Speech on the Budget Statement 2023

MP Dennis Tan

Mr Dennis Tan Lip Fong (Hougang): Mr Speaker, I will be speaking on three issues, First, I would like to speak on certain issues relating to the support for our seniors, followed by the proposed change in the Working Mother’s Child Relief and finally, like in my previous years’ Budget debate speech, I will continue with the issue of green transition this year as we edged one year nearer to many of our green goals for Singapore. 

Mr Speaker, the Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Mr Lawrence Wong said that the Government will need to review and update our approaches to aged care. Aged care is another area that is close to my heart. Indeed, this topic is part of the everyday conversations I have with my senior residents when I talk to them in my house visits, or at the void decks, coffee shops, neighbourhood parks or the Active Ageing Centres (AACs) in Hougang.

Deputy Prime Minister Wong said that as part of the Forward Singapore exercise, the Government is studying how it can enhance the range of care and support options within the community and this includes the operating model of AACs and how it can strengthen and coordinate the providers in the aged care sector which is highly fragmented today. I look forward to this.

 I must admit having had similar experience when I tried to help some of my Hougang residents navigate their way through the system especially when it comes to different needs or problems. I do agree with the need to review and sharpen how our AACs or eldercare centres can better serve the needs of our seniors in their cluster in a more holistic manner, all the more with Healthier SG coming on. We should work towards centres which cater to different needs of seniors whether social or medical. And when it comes to so-called more specialist areas like mental health, disabled persons who are seniors, the centres should still be the referring centres even if other organisations or sub-units are involved. In this way, seniors living in the cluster will be better served with less confusion and bureaucracy. Centre staff will also have better knowledge of seniors under their care. 

I would also like to repeat my call in my speech during the Healthier SG debate to the Ministry of Health (MOH) to study how outreach efforts can be made more effectively to seniors who are not active in the AACs, the eldercare centres or stay in touch with the centre staff or even with their neighbours, so that such seniors can better receive the intended care and support under Healthier SG as well as under the cluster support which can be provided by AACs. 

Deputy Prime Minister Wong also announced that he will top up the Eldercare Fund by $500 million to support means-tested subsidies for seniors who need home-based, centre-based or institutional care. I understand that for purposes of mean-testing, the income of all family members living in the same household is taken into consideration. Specifically, the monthly household income per person is used to determine the amount of subsidy allocated to eligible seniors. However, where households have no income, such as a retired couple or a retired single person, consideration for subsidies take into consideration the annual value of such retired seniors’ residence.

Recently, some of the seniors in Hougang gave feedback to me that as the Government has increased the annual value of their homes, this has affected the ultimate medical subsidies they get. Will the Government review the effect of the increase in the recent assessment of annual values on seniors’ eligibility for medical subsidies?

For retired seniors living alone and with no source of income, any increase in medical expenses adds burden and pressure. Even if they can theoretically downgrade to a smaller or cheaper home, this may not always be an appropriate solution and it could be for a variety of reasons including mental health. Some, if not many, may have bought into the notion that their house is an appreciating asset and it cannot be let go. There are seniors in my constituency who have continued to live in the same flats even when mobility issues and lack of lift access meant that they hardly left home or preferred to be physically carried to the next floor for lift access when they had to go out. Telling people to downgrade and/or shift to different home is never as easy and definitely not an empathetic solution.   

 Deputy Prime Minister Wong also said that while nursing homes are suitable for the elderly with high care needs and little to no family support, we cannot rely on this as the mainstream solution. A few years ago, MOH began efforts to ramp up nursing homes. In June last year, we were told that MOH planned to double the number of nursing home beds to more than 31,000 in the next 10 years. May I take this opportunity to ask for an update on the current adequacy of nursing homes, including the adequacy of nursing homes for all and different categories of care? I am reminded of this issue as I recalled being told by a resident last year how his father had to wait for some time to be allocated a nursing home. This was under category 4 care, even though there were beds available for other categories of nursing home care.  This issue was also brought up by my colleague Sengkang Member of Parliament Mr Louis Chua not long ago.

