Delivered in Parliament on 6 April 2020
Mr Speaker Sir, the COVID-19 outbreak has ground the world economy to a halt and put many health systems all over the globe under significant strain. The Singapore government has responded in a timely manner and has sought to contain the spread of the virus locally. Its actions have mitigated and kept the situation largely under control. Years of preparation, exercises and training in the healthcare realm in particular have borne fruit. However, a second phase of infections marked first by returning Singaporeans and now – by the increased community spread of the disease – has proved more challenging and difficult to manage.
Our workers fighting in the trenches and workers supporting the fight – from nurses to cleaners, from GP doctors to infectious disease specialists, from medical researchers to delivery persons, and those Singaporeans driving our people to hospitals and quarantine facilities – are our heroes. We should not forget our public officers too. From civil servants and teachers to those guarding our borders and public spaces namely our men and women in uniform, we must honour them for trying to allow Singaporeans to live our lives as normally as possible while keeping us as safe. The same goes for every Singaporean involved in this fight. Thank you for your efforts and for the hard work.
With the world economy practically shutdown, the Government, like many others around the world over the last two to three weeks, has responded swiftly with financial support for its citizenry. To that end, it is mind-boggling that the House is debating a supplementary budget that draws on the reserves just one month after we have approved the annual budget which included a first package of COVID-19 support measures. It was a budget which DPM Heng, with some pride announced, did not draw down past reserves. And since then, yet another package of measures in the shape of the Solidarity Budget in addition to the Resilience Budget has also been introduced. The situation has indeed turned quickly.
The Resilience Budget
Sir, these supplementary budgets are anything but supplementary. For the moment, they are a comprehensive response that will save businesses and jobs and help lower and middle-income households tide over the difficult short-term effects of the global economic shutdown. It is good that the assistance quantum and timeframes for the various schemes are calibrated according to the different degrees of vulnerability faced by target groups. For example, heavily impacted industries crucial for our open economy receive higher co-funding under the Jobs Support Scheme until the end of 2020. Self-employed Singaporeans, who are amongst the worst impacted by this crisis, receive nine months of assistance.
I acknowledge the support to a group of workers – private-hire bus drivers for whom some specific support and relief was announced by the Resilience Budget. Such measures do play an important part in mitigating cost of living concerns. I also wish to acknowledge the diligence of public officers such as those at Enterprise SG who have sought to engage financial institutions and banks to withhold the repossession of vehicles that our workers need for their livelihood. The challenge of much of this work – seeking the cooperation of large corporations to exercise goodwill is back-breaking, and can be easily underestimated.
The Singapore economy beyond COVID-19
Nonetheless Sir, it is very likely that some businesses will close, more workers will lose their jobs, and many Singaporeans will face or are already facing pay cuts. As DPM Heng said, the economic effects of the pandemic are likely to be long lasting.
The financial assistance measures in this Resilience Budget in the main will be effective for three to nine months. The questions I have are for the longer term. I am of the view that this is rightly called a Resilience Budget, because resilience is about being able to take a hit and recovering to continue like before. But if the pandemic is likely to take at least one year to be resolved, how long would the economic effects last? What is the government’s assessment of future scenarios?
This gives much food for thought, not just on questions the Workers’ Party asked in the past such as the size and usage of our reserves. These questions will come to the fore again, and I am grateful for the many Singaporeans who have called for the Workers’ Party to keep pressing for a greater discussion of Singapore’s reserves. This remains an eminently reasonable call and embodies the spirit of SG Together with our people seeking information and taking ownership of our society and collective future.
Sir, we are already experiencing the prospects of a recession in Singapore and the world is facing a prolonged recession. A bifurcation of the world between the US and China that this House was warned about may well accelerate as the world remembers the supply chain effects of COVID-19 on their economies. Separately, consumption in the United States and Europe, which drive the world economy has dwindled and many remain hopeful for the pandemic to reach its peak and ease off quickly. The rest of the developing world are in a lockdown mode. I believe that this mighty storm that we are experiencing is not just something we need to keep safe from by staying at home. This storm shakes up the very structure of our open economy and threatens its foundation, especially our hub status. Looking ahead, it could derail and damage our aspiration to be a Global-Asia node of technology, innovation and enterprise.
A New Deal for Singapore
NUS Business School Professor Lawrence Loh wrote in a recent commentary that the Resilience Budget is like the New Deal implemented by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to rebuild the American economy and society during the Great Depression. The New Deal took more than six years and secured the US as a welfare state with a strong federal government and a perennial national debt problem. The comparison with the New Deal is nonetheless thought-provoking.
