Tuesday 14 May 2024

Singapore’s next Prime Minister Lawrence Wong announces changes to Cabinet on 13 May 2024

Gan Kim Yong promoted to DPM in Lawrence Wong’s Cabinet; minimal changes to line-up
By Wong Pei Ting, Correspondent, The Straits Times, 14 May 2024

Singapore’s next prime minister Lawrence Wong unveiled his Cabinet on May 13, with Minister for Trade and Industry Gan Kim Yong to be appointed as deputy prime minister.

Deputy Prime Minister Wong, 51, who will be sworn in as Singapore’s fourth prime minister on May 15, will continue as Finance Minister, a role he has taken on since May 2021.

Outgoing PM Lee Hsien Loong had remained finance minister for three years after he became prime minister in 2004.

At a press conference, DPM Wong – flanked by Mr Gan and DPM Heng Swee Keat – said he sought to balance the need for continuity and renewal in assembling his Cabinet.

DPM Wong said of Mr Gan, who co-chaired the multi-ministry task force on Covid-19 alongside him: “Through the course of working together, we’ve come to get to know each other’s working styles better, and in this period of increased geopolitical tensions, his experience in international economics will also help us navigate a more contested global environment.”

Mr Gan, 65, said he was grateful and humbled to be given the opportunity to step up, although he is “not quite” part of the People’s Action Party fourth-generation team.

Mr Gan will continue as Minister for Trade and Industry, a position he has filled since May 2021. At the press conference, he also said he would continue to focus on economic issues in this role.

Mr Heng, 63, will remain as Deputy Prime Minister, but Mr Gan will be the acting PM in the PM’s absence, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) said in a separate statement. Mr Gan will also assume responsibility for the Strategy Group within the PMO, which coordinates policies and plans across the Government.

DPM Wong said Mr Heng and Mr Gan are experienced ministers and will provide a steady hand in this initial period of transition. “I will be able to tap their views and expertise as I take on my new responsibility, and they will also help me to mentor our younger office-holder colleagues,” he said.

If his government is re-elected, DPM Wong said he plans to rotate the younger 4G ministers in different portfolios and give them wider exposure and experience. “Amongst them, I’m sure some will be able to step up and take over from their senior colleagues in due course,” he said.

Nevertheless, DPM Wong said more “fresh blood” is needed as some of the older ministers are likely to retire either at the end of this term or shortly after.

Pointing out that he is actively looking for new candidates with the potential to be office-holders at the moment, he said he aims to further renew and strengthen the team with new members, especially men and women in their 30s and 40s.

“There is no higher priority for me and that is to form the best possible team to serve Singapore and Singaporeans,” he added. He said that there will be a few among the junior office-holders who will be able to take on larger responsibilities as well.

The PMO also announced that Mr Gan will replace DPM Wong as chairman of the Monetary Authority of Singapore.

The new line-up – announced after DPM Wong accepted President Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s invitation to form the next government – also provided confirmation that PM Lee, 72, will stay on in the Cabinet as senior minister. PM Lee will also remain chairman of the Research, Innovation and Enterprise Council.

Meanwhile, two ministers of state – Ms Low Yen Ling, 49, and Mr Desmond Tan, 54 – are to be promoted to senior ministers of state. They will serve in the new role in their existing portfolios, under the Ministry of Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth for Ms Low, and under the PMO for Mr Tan.

Senior Parliamentary Secretary Rahayu Mahzam, 43, will be promoted to minister of state. With the promotion, she will relinquish her appointment in the Ministry of Law, but continue to serve in the Health Ministry as she takes up a new appointment in the Ministry of Communications and Information.

Meanwhile, two backbenchers have been brought in to strengthen the team. They are Bukit Batok MP Murali Pillai, 56, and Jurong GRC MP Shawn Huang, 41, who served as a fighter pilot before entering politics and is director for enterprise development at Temasek.

Mr Huang will be appointed senior parliamentary secretary in the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Finance, while Mr Murali, who is a lawyer, will step into a larger role as minister of state in the Ministry of Law and the Ministry of Transport.

The appointment holders will be sworn in on May 15, with the exception of Mr Murali, who will be appointed and sworn in on July 1, and the senior parliamentary secretaries, who will be sworn in on May 24.

Earlier in the day, Mr Tharman exchanged letters with both PM Lee and DPM Wong, in which the President thanked the outgoing PM for his “selfless service” in government, and said he has “every confidence” that the incoming PM will lead Singapore with honour.

