Delivered in Parliament on 24 February 2021
Mr Speaker, I welcome the Budget Statement delivered by the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for Finance. I note that the theme for the budget is Emerging Stronger Together, and I believe all in this house share the Deputy Prime Minister’s hope that we will indeed find a way to emerge from this crisis with greater strength and unity. There are three areas in the Budget Statement that I would like to speak on today.
First, I am heartened that the salaries of all our healthcare workers, including both our nurses and our support care workers, will be enhanced under the budget. I look forward to learning more details on the level of the increment which our healthcare workers can look forward to from the Minister for Health.
Our nurses have devoted their time and energy, as well as faced numerous risks to keep our healthcare system going. It is past due that their remuneration is relooked. A 2018 report by the Lien Foundation showed that among five advanced economies with ageing populations in the Asia-Pacific region, the average monthly pay of nurses was the lowest in Singapore at S$3,000. This is almost half of the average pay of nurses in Australia at S$5,780.
Even though 2020 has been a challenging year economically, Singapore is still on par with the other countries in this survey in terms of GDP per capita. It seems odd that the remuneration for essential healthcare workers would continue to be lower than those of their counterparts elsewhere.
Inadequate remuneration could lead to other problems down the road as well. A shortage of nurses is not a new problem in Singapore. In the last decade alone, the Ministry of Health has acknowledged this a few times as an issue to be addressed. Further, Singapore is not the only country facing a shortage of nurses. In April 2020, the World Health Organisation estimated that the world faced a shortage of six million nurses .
We have been able to attract nurses from other countries to come and work in Singapore. They make up for the shortage of local nurses. However, if remuneration levels are not considered adequate, we face the potential of our nurses being drawn to foreign shores. This will make it even harder for us to handle the ageing population.
As such, I would like to propose that we consider either pegging the salaries of our nurses to a weighted basket of salaries from the countries of a similar economic status as Singapore. Another possibility is for us to use the salary scales of our uniformed services as a benchmark. Our nurses also put their lives on the line at work each day.
The second issue which I would like to raise relates to the environmental policies which were announced during the budget statement – specifically, the immediate increase in the duties on premium and intermediate petrol by 15 cents and 10 cents per litre respectively.
There is no one who would disagree that we must take urgent action in order to address climate change. And I appreciate that the government intends to help all those affected by the increased duties by offering rebates which are expected to defray the increased costs for a year.
However, I have to question why the increased rates had to take immediate effect. Such an approach creates a shock amongst vehicle users, especially for those whose livelihood depends on internal combustion engine Vehicles. Following the announcement, Channel News Asia reported that some drivers estimate that their costs will go up by about S$60 to S$100 a month.
Sir, private hire drivers have been adversely affected for more than a year now as we battle the COVID-19 pandemic. They have seen reduced demand and have struggled to make up for the loss of income. While the situation has improved, Private Hire Drivers are a long way from stability. With practically no tourism and less people heading to their offices on a daily basis likely to be the prevailing scenario for the foreseeable future, the outlook for drivers is bleak.
A Today news article from December 2020 captured the struggles of not only the Private hire drivers but also taxi drivers. Many of them have seen severe drops in their income even with relief measures such as the Self-Employed Income Relief Scheme (SIRS), the COVID-19 Driver Relief Fund (DRF) and the vehicle rental rebates. The drivers interviewed for the news article, related their efforts to stay afloat by taking on extra jobs and some are considering leaving the industry entirely. However, not all drivers will be able to upskill and/or reskill themselves for other industries in the near to medium term because they are locked in contracts which were signed before COVID-19 became a global pandemic.
I acknowledge the efforts by the Ministry of Transport and the Land Transport Authority to mitigate the suffering of our drivers. The new requirement for private hire drivers to be 30 years old and above and having Singapore Citizenship, similar to the standards required for taxi drivers, could be described as a market correction that was timely. The announcement of higher payouts for drivers in the point to point transport sector to cushion the end of SIRS is also welcome news. However, the increased petrol duties could mean that the money that was meant to bring relief for our drivers would end up being redirected towards government coffers instead.
