Debate on Annual Budget Statement 2022

MP Gerald Giam

Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song (Aljunied): Mr Speaker, the COVID-19 pandemic serves as a reminder to all of us of the importance of national resilience. We are now moving towards life with COVID-19 as an endemic disease, a path which is bound to be fraught with unexpected challenges. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been a stark demonstration of the fragility of territorial sovereignty in the face of aggression by a larger neighbour.

Building national resilience is a key effort we need to undertake to prepare for current and future challenges. It has to be a joint effort, borne out of the partnership between the people, society, companies and the Government. It is vital that Government policies must be supportive of this endeavour to build and strengthen resilience.

As I respond to the Finance Minister’s Budget Statement, I will talk about seven pillars of resilience I believe that we need to continuously build up our nation. These are resilient families, resilient environment, resilient infrastructure, resilient companies, resilient workforce, resilient society and resilient government.

Families are the building block of society. We must do all we can to increase the resilience of family units whatever form they might come in.

I am concerned about the plan to raise the Basic Retirement Sum (BRS) by 3.5% per year for the next five cohorts turning 55 from 2023 to 2027. MOF said that eight in 10 CPF members turning 55 in 2027 will be able to set aside the heightened BRS. This means that 20% of them will not be able to withdraw more than a token sum from their CPF. Currently, some 435,000 Singaporeans aged between 55 and 70 are unable to meet the prevailing BRS. Many of them struggle with their living expenses and are not able to use their CPF of housing payments. I hope that MOF will give careful consideration to the needs of CPF members with lower balances before raising the BRS.

For our children, building resilience starts at home. All parents, myself included, view our kids as precious gems, but we must be careful not to mollycoddle them. Let us encourage our children to take part in competitions, whether in sports, games or the arts. Every competition will have only one winner and many losers. Let them learn to win with grace and remain resilient in defeat by picking themselves up to fight another day.

Let our children take public transport to school instead of ferrying them everywhere by car. This brings an additional benefit of reducing traffic jams around schools. I commend schools that disallow parents from turning up at schools with water bottles or homework that their children left at home. Occasions like these are opportunities for our children to take responsibility for their actions and their belongings.

Next, on building a resilient environment. I am glad to hear the Finance Minister announced that Singapore aims to achieve net zero emissions by or around mid-century. In order to realise this goal, Singapore must be prepared to make big investments in emerging green technologies and take decisive steps towards wielding the mantle of climate leadership, regionally and globally.

I would like to renew my call made in January for Singapore to launch a national hydrogen strategy, and roadmap to spur the creation of a hydrogen economy in Singapore. This will set Singapore on a path towards being a global player in the hydrogen industry and benefit Singaporean workers.

NEA is now mulling the introduction of a mandatory plastic bag charge at supermarkets. I support the reduction of one-time-use plastics. However, policies designed to achieve this must take into account the local context. Most shoppers do not throw away their plastic bags but use them to bag their thrash before throwing it down the rubbish chute. If they do not have enough plastic bags from supermarkets, they might end up buying plastic bags or, worse, throwing their rubbish directly down the chutes.

Therefore, any policy interventions should strive to encourage intrinsic attitudes towards conservation, not lead to people trying to work around punitive measures. Instead of a per-bag charge, has NEA considered requiring large supermarkets to offer a discount as an incentive for not using plastic bags?

Singapore’s rapid urban development and ascent on the global economic stage was made possible in large part due to good infrastructure. Our public transport network has seen improvements in recent years although the convenience and frequency of bus services in some areas like Bedok Reservoir has been a bugbear for many commuters. This has shown up in commuters’ surveys which rate bus services the lowest among transport modes. I will speak more about this during MOT Committee of Supply.

Moving on to digital infrastructure, the prevalence of online scams points to the need for more resilient cyber infrastructure, not only at the backend but also at the frontend, with efforts to detect attempts at social engineering and prevent people from falling prey to scammers.

While our public education is important, the financial institutions must redouble their efforts to use technological solutions to detect suspicious patterns of use and stop using SMS as a channel for sending passwords.

The world has entered a stage where cyber warfare is a real threat, as demonstrated by Russia’s alleged cyberattacks Ukrainian’s infrastructure, long before the air, land and sea invasion began. Adversaries can potentially maliciously shut down or control critical infrastructure with the click of a mouse. Are our Government agencies putting enough resources into countering this threat and are critical infrastructure providers, like water treatment plants, power grid operators, telcos and public transport operators, ready to counter these threats?

Our companies have seen challenging times in this pandemic. Many are still struggling to stay afloat. The pandemic has shown our over-reliance on our foreign workforce. We need to transform our economy to boost the attractiveness of local talent to companies.

MOM should watch out for companies that circumvent market testing requirements, for example, doing a token posting on MyCareersFuture when they already have a foreigner in mind to hire. Where there are instances of companies claiming that they are unable to find Singaporeans to take up positions, we need to make a deeper qualitative assessment on why this is so. For example, are there gaps in our education system that are preventing our schools from producing market-ready graduates?

On a separate note, I believe that one of the brightest sparks from the pandemic is the mainstreaming of work-from-home arrangements. A large proportion of both employees and employers want to continue remote work, at least part of the time, even after the pandemic ends. We should build on these gains and encourage more companies, especially the traditional SMEs, to provide work-from-home options for their employees.