In a Facebook post that followed, President Tharman said he saw first-hand PM Lee’s sense of duty to Singapore and his ability to inspire over the years he had spent working with him as a Cabinet minister before he resigned in 2023 to stand for the presidency.

The President also said he had watched DPM Wong “grow as a leader”, having known him for over two decades. “I have the highest regard for him,” he said. “He will in my view make an excellent PM for Singapore in the changing times to come.”

Saturday 11 May 2024

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's interview with Singapore media ahead of the leadership transition

Bringing everyone along: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong reflects on 20 years at the helm
As PM Lee Hsien Loong prepares to step down from his post on 15 May 2024 he shares his views on Singapore, the world and the road ahead.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong thanks Singaporeans for what country achieved over last 20 years
People live in peace and contentment today due to efforts of citizens, he says
‘I tried to bring everybody to run with me. And I think we did have some success’: PM Lee
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 10 May 2024

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said he has no regrets after leading the country for 20 years, having done what he set out to do with Singaporeans.

Singapore is a shining little red dot today, where people live in peace and contentment, and this is due to the effort of its citizens, he added.

As he prepares to step down from leading the country, PM Lee has this message for the people: “We’ve achieved much together... we are proud to be Singaporeans, and I am comforted by that. This is the result of everyone’s hard work, and I thank you for your effort and support.”

In wide-ranging interviews in English and Chinese looking back at his years in office, a relaxed and smiling PM Lee said he was ready to hand over to a new leader to take Singapore forward.

“We have been preparing this for a very long time,” he said at the interviews held at the Istana on April 24 and 26.

Noting that there have already been two successful leadership transitions, he expressed confidence that the third will be as smooth and peaceful.

PM Lee, a former brigadier-general who entered politics in 1984 and was appointed minister of state soon after, will stay on as senior minister in the new Cabinet after the handover.

Asked if he would deal with tricky issues as founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew did after stepping down, or travel the world like second prime minister Goh Chok Tong did to cement friendships, PM Lee said: “To the extent that I have people who know me and whom I can talk to, I will certainly make use of that and engage them. Specific, sensitive policy, that is up to the prime minister to decide.”

He added: “If he arrows me to do it, I will take the arrow.”

Whatever his role in the new team, he will only be in a supporting role, PM Lee stressed.

He said he told his successor: “I will be here to do my best to help you to succeed. You have to be your own person. You have to make the decisions.

“You have to lead in your own way, persuade people in your own way.

“I will give you the benefit of my experience and my views. But you have to set the tone, you have to carry the decisions.”

The Singapore that PM Lee and his team inherited in 2004 had just emerged from the Asian financial crisis and the severe acute respiratory syndrome, or Sars, outbreak.

At his inauguration speech on Aug 12, 2004, he had told Singaporeans: “Work with me to make Singapore a home we love, a community we belong to, and a country we are proud to call our own.”

In the years since, the country has stayed open amid the backlash against globalisation, and moved to provide stronger social safety nets. Gross domestic product per capita more than doubled from $46,664 in 2004 to $113,779 in 2023.

At the same time, income gaps widened, and Singapore moved towards redistribution programmes and more collective responsibility.

ComCare was launched in 2005 to bring support schemes together, and Workfare in 2007 to top up the wages of lower-income workers. The Progressive Wage Model followed in 2012 to uplift the wages of those at the bottom. MediShield Life and CareShield Life were then introduced to provide financial assurance for those who need long-term care.

But the Singaporean attitude should remain one of working hard and being prudent, and if things turn out well and Singapore has a good year, everybody can enjoy the upside, he said.

This upside, too, should not be just a distribution – “where you spend the money and it is gone” – but something society feels addresses real needs and deserves support.

Under PM Lee, the Government also introduced generational safety nets, in the form of the Pioneer Generation and Merdeka Generation packages for Singaporeans now in their 60s and older.

A visibly emotional PM Lee said: “They brought us here. If they had not stood and fought at the critical moment, and then slogged and built their whole lives to take Singapore forward, saved and enabled the next generation to move higher and further than they did, we would not be here today.”

Now that the Republic has accumulated some buffer, this is a way to thank and honour those generations, with a gesture that will help them in their golden years, he said.

With 20 more years of nation-building, the Singapore identity has become stronger, said PM Lee. “It is 20 more years of ups and downs, and trials and tribulations, and joys and sorrows.”

This identity was forged through crises, from the global financial crisis which hit in 2008 to the Covid-19 pandemic.