While it is important to set behavioural norms away from a reliance on fossil fuels, this is not an excuse to inflict unnecessary trauma on an already besieged group. By the time the rebates reach the pockets of the drivers, some of them may have resorted to drastic measures already, to keep themselves and their families economically afloat.
I am also concerned that the increased petrol duties will lead to increases in the price of other goods, especially the daily necessities. It is inevitable that companies will pass the burden to consumers, at least in part. Will the rebates be sufficient to help families, especially the lower income earners, to cope with the increased costs of living?
In January 2021, the Straits Times reported that while electricity, petrol and outpatient services were cheaper in 2020, the price of food as well as public transport fares went up. In early February 2021, Beyond Social Services released a report which showed that the median household income of families who sought help from it fell from S$1,600 to S$500 monthly. Similarly, the Department of Statistics (DOS) released figures showing that the median income of the bottom 10% of lower-income households saw a 6.1% decline in real income, compared to 1.4 to 3.2% in other households.
I am aware that the Government has provided significant amounts of relief for lower income groups and will be setting aside more to continue assisting them. However, the increased petrol duties may have an indirect negative impact if, as a result, the price of consumer goods, especially essential goods, increase as a result of higher fuel and transport costs.
Sir, as mentioned earlier, most would agree the need to take urgent step action in order to address climate change, however, the decision to increase the duties on petrol at this time is a case of ‘doing the right thing but with the wrong timing’.
Notwithstanding all this, Sir, I acknowledge, that the decision has already been made and implemented. Hence, I echoed the call made by the Leader of The Opposition, Mr Pritam Singh, for the government to consider reviewing the immediate hike in the petrol duty rates.
The third and final point I would like to raise is an extension of the second, and is related to the issues of sustainability and the environment. The government has signalled that it will be making bold steps towards more sustainable and environmentally friendly practices. It was not too long ago that this house adopted a motion declaring that the climate situation presents an emergency which needs to be addressed, and many of my colleagues have spoken what can be done. The tone of the budget statement is also a welcome one. However, it has to be more than just the tone that shifts.
Mr Speaker, Sir, the unsavoury truth that we have to accept as a nation is that our track record demonstrates that when it comes to making a choice between nature and modern development, it is always the former that is sacrificed. We have seen this with land reclamation and construction of highways, MRT lines and stations, and other infrastructure. The latest incident whereby a patch of forest was mistakenly cleared was a tragic example of how we can get this wrong.
The government has recently launched Singapore Green Plan 2030. As mentioned by Minister Heng in his budget speech ‘this is an ambitious long-term plan that builds on ongoing efforts, to secure a green, liveable, and sustainable home for generations of Singaporean to come’
Sir, I commend the government for the plan and I am supportive of any efforts in making a more sustainable living environment in Singapore. Planning for future and continuity is critical and paramount important, and as the saying goes ‘if you fail to plan, you are planning to fail’.
However sir, at this juncture I believe it is worthwhile for us to pause and consider the lessons which we can learn from the erroneous clearing of Kranji Forest which happened recently, before we move any further on our 2030 Green Plan.
Sir, we should ponder, why have we planned to plant more than a million trees across Singapore over the next 10 years when, according to Global Forest Watch, we have lost 2.22 kilohectares of tree cover, a 12% decrease which is equivalent to 580 kilotons of carbon dioxide emissions.
We also should ponder if we should be working towards a more harmonious relationship with our natural environment in Singapore instead of imposing our own artificial solutions for sustainability.
Sir, having said these, I welcome the Deputy Prime Minister’s statement that the government will take the lead. There is a saying in Malay “Bagai enau di dalam belukar, melepaskan pucuk masing-masing”, a reference to a kind of plant that grows in underbrush. Its meaning is a reference to a situation whereby narrow interests are prioritised over the greater good. For too long, we have prioritised urban development over the environment. The Green Plan is a major step in rebalancing our priorities.
