Delivered in Parliament on 5 June 2020
Mr Speaker, when I spoke on the Resilience and Solidarity Budgets in April, my speech focused on the future – what would happen after the deployment of significant reserves to support lives and livelihoods.
I also spoke about how COVID-19 had exposed inequalities, how the wages of some Singaporeans who undertake essential services need to go up and what opportunities the COVID-19 crisis had engendered to reimagine a better Singapore. For this Fortitude budget debate which once again calls for a draw on the reserves, I will focus on three Es, the Economy, Engagement and Empathy.
First, the Economy. While the central focus of this budget was jobs, DPM Heng’s speech was instructive in my view for the restatement of three hard truths in the coming months.
First, Singapore can expect some tough times ahead. To this end, it is helpful to recall that at 0.7% growth last year, pre-COVID, Singapore was already recording one of the weakest GDP figures when compared against advanced OECD countries. On the day DPM delivered this budget, the Ministry of Trade & Industry announced a downward adjustment of our growth forecast from -1% to -4% to -4% to -7%.
Second, DPM reminded Singaporeans that life will not return to pre-COVID-19 days with the global economy unlikely to recover quickly. Finally, DPM’s speech also reminded Singaporeans, I quote that “government cannot carry businesses forever”. Unquote.
On the limit of Government being able to carry business forever, it is clear that companies and businesses will soon have to underwrite their employees’ wages. These have hitherto been significantly supported by the Jobs Support Scheme (JSS). With poor economic growth at the door, some businesses owners have shared with me that they have retained workers as long as they could thanks to the JSS, even as other workers were emplaced on no pay leave and have had to take pay cuts. As the JSS expires, some retrenchments are inevitable.
To that end, the goal of the Government to accelerate digitalization, upskilling for the future and the creation of a National Jobs Council are steps in the right direction and supported by the Workers’ Party. These initiatives cohere with an eye on the future and the transformation to a post-COVID-19-ready Singapore economy.
On jobs Mr Speaker, the headline numbers viz-a-viz initiatives such as the new SGUnited Mid-Career Traineeships scheme of 4000 openings in DPM’s speech may not appear large next to the size of the Singaporean workforce, but they are an important source of hope for those Singaporeans who have lost their jobs or will lose their jobs. Today, some Singaporeans would be downcast at the thought of how to finance their mortgage and other commitments, or the opportunities they can or cannot give to their school-going children when their own pay checks have dwindled and in other cases, evaporated. On mid-career workers, I hope the Government incentivizes more companies and businesses, through rebates or reliefs, to offer more of such traineeships and opportunities to mid-career Singaporeans to learn new skills and embark on new careers.
Mr Speaker, more than $50b has been committed from the reserves to fight COVID-19 in a matter of a few short months, more than 10 times the amount drawn from the reserves during the Global Financial Crisis a decade ago.
Unlike the Resilience Budget, I noticed the Fortitude Budget does not include a line to say that the Government would be prepared to make further draws on past reserves to deal with COVID-19 if necessary. In this regard, the employment of the Contingencies Fund in this Budget answered the question posed during my Resilience Budget debate speech which queried whether the next Government would have enough fiscal firepower to deal with the effects of the COVID-19 fallout. Nonetheless, I have a few questions for the DPM on this count.
It would appear that this Contingency Fund would provide the Government with a significant buffer against post circuit-breaker uncertainties. What is of interest is the decision-making process behind the allocation of this $13b amount – how did the Government settle on this amount, and on what basis was it justified to the President?
After delivering the Fortitude Budget, DPM was also quoted in the media saying that Singapore’s financial position will be a lot weaker in the coming years. This is a very significant comment on Singapore’s fiscal health, the implications of which have not been discussed in public in a significant way thus far. Can the Minister share more details on his thinking on this matter and what can the public expect in the short and medium term over the next 5 to 10 years, especially with regard to recurrent taxes, and the social contract between people and the state?
This brings me to my second E – Engagement. Mr Speaker, when the first of four budgets this year was announced by the DPM on 28 of February, I stated in my speech during the debate that as far as the WP was concerned, politics would take a back seat for a unity of purpose in times of the COVID-19 crisis, so that Singapore could single-mindedly overcome this challenge.