Next, I would like to touch briefly on the proposed changes in this Budget to the Working Mother’s Child Relief from 2024 onwards. At the onset, this relief is meant to encourage working mothers to stay on at work after having children by having a fairly significant tax relief. Under the existing scheme, working mothers are entitled to a fixed percentage of income reliefs for every child. The reliefs are capped at a maximum of 25%. 

Under the proposed changes announced during the Budget speech last week, the tax reliefs will be changed with effect from 1 January 2024 from a percentage of a working mother’s income to a fixed sum for each of the first child, $8,000; second child, $10,000; third and subsequent child, $12,000. Essentially, such a change benefits the lower income earning working mother but for middle income earning working mothers from, say, $4,200 per month possibly onwards, they will experience relatively lower income reliefs from 2024 onwards as compared to what they are entitled to. Essentially, this affects working mothers having a child from January 2024 onwards. It remains to be seen whether and to what extent it may deter middle income earning working mothers from having children or more children under the scheme. 

Has the Ministry of Finance (MOF) calculated what is the net effect of this scheme on the Budget and whether it is one that significantly saves money? If so, like what the hon member for Sengkang GRC Mr Louis Chua has said, why not just give a motherhood tax rebate to lower income working mothers and if the tax rebates exceed the tax payable, tax credits can be paid out in cash?

 Regardless of the Government’s intention, I think it sends a discouraging signal to affected working mothers and takes the shine off the originally intended symbolism of this scheme. I am not sure this is the right signal to be sent to our working mothers.

Moreover, it is unfair to penalise only mothers who give birth or have children from 2024 onwards. Also, there are many working women who may have married later and/or those who struggle with infertility and some of these already come with additional costs. The change may also inadvertently apply time pressure which is unfair to these women.

Let me now move on to our ongoing efforts for green transition. Mr Speaker, I am heartened that Singapore has raised its national climate target to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. The Government has said that these for Singapore require catalysing business transformation, investing in low-carbon technologies, pursuing effective international cooperation and adopting low-carbon practices. These key thrusts are indeed necessary to achieve Singapore’s net-zero ambition.

However, we also need a check on demand. While we adopt low-carbon technologies, such as carbon capture, utilisation and storage and low-carbon hydrogen for industrial heating, we must not feel that this helps to decouple industrial growth from the carbon constraint and that it allows us to continue business-as-usual. We live in an increasingly carbon-constrained world and we must downsize or allow carbon inefficient activities to leave our economy to decarbonise effectively. 

In order to do this, we need a detailed roadmap for re-training workers in these sectors as Singapore intentionally decarbonises. The management of transition of businesses and workers in carbon-intensive sectors contributes to a just-transition. SkillsFuture Singapore’s Skills Demand for the Future Economy (SDFE) Report 2022 identified sustainability skills as one that has high demand and transferability.

Yet, between the need to reskill and retrain our workers, and them actually acquiring the skills and applying it to their existing job functions or in new roles, there is a time lag. Understandably, businesses and workers need time to transition and pick up these new sustainability skills and transit to new jobs.

I noted in my last Budget Debate speech that there were around 27,000 people employed in this sector in 2020, and I focused on the manpower transition and asked how the Government intends to manage the green transition, specifically in the petrochemicals industry. A year on, this is still a question mark and a concern of mine.

Do we have sufficient sustainability-related courses that businesses and workers can afford to attend, both in terms of time and money? How much more time will it take for the learning to be internalised and applied? We must take deliberate steps to help workers transition and we have to do so mindfully, since jobs today still need to be done.

But we can and must afford workers the time and resources needed to attend training, make it easier for course providers to provide subsidies, such as SkillsFuture Singapore funding to workers and to be patient as the learning-doing gap is bridged over time.

I hope to hear some update on the progress made last year for green transition in the petrochemicals industry, generally, as well as on the issues of manpower transition. If, indeed, the Government expects that emissions may peak earlier than 2030, it is even more critical to have an accelerated timeline for our manpower transition.

Mr Speaker, I next move to seek some update on the electrification of our vehicular fleet. The passing of the Electric Vehicle (EV) Charging Act last year is welcomed, as it helps to establish clear technical and performance standards of all EV chargers. However, I do feel that the Government can still do more to persuade people to make near-term plans to switch from internal combustion engine vehicles to electric vehicles, which is about just 11.7% of all cars registered in 2022.