From time to time, Singapore has also had to work through prickly issues like the repeal of Section 377A of the Penal Code in 2022, which penalised sex between men, and allowing public sector nurses to wear the tudung to work.

These experiences enabled Singaporeans to understand one another better, accept one another’s differences, and work out practical arrangements, said PM Lee.

“But to say after this, we can fly solo – the Government does not need to watch, can take hands off the steering wheel or the controls, and it will look after itself – I do not think so. Never,” he added.

It is not possible because these issues will forever be sensitive, there have to be limits to discussions, and the Government needs to set the tone, he said.

“It is better for the Government to guide it, allow more discussions, allow freer exchange of views, and you can allow more liberal practices too. But I think we have to handle (sensitive issues) with very great care – always.”

This national identity will also always be subject to influences from the outside world, such as “wokeness”, religious norms, cultural norms, sexual norms and family norms.

Singapore will always be both part of a global humanity, and yet also a nation.

“I want to keep this Singapore nation cohesive, united, open, but not dissolved and just melted away. And that, for Singapore, for the long term, that is one of our key nation-building tasks,” said PM Lee.

While he will hand over his role as prime minister on May 15, there has been no announcement yet of when he will hand over the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) to his successor.

Observers expect that he will remain PAP’s secretary-general until at least November, when the party celebrates its 70th anniversary and holds internal elections. DPM Wong told The Economist in a May 6 interview that he would take over as secretary-general “in due course”, without stating a timeframe.

Over the years, the party has changed, said PM Lee: generationally with new leaders; in policies and how it pitches them; and also how it engages the people to get buy-in.

“We have changed a lot over the years, and it is for the better,” said PM Lee, who has been MP for Teck Ghee ward, now under Ang Mo Kio GRC, since he was first elected into Parliament in 1984.

What has remained constant is the PAP’s commitment to Singapore, and its determination to maintain high standards of integrity and competence, he said.

Under his watch, the PAP was returned to power in four general elections – in May 2006, May 2011, September 2015 and July 2020.

PM Lee said each generation of leaders has had to govern in the way that worked best for the Singapore of that era.

“Mr Lee Kuan Yew governed in a certain way, it worked for his generation. It wrought miracles practically, but it was his generation, and him. Mr Goh Chok Tong did it his way for a younger generation, different from Mr Lee.

“And I have tried to do it my way, different from both Mr Lee and Mr Goh. If I tried to do it their way, either one, I think I would have failed,” said PM Lee.

Asked to assess his own performance, PM Lee gave his usual response that it would be up to others to judge.

But he became emotional as he thanked Singaporeans for having come on this journey with him. That is what he would cherish most about having served as Singapore’s third prime minister.

“I didn’t try to run faster than everybody else. I tried to bring everybody to run with me,” he said.

“And I think we did have some success.”

Friday 3 May 2024

May Day Rally 2024

‘We have built a strong foundation for future generations’: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong
In his last major speech at the May Day Rally, he asks Singaporeans to rally behind leadership team, to make the nation succeed
By Chin Soo Fang, Senior Correspondent, The Straits Times, 2 May 2024

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said he has prepared a leadership team to succeed him that deserves Singaporeans’ confidence and support, and asked that all Singaporeans rally behind it to make the nation succeed.

Despite dark clouds on the horizon, the Republic has built a strong foundation for its future generations to continue to write new chapters of the Singapore story, PM Lee said at the May Day Rally on May 1.

In a valedictory speech at the Sands Expo and Convention Centre, he said he felt “a sense of satisfaction and completeness” as he prepared to hand over Singapore in good order to his successor, Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong, on May 15.

“I have done my duty, and I am very happy I chose this path of public service all those many years ago,” said PM Lee to a standing ovation from the 1,400 unionists, business leaders and government officials who were present.

However, leading a country is never a one-man job but that of a national team, he said as he thanked MPs and union leaders, as well as Singaporeans for their trust and support.

“I have strived to lead you and to govern Singapore in the way you deserve, to mobilise Singaporeans to show what we can do together,” he said. “I have also prepared a leadership team to succeed me that deserves your confidence and support.”

‘We have improved everyone’s lives’

PM Lee, who had spoken at almost every May Day Rally since he became prime minister in 2004, said he had sought in his tenure to build on Singapore’s strengths under past leaders such as founding PM Lee Kuan Yew and Mr Goh Chok Tong.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his team overcame tremendous odds to forge an improbable nation with multiculturalism as its creed, and made home ownership, education and healthcare available to all.