Indeed, the Resilience and Solidarity Budgets have the features of a New Deal for Singapore. Through the Resilience Budget, we now have a taxpayer-funded unemployment insurance, income support for lower-income families, food vouchers for the poor, and protection for the self-employed – albeit temporary.
Given the long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on our economy and society, will these schemes represent a new normal, akin to a multi-year New Deal to help Singaporeans cope and bounce back from economic hardship? For Singaporeans who will continue to see disruption and technology reduce their job prospects, can we expect continued support for them in the 9 months after this package expires, particularly for training and wage support for example? If so, what considerations would determine the government’s thinking on this matter?
To this end Sir, COVID-19 has thrown up some useful lessons, like all crises do. For example, the implications of a COVID-19 type pandemic must have implications on our population and economic plans and strategies. COVID-19 has also exposed sectors of the economy that could perhaps be manned by more Singaporean workers for better resilience and national outcomes. A thorough review of what a living wage in Singapore ought to be for Singaporeans who man our critical infrastructure and keep the country’s heart beating would also be appropriate and timely, the same way strengthening our food security and critical supply chains are.
And what about our army of cleaners, both local and foreign, and the local SMEs and cleaning companies that operate in this space? Singapore owes them a debt of gratitude in this difficult period and it is time that our workers who keep Singapore clean are paid far more respectable wages, with Singaporeans ready to play their part too. I don’t think many of us truly appreciate how much more work they are doing trying to keep our HDB estates clean while continuing to clear our garbage and bulky items, and keeping to their daily routine. But that is not all. It’s the respect all of us must extend to them and all those who earn an honest living that matters so much in shaping the type of progressive society we aspire to be. Only then can we say we are people who leave no one behind.
After Singapore defeats COVID and defeat it we will, let’s turn our attention – more acutely than ever before – back on the Singaporean worker and their families, the reality of inequality and job competition. How we can improve their lot? How they can be better protected and not hamstrung by the insecurity to raise a family in the socio-economic context of Singapore? Sir, the answers to these objectives, I firmly believe, will not erode the Singaporean work ethic but enhance it and enhance our solidarity as Singaporeans.
And of course, the disturbing news many of us read this morning in The Straits Times on the living conditions of some foreign workers is a stain on Singapore and Singaporeans. And unless we act decisively in the days, months and years ahead to correct this, this stain will not go away and will eat at our collective conscience, severely damaging our sense of national unity and solidarity.
The Next Term of Government
Sir, a parallel question I have is the timing of the COVID-19 crisis on our fiscal policy and annual budget exercises. We are nearing the end of the term of government and electoral cycle, and the accumulated surpluses have come in handy to meet public needs. Even so, we are now needing to draw on the Reserves, and I support it.
But if resilience is going to be a longer-term issue lasting perhaps up to 5 years, and a major restructuring of the economy and society is required, how is the government going to balance the Budget in the next term of government? Would we need to adopt belt-tightening austerity measures to balance the Budget? Can we afford to tighten the belt? And do we need to adopt a different stance towards the reserves, debt financing and deficits?
All these considerations are going to affect the lives of Singaporeans and our political system as well. A PAP government with a fresh 5-year mandate given by Singaporeans before the next Budget will face an unprecedented problem in recent memory. The initial period of the term of government would require extra financial prudence and it also means less fiscal firepower to deal with the mighty storm of the pandemic and its aftermath. A government drawing on the reserves in its first year of the new term is unprecedented, but this may be the case if we are looking at additional support in the coming months.
Mr Speaker Sir, rather than focus on the timing of the General Elections, I think public debate will be better focused on the choices before us; whether the Resilience and Solidarity Budgets are the shape of a New Deal for Singapore; a new social compact for Singaporeans; and how we are going to renew, rebuild and reinvigorate our economy and society after the storm has passed and the dust settles.
To conclude Mr Speaker, in 1971, in a speech to grassroots leaders, Foreign Minister S Rajaratnam spoke of a Democracy of Deeds, where our actions ought to speak louder than words. Mr Rajaratnam was wise enough to share with his grassroots leaders that he was not saying that a one-party parliament was a good thing. In this likely prolonged state of economic recession, Parliament will have to also focus on a Democracy of Needs. Today, we are witnessing the threats of a pandemic to both livelihood and life itself, and so we must question its long-term impacts on the economic and even psychosocial needs of our fellow citizens. Tomorrow, after we defeat COVID-19 – and defeat it we will – we must address the long-term needs of our people in a sustainable and equitable manner. To this end, our reserves and the prospect of taxes should continue to be robustly debated and considered in a detailed manner. The Workers’ Party will play its role in these debates which is not just a function of talk, but a key purpose of this House – to determine what is best for this country we call home and our fellow Singaporeans. Sir, I support the Resilience and Solidarity Budgets.