Sir, I will continue in Malay,
Pengumuman timbalan perdana menteri yang juga menteri kewangan mengenai kenaikan pendapatan para jururawat dan pekerja-pekerja sektor kesihatan amat dialu-alukan.
Sejak bermulanya pandemik COVID-19, kita dapat melihat banyak usaha telah dilakukan dari segenap lapisan masyarakat dalam menunjukkan sokongan padu dan menandai perasaan terhutang budi kepada para pekerja sektor kesihatan. Diantara usaha-usaha yang telah dilakukan termasuk para peniaga F&B menyediakan makanan dan minuman secara percuma, ucapan terima kasih murid-murid sekolah melalui kad-kad buatan sendiri dan juga tepukan dan sorakan ramai secara serentak oleh rakyat Singapura.
Tuan, sokongan masyarakat dalam pelbagai bentuk sememangnya amat penting dalam memberi ransangan psikologi dan motivasi kepada mereka yang berkhidmat dalam sektor kesihatan. Namun, sokongan dan ganjaran dari segi aspek kewangan adalah sama penting terutama dalam keadaan semasa dimana kos sara hidup semakin meningkat.
Seperti yang disebutkan awal tadi, pengumuman kenaikan gaji bagi para jururawat dan pekerja-pekerja sektor kesihatan amat dialu-alukan.
Persoalan kini adalah, berapakah jumlah kenaikan yang telah diputuskan? Seperti yang dikatakan oleh Menteri Heng, pengumuman ini akan dilakukan Menteri Kesihatan pada sesi Jawatan Kuasa bekalan.
Tuan, saya harap pendapatan atau gaji bagi jururawat dan para pekerja sektor kesihatan boleh dinaikkan ke tahap yang seiras dengan tahap gaji jururawat dan para pekerja sektor kesihatan dinegara-negara maju di rantau Asia-Pasifik seperti Korea Selatan, Jepun, Hongkong dan Australia. Ini adalah kerana mutu dan taraf sistem dan kepakaran bidang kesihatan kita juga setaraf dengan negara-negara ini. Tahap pembangunan ekonomi Singapura juga serupa dengan negara-negara tersebut. Maka Demikian ganjaran yang diberikan kepada para pekerja sektor kesihatan kami sepatutnya setimpal dengan rakan sejawat mereka di negara-negara ini.
Selanjutnya, saya ingin mengulas sedikit tentang aspek ucapan Menteri Heng mengenai perancangan pemerintah untuk menimbangi pekerja-pekerja tempatan dan asing. Saya ingin menyentuh perkara ini khusus untuk sektor kesihatan.
Seperti yang diketahui, kita mempunyai ramai para jururawat asing yang berkhidmat di institusi-institusi kesihatan kita terutama di hospital-hospital yang disusun semula (restructured hospital) dan di poliklinik-poliklinik.
Tuan, disini saya ingin mengulangi seruan saya untuk membenarkan pemakaian tudung sebagai sebahagian daripada pakaian seragam jururawat. Tidak boleh dinafikan bahawa wujud sebahagian dari Muslimah yang terpaksa membatalkan hasrat mereka untuk berkhidmat sebagai jururawat kerana mereka tahu yang mereka akan dilarang dari memakai tudung. Melalui membenarkan pemakaian tudung sebagai sebahagian dari seragam juruwat, mungkin lebih ramai Muslimah yang boleh memenuhi hasrat mereka untuk bertugas sebagai jururawat. Sekaligus, ia juga akan menambahkan jumlah jururawat tempatan dan menjadikan bidang kejururawatan di Singapura lebih inklusif.
To conclude, I have shared with the house my views and concerns on (i) nurses’ remuneration, (ii) increase in petrol duty rates and (iii) sustainable environment. The intent of my sharing is to contribute to our nation’s ongoing discussions and efforts to bounce back from this crisis with greater strength and unity, Emerging Stronger Together.
I look forward to more sharing from the respective ministry on the issues mentioned in my speech. Thank you Sir.