uncertain World

 Sir, I move to my final point. In this uncertain world, Singaporeans need to be committed to being united even as we must remain multiracial and multicultural.

The Budget speech By Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong, sought to put into focus an important message that many of us overlook as we remain peaceful and far removed from the prospect of conflict. The segment of the Finance Minister’s speech that stood out for me was the assessment of the uncertain outlook for Singapore. Some language was particularly strong. These include, and I quote: the international outlook has darkened dramatically; the post-Cold War era that fostered three decades of peace and stability is over; we are now in a new era of conflict and confrontation and there is no turning back; what can we expect in this new world? It will be more violent, it will be more fragmented, it will be messier and more unpredictable.

 At the same time as the world is seeing rising political polarisation and disenfranchisement, due to economic displacement, the world continues to struggle with common global problems, such as climate change, a subject Hougang Single Member Constituency Member of Parliament Mr Dennis Tan will touch on.

 If Forward Singapore seeks to refresh the social compact to keep our society strong and united and to prepare for a difficult road ahead, all of us in Singaporeans – regardless of our political persuasion – will have to be our siblings’ keeper. More so than ever before.

 But this will not be easy. Immigration and integration are good examples of where potential challenges lie. Earlier generations of immigrants had little choice, or less choice, but to integrate. They could not live hermetically sealed off from their host population. Only 30 years ago, it was prohibitively costly to make an international phone call.

 Current immigrants can easily stay connected to their networks and countries of birth. One can be a new Singaporean or PR physically present in Singapore, but removed from Singapore society. Better integration between the races and communities must be an important feature of the new social compact. We ignore this social objective at our peril, given how immigration is a permanent feature of Singapore’s society.

 The prospect of constant information operations undertaken by state and non-state actors, is an acute threat facing all multicultural societies. As a multiracial and multi-religious society that relies on immigration to top-up the population, our bonds as one united people may be severely tested in the years to come.

 The reality of online misinformation of foreign interference, particularly if framed in nationalistic terms, or in the form of identity politics, can be insidious and highly damaging to Singapore.

 Even as we seek more space to passionately advocate our views, including those on race and religion, we should be mindful lest we denigrate another group. More communication is certainly needed, but we should never forget our common humanity. None of us chose to be born into our race or religion, so kindness and empathy must be a dominant feature of the multiracial Singapore spirit.

 As an opposition party with elected Members of Parliament (MPs) in Parliament, the Workers’ Party will not self-censure but commit ourselves to bring up matters responsibly. Once mistrust between communities take root, we will not know what hit us.

 The WP agrees with the posture taken by the Government, that polarisation must not happen in Singapore. And as a society facing an unpredictable world, we should not dismiss this potential reality. We must gird ourselves against this prospect by deepening our commitment to fellow Singaporeans and representing them and their views faithfully.

 A potentially more volatile outlook also reinforces the importance of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and Home Team and the importance of National Service. Our security agencies may be tested or challenged in ways that may not just be kinetic, but asymmetric, and we cannot afford to fall short. All Singaporeans must give our men and women in uniform our full support.


In conclusion, Mr Speaker, there is broad agreement on the outcomes sought by Forward Singapore.

 But the call for a fair, inclusive and united Singapore must also accommodate and respond to citizen demands for greater transparency and civic participation. Otherwise, Forward Singapore could easily fall victim to political cynicism.

 The WP has, on numerous occasions, proposed how these calls for greater transparency can be better addressed. Such calls will not grow softer and they are not inconsistent with the findings and the desired outcomes of the Forward Singapore exercise.

 Some of the differences between the PAP and the WP are of methods and approaches, and we must agree to disagree. But there may be a few issues where there is consensus on the final outcomes, and yet, others where there is none. This is how a parliamentary democracy works. A Singapore with a contested and balanced Parliamentary system, with a robust opposition presence playing its role in making for a fair and inclusive society, and ultimately, what it does is that it makes us a better, more confident and an authentic Singapore. Sir, the WP supports the Budget.