Good economic prospects and technological advances disproportionately benefit the high-skilled. To make our growth more inclusive, we should engage more Singaporeans economically, including people with disabilities and the elderly. Companies should extend work-from-home opportunities to engage and empower Singaporeans with mobility issues. Not only do they form a large untapped labour market with valuable experience to contribute, enabling them to work from home will help them to connect better with society, improve their overall well-being and strengthen Singapore’s social security. I hope MOM can consider ways to incentivise companies to extend work-from-home opportunities to this group of Singaporeans.

In his Budget Statement, the Finance Minister introduced a $500-a-month minimum income requirement to qualify for the Workfare Income Supplement from 2013. This could potentially impact up to 46,600 employed residents, inclusive of part-timers, who earn less than $500 a month. It will disadvantage workers who have extremely low incomes and are forced to work reduced hours through no fault of their own, or have unpaid caregiving responsibilities. The Minister said that this is to encourage part-timers and casual workers to take up regular full-time work. However, I fear that it will result in the exact opposite. Workers may decide to drop out of the workforce because their income cannot even cover their travel expenses. I appeal to the Minister to rescind the minimum income requirement, so that all lower-wage workers will benefit from Workfare. This was a call made yesterday by the Leader of the Opposition as well.

We must ensure that every working Singaporean receives a decent minimum wage. I welcome the requirements for all local workers to be paid at least $1,400 a month, if their companies employ foreign workers. All the workers are in a Progressive Wage Model (PWM) sector or occupation.

I am cheered that the Government is going to co-fund the pay increases for low-wage workers over the next five years. Building on this approach, would the Minister consider also co-funding for five years the pay increases of all Singaporean workers who are taking home less than $1,300, including those who are not in sectors or occupations covered by the PWM? This will help companies adjust to paying their workers a minimum wage and bring Singapore closer towards implementing a national minimum wage, something that the Workers’ Party has been consistently advocating for.

In addition to strengthening our workers’ rights, we also need to build more resilience in our local workers. Some employers have lamented to me about local employees quitting when they are made to work long hours, in contrast to foreigners whom they claimed have no qualms about working overtime. We should not be dismissive about those who may have genuine domestic responsibilities like taking care of children or elderly parents. However, for those that do not, including many young professionals, I feel it does not hurt to “pia” a bit more during your first job, so you can establish your career and compete more effectively with the global workforce. Of course, do this without sacrificing your mental and physical health.

A vibrant local sports scene contributes towards building a resilient society. The Suzuki Cup football tournament was a great demonstration of how sports can promote national unity. I experienced it myself when I took my son to see one of the matches.

However, cheering the Lions once every two years is not enough. Our sporting talents are playing in the international tournaments throughout the year. They should be better featured. For example, Loh Kean Yew’s historic victory at the 2021 Badminton World Championships could only be watched live on Cable Television. Non-subscribers had to wait almost a week to watch it on free-to-air TV. Featuring more of our local sporting talents on free-to-air TV or local online channels, like meWATCH, will not only imbue a greater national spirit, but will also inspire generation of young sports enthusiasts, who may go on to become future champions.

Finally, I believe we need a resilient government. A sizable presence of opposition Members in Parliament will keep the government on its toes and responsive to the needs of the people, and increase the resilience of our government.

On the other side of the coin, as an efficient and effective civil service, I commend our public servants for demonstrating great resilience in helping our nation through the pandemic. I was once a civil servant and, to this day, I hold close to my heart a piece of advice that my Permanent Secretary gave to me when I first joined the service. He told me he expected me to be a subject matter expert on the issues covered by my desk. He said it was my responsibility to provide objective recommendations in my policy submissions I put up to the senior management and Ministers. This was sound advice.

Civil servants should not second-guess what their political masters want or implement instructions blindly, just because the Ministers said so. They must also not be afraid to respectfully point out policy errors made by political office-holders, as it is in Singapore’s interests that the best possible policies are advanced. The civil service must also remain politically neutral.

The final point I wish to raise is to register my concerns over the planned hike in the GST rates in 2023 and 2024. I understand the budgetary pressures that come with an ageing society and I support moves to socialise more provision of more public welfare services, especially for the elderly. However, it remains my belief that a consumption tax hike should be the last resort to increasing revenue. This is because the GST is an inherently regressive tax, to which the poor pay a higher percentage of their income compared to the rich.

In Singapore, only a portion of the GST paid is returned in the form of GST Vouchers. The GST Offset Package is meant to help lower-income households adjust but this will last only five to 10 years. However, the GST hike will be forever.

MOF should consider other more progressive sources of revenue besides the GST hike. Yesterday, Member of Parliament for Sengkang Assoc Prof Jamus Lim did a deep dive into the Workers’ Party’s alternative levers for raising revenue. This includes higher taxes in carbon emissions, multinational corporations and wealth, using a portion of land sales and increasing investment returns contribution, which can more than make up for shortfalls in revenue brought about by higher social spending without having to increase GST.

Mr Speaker, the pandemic has precipitated societal and political upheavals in many countries. Singapore has, thankfully, been largely spared the kind of widespread rifts in society caused by measures to deal with the pandemic. Nevertheless, we must anticipate that future challenges will only get harder. Let us take the necessary steps now to build a more resilient Singapore, so that our next generation will be better prepared to weather any storm that comes.

2 March 2022

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