Debate on Budget 2016: Focusing On HDB Shops, The Unemployed and Our Youth – Speech by Dennis Tan

(Delivered in Parliament on 5 April 2016)

Madam Speaker, today I shall be touching on three different aspects of Budget 2016.

I will first start with the Budget proposal to enhance the Revitalisation of Shops Scheme (ROS).

In November 2007, the Government introduced the ROS to enhance the vibrancy and competitiveness of HDB shops. As of March 2016, the HDB website stated that the scheme has benefited 4,600 shops at 54 sites. It also stated that this covers over 50% of our town and neighbourhood centres. The scheme covers upgrading of common areas, promotional activities, and rent-free periods for tenants to renovate their shops.

In last year’s Committee of Supply debate in March 2015, former Senior Minister of State for National Development, Mr Lee Yi Shyan, said that HDB has spent $8.4 million since the ROS scheme was introduced in 2007. Assuming the effective period of expenditure was from 2008 to 2014, this amounts to an average of $1.2 million per year. I hope the Minister can share with the House some details about how the ROS scheme has improved the businesses of HDB shops in the past 9 years.

Budget 2016 will set aside $15 million annually to enhance the ROS scheme. This is a large increase compared to previous years, more than 10 times the average expenditure in previous years. While I am sure it is good that our existing HDB shops are receiving more assistance to enhance their businesses, I hope the Minister for Finance can share the reasons for this large annual increase in funding for the ROS scheme and also share details about how the proposed increase in funding will be utilised and in what ways will the coming year’s programme be different from the past.

Madam, in many HDB estates, especially the older ones, it is quite a common sight to see shops in an unfavourable facing or location doing badly. It could be due to their relative poor locations compared with shops in a different location in the same estate or it could even be due to over-supply of shop spaces in the same estates. For such shophouses, I hope the minister can look into how ROS can better assist them or to consider how parts of the town centre where these shops are located could be re-developed.

As we provide assistance to our existing HDB shops, let us also not forget about building adequate new shops in our new HDB estates. Residents of the then-newly built HDB estates, such as Sengkang and Punggol, experienced a lack of basic amenities and shops when they first moved in. The design of most of the void decks were also not conducive for constructing shops.

One reason for this is the philosophy of building amenities, like convenience shops and coffeeshops, only when there is a critical mass of demand. I feel that the philosophy should be tweaked to build amenities ahead of demand. This is so that pioneering residents are not deprived of amenities when they move in. You may ask how can businesses thrive when demand has not reached critical mass? That is where the Government can step in to provide reduced rents until critical mass is reached.

Another way we can improve new HDB estates is to build town centres consisting of low-rise HDB shophouses with a competitive retail mix to meet the wider needs of residents. I note that in recent years, the approach has been to build a shopping mall that acts as an integrated hub for the estate. However, in my view, a town centre like the ones in mature estates such as Bedok and Tampines, are better suited to meet the needs of residents and to create a sense of community and identity. A shopping mall can still be built, but only as a complement to the town centre.

A shopping mall must not compromise the businesses of the retail shops in the town centre but complement and enhance the business of the neighbourhood shops by helping to draw people to the town centre and making the town centre a lively place where residents of the town and even residents of nearby estates will want to visit and spend their time, thereby bringing business and vibrancy to the town.

I am glad to note that the URA Master Plan states that Bidadari Estate will have a wide range of amenities like a bus interchange, neighbourhood police centre, places of worship, and health care facilities.

I certainly hope that amenities such as minimarts or provisions shops, convenience shops and coffeeshops, can be built ahead of demand.

I also hope that town centres with low-rise HDB shophouses can be incorporated in the plans for not just new HDB estates like Bidadari but also other new estates as well as when older estates are re-developed.

I will end this part of my speech with an anecdote. The hawker centres at different parts of Bedok such as Blk 85 Bedok North (at Fengshan SMC) and Blk 511 Bedok North (at Aljunied GRC) see many customers from relatively newer estates like Punggol or Sengkang. I have spoken to quite a few of these customers during my visits to these markets over time. One common reason given is the lack of good dining places in Punggol or Sengkang. How often do you actually see people from Bedok going to Punggol or Sengkang to have dinner? There may be various reasons for this but certainly, in my view, poor town planning is one of the key reasons.

Madam speaker, may I next speak in Mandarin on the issue of employment?