Mr Goh showed it was possible to take Singapore forward with a different style for a different era, and under his leadership, Singapore matured and became more vibrant, resilient and cohesive, PM Lee said.

Of his 20 years since he took over in 2004, PM Lee said Singapore has become better off.

Investments in promising sectors such as biotech, information technology and financial services have paid off, while the economic base has diversified as the country climbed the value chain, from factories to research and development in pharmaceuticals and nanotechnology.

Singaporeans’ quality of life has also improved across the board, including for those with lower incomes, he added.

New Housing Board towns with green spaces and amenities have been built, such as Punggol, which has turned from an ulu (Malay for “remote”) place to an attractive town full of young families.

Meanwhile, older towns have been kept up to date with the many upgrading programmes that made them fit for a more elderly population.

“This is why, unlike public housing projects elsewhere in the world, our HDB estates never turn into slums or ghettos,” he said.

Public transport has likewise improved, going from just the red (North-South) and green (East-West) lines to a much more colourful map today with the addition of the purple (North East), yellow (Circle), blue (Downtown) and brown (Thomson-East Coast) lines.

In time to come, there will also be a light green Cross Island Line and light blue Jurong Region Line, PM Lee added.

Singapore has also invested heavily in a first-class healthcare system to make it accessible and affordable to all, and poured more resources into pre-schools and infant care while transforming the broader education system to have more diverse pathways.

“In Singapore, unlike in some other countries, your postal code does not determine your destiny,” he said.

The Government has also made every effort to leave no one behind as the country progressed, PM Lee added, alluding to the promise he made in his 2004 swearing-in speech to forge an inclusive society.

One of his earliest moves as PM was to create ComCare, which brought together existing social programmes and enhanced them to channel more resources towards the needy.

Workfare was then launched to supplement the incomes of lower-wage workers, and the Progressive Wage Model to raise wages and skills in a sustainable way.

Today, children from disadvantaged backgrounds also get an extra boost through KidStart, while ComLink+ works with vulnerable families to put them on the path of home ownership.

Other components of Singapore’s social safety net were also strengthened, PM Lee added.

MediShield Life and CareShield Life help deal with large medical bills and long-term care costs; CPF Life and Silver Support are for retirement adequacy; and the Pioneer, Merdeka and Majulah packages take care of older Singaporeans.

PM Lee said he was also proud of the Singaporean pride and work ethic that has evolved, which the trade unions had helped to foster.

Whether they are teachers who spend their own time to help weaker students, uniformed personnel who become first responders even when off duty, or healthcare professionals who go the extra mile for their patients, Singaporeans take their responsibilities seriously even though not everyone can be at the top of the totem pole, he said.

“Ours is a society that takes pride in whatever we do and makes a point of doing it well,” he added.

“A society that is egalitarian and meritocratic in its ethos, where those who have done well feel a sense of duty to give back to the society that nurtured them.”

Next chapter of the Singapore story

The next chapter of the Singapore story is off to a strong start, though there are many uncertainties in the world, PM Lee said.

These include rising tensions and rivalry between big powers, deglobalisation and protectionism, technological advances and climate change, and questions of war and peace.

“The world has changed, and we must come up with updated creative responses, but some hard truths have not changed,” he said. “These imperatives will stay relevant in the years ahead.”

First, social cohesion is important, and race, language and religion are traditional fault lines that will never go away for Singapore.

While huge efforts have been made to build a shared Singaporean identity, the nation will always be subject to external forces that pull different segments of its population in different directions.

Singaporeans cannot disavow their diverse ethnic roots and religious affinities – Chinese Singaporeans with China, Indian Singaporeans with their various ancestral homes in India, Malay Singaporeans with the rest of the region, and with the global Muslim ummah (Arabic for community), he said.

While these can be vulnerabilities, Singapore does not want to lose these rich cultural and historical heritages.

“Therefore, for us, racial and religious harmony will always be a continuing work in progress,” PM Lee said. “Never think that we have ‘solved the problem’ and that we have left it behind.”

There are also other potential divisions, he noted, between the haves and the have-nots; Singaporean-born and naturalised citizens; conservatives and liberals; and the current and future generations.

“All these differences can be exploited politically, to pit Singaporeans one against another, and divide and weaken us,” he said. “Hence, we have got to continue to work hard to overcome social stresses and tensions, to enlarge our common space, and to strengthen our shared Singaporean identity.”