The Workers’ Party has not come in to publicly criticize the Government on its handling of an unprecedented crisis in ways that would undermine the national effort. But Singaporeans have the right to expect a thorough review and accounting on the response to this public health crisis. Some, both in and out of this House, have suggested a Commission of Inquiry or some other independent body to review specific aspects of the Government response thus far. Whatever the form such a reckoning takes in future, our position as constructive opposition requires us to communicate the feelings of Singaporeans on the ground in Parliament.
As we exit the circuit-breaker, there is the perception that the Government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis has certainly not included adjectives more commonly associated with the Singapore Government – such as clarity and decisiveness. For example, there is a broadly accepted view that the public should have been told early and clearly, and not through illegal recordings behind closed doors for example, that universal masking would prove to be a challenge in view of supply constraints, requiring the Government to prioritize our healthcare and other essential workers. To this end, straight-talk – especially on Singapore’s limitations and shortcomings in managing the crisis – did not always define official government communication on COVID-19.
There was a perception amongst some Singaporeans of a public confused with many piecemeal announcements, U-turns and positions that did not gel intuitively, like limiting the number of visits to parents and grandparents to two individuals when public transport safe distancing rules had already been lifted. Other members have spoken about the operational frustrations of businesses like those in construction, and I will not repeat this. This morning, the Straits Times carried a story on COVID-19 regulations. It compared hair treatments that can go on for hours contrasted with directives that prohibit certain beauty treatments that last more than 30 minutes. For some Singaporean businesses, at times, it felt as if no one in Government was taking ownership of how COVID-19 directives would be perceived, interpreted or understood on the ground.
Then there were higher order trade-offs and decisions that could have turned very differently in view of the numerous unknowns associated with the spread of the virus. While other countries requisitioned mask supply lines, it would appear that Singapore resisted doing so, probably with an eye on the future so that international companies would always see Singapore as a reliable place to do business. This must have been a tough call. But rather than getting the public to speculate about these decision-making trade-offs – such as whether the possible shortage of reagents to ramp up COVID-19 testing far more quickly was a problem – the public was largely left to infer positions that ought to have been unequivocally made by the Government.
For younger Singaporeans, this crisis has been educational and revealing. COVID-19 has reinforced for some Singaporeans, if not exposed for others – especially younger Singaporeans – how reliant Singapore is on foreign sources for manpower and supplies. This is something some commentators online would do well to remember when they speak ill or run down our neighbours. Malaysia closed its borders before our circuit breaker, resulting in difficult adjustment for many Singapore companies – both public and private – reliant on foreign labour. Can we imagine the psychological impact on Singapore had Malaysia stopped food supplies like vegetables as well?
Public crisis preparedness – such as a lack of understanding of emergency terminology, like DORSCON – also revealed gaps that need to be plugged in future. A belated explanation of Singapore having raised its DORSCON level to orange in 2009 as a result of H1N1, ostensibly to temper panic-buying and a jolting of memories about the existence of a rice stockpile, could not overcome a distinct lack of understanding and preparedness about emergencies amongst many segments of the public. This is unlike the mind-set of many Merdeka and Pioneer Generation Singaporeans who would recall emergency preparedness such as water rationing exercises.
Engaging more Singaporeans on the need to better compensate for, if not overcome our limitations in key areas, and reintroducing public emergency preparedness for psychological resilience has been exposed by the crisis and significant focus would need to be placed on this in future. To that end and critically, we must take stock of the entire economy and relook at sectors where greater self-sufficiency and buffer is required, especially essential jobs and services. Such a thorough review could potentially become a source of more job opportunities for Singaporeans, pegged at more respectable wage levels in some cases. I hope this is something the National Jobs Council can look at.
The last E I wish to talk about is Empathy. We have experienced it in bucket loads over the last two months. A greater acknowledgment of mental health issues, warm cheers of support for health front-liners from HDB flats, more stories of Singaporeans offering the Foodpanda or Grab delivery person water or a drink before he or she fulfils the next order, and the list goes. Singaporeans may have grumbled, but they have got on with their lives in spite of the inconveniences of the circuit breaker and played their part in protecting lives and livelihoods.