While the vehicular road tax changes for EVs last year, coupled with the increase in petrol prices in Singapore in the last half a year, might have made EVs a little bit more attractive to would-be buyers, it would be helpful to have a detailed roadmap on EV roll-out, so that consumers can make informed choices earlier. In addition to a strategic plan that defines a goal or desired outcome, a roadmap must also include the major steps or milestones needed to reach it. Currently, the EV vision still lacks some more details on the steps and milestones.

Some key issues with EVs today include battery reliability, software problems and the lack of local infrastructures for charging EVs. It also remains unclear how fast certain logistics fleets, including but not limited to light goods vehicles, will be switching to EVs entirely and a number of prominent logistics companies have not yet made any plans, or have not announced any plans for EV conversion, or some have made only preliminary plans for limited initial conversion.

The current public network for EV charging of around 3,600 charging points is still limited and inadequate to support any significant immediate increase in EV numbers. Yesterday’s announcement of 2,000 EV charging points being slated to be installed in one-third of HDB carparks by the end of the year, is a welcome development.

I know Minister Iswaran explained at the EV Charging Bill debate that we are dealing with an evolving space, that the technology is evolving, the adoption rates and, therefore, the consequential demand are also changing and the usage patterns, both in terms of driving and charging habits, have yet to normalise.

The Government has, therefore, decided to focus on the 12,000 charging point deployment and that the data from this deployment may inform the Government about the need for adjustment thereafter. I certainly hope this data will be out sooner, and meaningful and adequate adjustments will be made quickly, so that at least we can work towards ramping up on the EV conversion rate sooner.

As we move towards active mobility, there may also be a case for allowing charging stations to be more flexible, to be able to charge other mobility devices, such as electric bikes to cover the last mile distance. Since our national grid is still mostly powered by natural gas, I would also like to ask the Minister to elaborate on whether the Government is considering increasing the renewable energy choices for EV drivers.

Can the Ministry provide an update on whether the EV Common Charger Grant allows or encourages the building of chargers powered by solar or renewable energy? For example, given that some 40,000 chargers, of the 60,000 to be rolled out by 2030, will be in public carparks, is it possible to have some of these powered directly from some of the solar panels fitted on top of the multi-storey car parks and what are some of the challenges to doing this?

Still on the EV Common Charger Grant, I understand from the EV Charging Bill debate in November last year that the grant pays for half of the various costs involved in installing EV chargers and will be available until 31 December 2023, or when it has co-funded 2,000 chargers. I would like to seek clarification whether the grant will be extended beyond the current deadlines and parameters.

Presently, Sembcorp and Shell have faster-charging, solar powered stations but the reach is still limited as Sembcorp’s solar powered EV charging hub only caters to their electric trucks and there are still too few stations offering renewable energy options.

Minister Iswaran said, in response to my queries at the EV Charging Bill debate in November, that the light goods vehicles segment saw the highest rate of EV adoption last year, at around 28%. This is encouraging indeed. But may I also ask whether there are plans to roll out policies to incentivise more logistics companies to switch from ICE vehicles to EVs?

Minister Iswaran also mentioned at the debate that the challenge is with the conversion of the so-called big trucks, with the trade-offs with propulsion and so on, and that hydrogen or related fuel types are being considered quite actively in that regard. So, may I ask whether the Government has staged plans on the conversion of these heavy vehicles, be they heavier vehicles or logistics vehicles or other types of heavy vehicles, and whether to electric, hydrogen or other fuel types, given the stated challenges? And what is the road map for this? Will this affect our plans for 2030 and beyond?

Regardless of the classes of goods and different heavy vehicles, there is, of course, a need to look into the time taken to charge industrial vehicles as the owning companies will be concerned with efficiency. Regular drivers may also be concerned with efficiency and securing a charger for when they most need one. This is not to forget that, at least, certain categories of commercial, or even industrial vehicles, may be sharing charging points with passenger and other types of lighter vehicles.

A detailed EV roadmap can also outline pricing, power rating and plug type to enable all EV drivers to plan their charging schedules, including real-time charging updates, which is currently not available on the MyTransport.SG app. Mr Speaker, in closing, I look forward to the replies for the concerns I have raised.

22 February 2023


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