This is why the Government moved to allow Muslim nurses in Singapore’s public healthcare sector to wear the tudung, and repealed Section 377A of the Penal Code. These were controversial and difficult issues, but they were tackled instead of being left to fester, PM Lee said.

“So we prepared the ground carefully, worked out practical compromises and moved to a more sustainable, long-term position, while fostering mutual understanding and acceptance.”

Second, the PAP Government has always planned and acted for the long term. While having a vision and sense of stewardship beyond immediate problems and crises is important for every country, most find it very hard, he said.

Pointing to the rally venue, he recounted the long journey to turn Marina Bay into today’s reality.

The Government started thinking about reclaiming land there in the 1960s, and the reclamation project began in 1971. When he took over as PM, the Government started talking about integrated resorts (IRs).

“This was one of my first major decisions as prime minister – whether or not to allow IRs in Singapore, which would introduce casino gambling to Singapore,” he said. “After a full public debate, we decided to proceed, but with suitable safeguards in place.”

The IRs opened in 2010, just in time to catch the recovery from the global financial crisis, and they took off, he said. Today, besides the IRs, Singapore also has Gardens by the Bay, the Marina Barrage, Marina Reservoir and an iconic skyline around the bay.

There are more plans for Singapore in the decades ahead, he said. They include a new megaport in Tuas, a new Terminal 5 at Changi Airport, a redeveloped Paya Lebar after the airbase there is relocated, and a Greater Southern Waterfront for future generations to live, work and play.

Singapore will also reclaim a Long Island along the east coast, to protect itself from rising sea levels, and create more land and another freshwater reservoir, he added.

“I have no doubt that the next team and their successors will conceive more creative and ambitious projects, which will challenge us, inspire us and take our country to the next level,” he said.

Stability key to Singapore’s exceptionalism

The third fundamental principle is political stability and trust, PM Lee said.

Singapore’s whole system is anchored on a strong base of trust between the people and their Government: The people elect a PAP Government, and in turn the PAP Government works hard to maintain their trust and support.

“It shows, through words and through deeds, that it has the nation’s best interests at heart and is improving your lives,” he said.

At each election – 15 times in a row – the PAP has won a renewed mandate, fair and square, and continued to deliver results for Singaporeans, he added.

“Getting our politics right is absolutely crucial,” he said. “Please understand: We have succeeded, and Singapore has made exceptional economic and social gains, because our system is exceptional.”

The system does not have to fail outright for Singapore to get into trouble – as a 700 sq km island without a hinterland or natural resources, just being average means that the Republic will be worse off than other countries, he stressed.

“Graver still, if our system malfunctions – becomes beset by populism, tribalism, nativism, or obsessed by short-term gains, like some other countries – then we will certainly be sunk,” he said, on why it is crucial that Singaporeans uphold an ethos of excellence and to maintain political stability.

Concluding, he urged the people to make the most of the advantages that Singapore has accrued – adequate reserves, international respect, a cohesive society, and a vibrant and inclusive economy – without taking them for granted or tossing them away.

PM Lee, who was also marking his 40th year in politics, said that having done his best to lead a team that has stewarded Singapore and safeguarded its future, his successors must do the same.

“That is our path forward: For each generation to steward Singapore to the best of its ability, so that the next generation can take on a better Singapore, and, in turn, lead our nation onwards and upwards.”

Tuesday 16 April 2024

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to hand over leadership to Lawrence Wong on 15 May 2024

It marks Singapore's long-planned leadership transition to 4G political team
PM Lee to stay on as Senior Minister; any major Cabinet changes will come after General Election: Lawrence Wong
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 16 Apr 2024

Singapore will have a new prime minister on May 15, with Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong set to take over from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on that day.

The date for the handover was announced in a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) on April 15, a key detail in Singapore’s long-planned leadership transition from the third-generation to the fourth-generation (4G) political team.

When he is sworn in at 8pm on May 15 at the Istana, DPM Wong, who entered politics 13 years ago, will be Singapore’s fourth prime minister.

In a video message put up shortly after the announcement, DPM Wong said he had never expected to be asked to serve as prime minister one day when he first agreed to enter politics in 2011.

“I accept this responsibility with humility and a deep sense of duty. I pledge to give my all in this undertaking,” he said.

“Every ounce of my energy shall be devoted to the service of our country and our people. Your dreams will inspire my actions, your concerns will guide my decisions.”

PM Lee said on his social media pages that leadership transition is a significant moment for any country.