In addition, many younger Singaporeans have taken a great interest in those less well-off. This has been one of the seminal moments of our COVID-19 experience. Volunteering to help distribute food to Singaporeans in need, volunteering to swab foreign workers, delivering laptops to families in need with school-going children, and so much more. In a crisis that this generation of Singaporeans will never forget, we saw the best of Singapore. Mr Speaker, being able to put oneself in the shoes of the other is the very definition of empathy. And empathy is a significant source from which fortitude springs, and a basis to call upon the cohesion and strength needed for Singapore to overcome challenges and odds.
In response to my Resilience Budget speech and specifically, the reference to the New Deal in the US, DPM Heng cautioned about localizing schisms from the US where liberals support comprehensive relief and reform programs, and conservatives oppose plans that are hostile to business and growth. DPM would be aware that Singapore is not alien to diametrically opposed ideological perspectives and these have been present in Singapore for some time. The online discourse has in fact accentuated it.
Another case in point is the recent response of various chambers of commerce on the calls by many Singaporeans to moderate the number of foreign workers in Singapore as a result of the COVID-19 experience. With many corporates and big businesses already perceived to be over-represented in our political ecology be it through the grassroots or through their association in private-public national level committees, Government needs to consider how it can become a better arbiter between differing views, to give and encourage more space to our youth, NGOs unlinked to GLCs and trade-unions, and the people sector to voice to their contrarian views and perspectives. This should be done, while retaining a laser-like focus on fact-based conversations that portend a progressive future all Singaporeans can endeavour towards.
To this end, we have some Singaporeans, including young Singaporeans wondering whether we have done right by foreign workers, calling for an improvement of living conditions only to be met by naysayers questioning their motives. In fact, COVID-19 has paradoxically vindicated a small group of Singaporeans who have been lobbying for improvements to foreign worker management policies for years. To that end, the Government’s decision to quickly introduce guidelines for better foreign worker accommodation standards and the promotion of a more respectful culture between Singaporeans and migrant workers has been a very positive development.
In my view Mr Speaker, we should count ourselves fortunate that we have citizens who are the loving critics amongst us, some of whom have been questioned in this very House in this term of government. Members would recall one citizen’s poems were nit-picked with a view to cast wholly negative aspersions on his character, even though that individual was not present in the House to defend himself.
Mr Speaker, when any leader or person of influence engages in what will be interpreted as dog-whistling, it sets the tone for how members of the public debate with those whose views they disagree with. If binary, black and white perspectives are the shape of how we as a society deal with differences after COVID-19, Singapore will become an ordinary society, no different from many around in the world. Nobody expects the Government to willy-nilly change its decision at the first sign of pressure and agree with a critic. Singaporeans do recognize the multitude of perspectives the Government has to take cognizance of, but it is important to recognise that citizens criticize and organise because they care.
Moving forward Government should look at opening more avenues like Parliament for citizen engagement, greater data-sharing and empower other institutions like our think-tanks and the mainstream media to give alternate perspectives more voice and even provide platforms piloting change on a small scale. As we traverse the post-COVID-19 VUCA – volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous – world, we need to place more faith and promote even greater participation from Singaporeans than ever before.
In conclusion Mr Speaker, COVID-19 has prompted many Singaporeans to ask fundamental questions about our economy and who we are as a people. As many Singaporeans will have to buckle down to take on new skills and jobs, COVID-19 has also provided an opportunity for Singaporeans to take a deeper interest in their country and their society. This is a positive development even as COVID-19 has hit Singapore while we contend with other pressing short and medium term issues such as demographic shifts, technological disruption, climate change and more ominously, the impact to our position as a Global-Asia hub from US-China competition and rivalry.
The economic picture may be bleak today, and for some, a moment of anguish, but as I put forth in my response to the Resilience Budget, there are opportunities to reset some fundamental assumptions about the type of society we can endeavour and pivot towards. I use the word pivot because Singapore is a far more complex and varied economy and society than it was in 1965. The transition will demand everyone’s participation, effort and energies. But with a people determined and committed to the nation’s recovery and success, COVID-19 is a golden opportunity for this generation to envision and build a better Singapore. Mr Speaker, I support the Fortitude Budget.