今年的预算案,明显的告诉我们,我国的企业正面对困难和不确定的商业环境。政府虽然宣布了惠及雇主及雇员的财政措施,但对于面对失业或将失去工作的新加坡人,他们所处的困境,更需要获得协助。尤其当失业者是家庭的主要经济支柱,除了养家糊口,还要供房,照顾年老的父母。我知道有不少曾经在中小企业或跨国公司任职的专业人士,如经理,执行和技术人员 (PMET) 被裁员后,在无法找到工作,或新的工作薪水太低不敷开销,而选择德士行业或以兼职驾驶德士补贴家用。这是就业不足。



就业不足会造成就业人口的生产能力利用不足。问题是如何防止这种现象发生,也就是说,如何充分利用就业人口的生产能力。在这方面,政府倡议的Adapt and Grow Initiative 和 TechSkills Accelerator 的措施, 相信对于充分利用就业人口的生产能力方面,能够发挥某种程度的作用。



Madam, in English again.

I would like to spend the final part of my speech on what the Budget has provided for our children and young people. This is found in Section C of the Budget which is entitled Building a Caring and Resilient Society. Under this section, there are various sub headers, including ‘Caring for our young’.

I am happy to note that for Budget 2016, the government will introduce a new Child Development Account (CDA) First Step Grant for all Singaporean children. Parents will automatically receive $3000 in their child’s CDA which they can use for their children’s healthcare and childcare needs. This is a departure from the previous practice of dollar for dollar matching which placed lower income families at a distinct disadvantage. I understand that my Workers’ Party colleagues have spoken up on this in the previous parliament and indeed other Singaporeans too. The new CDA grant with its $3000 is certainly a good first step in the right direction.

Madam, just to be sure that I understand correctly, may the minister confirm that when it is stated that the grant is, I quote “for all Singaporean children” unquote (at para C.6), it includes children of single unwed parents too? I think this would be good because we should not focus on the parents but the welfare and benefit of their Singaporean children and the value they will bring to Singapore.

Next, under the section ‘Caring for our young’, there is also sub heading ‘Building Resilience in our Youth’. Under this section, the government is making a single proposal that through a new national outdoor adventure education masterplan, it will build a new Outward Bound Singapore (OBS) campus on Coney Island. It is stated that the new OBS will be built to help our young people develop a sense of adventure, resilience and be ready to challenge themselves to be their best.

Madam, I agree that the OBS programme is good for our young people and as many of our young people as possible should be encouraged to attend. I hope that the new OBS will be able to provide many opportunities for our young people to enhance their sense of adventure.

A one-off participation in the OBS programme alone may not be enough to build resilience or a sense of adventure. There are other activities that our young people can be encouraged to participate to build resilience or nurture a sense of adventure. For example, we can encourage our young people to join CCAs like certain uniformed groups, sports or outdoor activities clubs.

I was a scrawny and introverted schoolboy. Spending 6 years in the National Cadet Corps (Sea) opened my eyes to adventure and teamwork. I struggled when I had to canoe round Singapore in 3 days. But I could not disappoint my buddy in the same canoe and, together with our friends in other canoes, we learnt to cheer and encourage one other and finished as one big team.

Resilience training involved much more than a one off OBS programme. We need to re-look the way we educate our children. We should not be happy with an education system that encourage our children to succeed by being ‘exams smart’ alone. The system should encourage more of our young people to explore different “adventures”, e.g. taking time off our studies or work to excel in sports or hobby (like some of our national athletes). Or even taking time off to see the world and broaden your horizon, like what many young people in Europe do.

And our young people should not fear losing out by graduating later or starting work later. We have had Singaporeans who took time off to climb mountains. They are fine examples.

We also have to find a way to teach our children not to be afraid of failure but to learn to cope with failure. There must be latitude in the education system to allow this. If our children are afraid to fail, they are less likely to be adventurous. They will always go for safe options. They are also less likely to appreciate innovation and entrepreneurship. We can forget about Singapore having the next Sim Wong Hoo, not to mention Steve Jobs.

As a school boy with questionable motor skills, I was not very good at sports like rugby or football. Rather fortuitiously, I discovered the joy of distance running, ran for school and never stopped running since.

What has running got to do with resilience or fortitude? You can run many miles to prepare for a marathon. You can plan to run each kilometre of your race in 5 or 6 mins but you will never know whether you are going to get the cramps at 33 km which will throw your marathon race into disarray.

Resilience is when you are down with cramps at 33 km and you keep pushing to cross the finishing line and not give up. Resilience is when you are down with shin splints but still work on your recovery to get back to finish your race another day.

Running, and indeed sports, mirrors life. Like marathon runners, all of us have our own race in life to run. When the chips are down, when you are struggling with your business or when you are laid up by the MNC you work with for 20 years, what do you do in the race of life?  Do you just sit and despair or do you pick yourself up and press on to cross the finishing line another day?

Thank you.