“Lawrence and the 4G team have worked hard to gain the people’s trust, notably during the pandemic,” he said. “Through the Forward Singapore exercise, they have worked with many Singaporeans to refresh our social compact and develop the national agenda for a new generation.”

PM Lee said the 4G team is committed to keeping Singapore working well and moving ahead, and asked that Singaporeans give DPM Wong and his team their full support to jointly create a brighter future.

DPM Wong, who is 51, had been the presumptive next prime minister since April 2022, when he was picked by his peers as the leader of the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) 4G team.

Before DPM Wong, who is also Finance Minister, emerged as leader, former minister Khaw Boon Wan had spoken individually to the 4G leaders and other members of the Cabinet to move along the process of finding a successor for PM Lee. Mr Khaw revealed that 15 out of the 19 he had spoken to had put DPM Wong as their top choice.

It capped a period of uncertainty in Singapore’s leadership succession.

A year before, in April 2021, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat – originally earmarked for the job by his 4G peers in November 2018 – had stepped aside to pave the way for a younger person to lead the country. He was going to turn 60, and the Covid-19 pandemic, which began in 2020, had shortened his runway as the next prime minister, he had explained.

The pandemic, meanwhile, was also what helped DPM Wong come into prominence, pundits had said.

As co-chair of the multi-ministry task force on Covid-19, DPM Wong had been front and centre in Singapore’s fight against the pandemic, along with Health Minister Ong Ye Kung and Trade and Industry Minister Gan Kim Yong.

His assured manner during the task force’s many media conferences and ability to break down issues simply had gained him admirers.

The usually business-like minister also showed a gentler side, choking back tears as he thanked healthcare and other front-line workers during a speech in Parliament at the height of the crisis.

PM Lee, 72, later said that his younger colleague and the 4G team had “earned their spurs” during the pandemic. The baptism of fire they went through put paid to worries that the team would have only a short time to forge bonds and learn to work together before having to take over.

Since then, DPM Wong and his team had gone on to take on more responsibilities, chief among them spearheading the Forward Singapore exercise to forge a new social compact with Singaporeans.

The team’s report, put out in October 2023, set the public agenda for the years ahead. It called on Singaporeans to partner the Government in developing a fair, caring and inclusive society with people progressing together.

While the Forward Singapore report has been described as a continuation of the work of the Government, there are signs that the new team will go further than their predecessors, as signalled by policy shifts such as the forthcoming introduction of unemployment assistance.

The coming into power of the 4G team also happens at a more troubled time for the world, with wars raging in Europe and the Middle East, and uncertainty in the global economy.

Amid this, Singapore is restructuring its economy for the future.

While there have been positive signs that Singapore’s economy will do better in 2024 than it did last year, more layoffs are expected due to rising costs and greater automation. Overall growth for 2024 is projected to be between 1 per cent and 3 per cent.

In many developed countries, rising inequality and slowing mobility have also divided people, and a key plank of the 4G team’s agenda has to do with strengthening bonds between people through sports, the arts and philanthropy in order to build national resilience.

With DPM Wong taking over before August, he will have the National Day Rally to lay out his plans for the year ahead. He also has his work cut out as he prepares his party for the next general election (GE).

At the biennial PAP convention held at the Singapore Expo in November 2023, PM Lee, who has been prime minister for 20 years, made his intention clear that he wanted to hand over to DPM Wong before the next general election, due by November 2025.

DPM Wong, on his part, signalled his readiness for the task. Speaking to a hall full of his party’s members, he said: “I am ready for my next assignment.”

The handover announcement sparked an outpouring of tributes from both political office-holders and backbencher MPs on PM Lee’s two decades as head of government. Many, like DPM Heng, reflected on PM Lee’s role in building a Singapore that is cohesive and future-oriented.

PM Lee will relinquish his role on May 15, and is required under the Constitution to inform President Tharman Shanmugaratnam of his decision to step aside.

He will also formally advise the President to appoint DPM Wong as his successor, said the PMO.

At the PAP convention in November 2023, PM Lee had said he will be at the new prime minister’s disposal after he steps down.

Giving an indication of his possible next steps, he had said: “I will go wherever he thinks I can be useful. I will do my best to help him and his team to fight and win the next GE. I want to help him to fulfil his responsibilities leading the country so that Singapore can continue to succeed beyond me and my 3G colleagues, for many years to come.”

Sunday 18 February 2024

Singapore Budget 2024: Building Our Shared Future Together

A Budget for all as Singapore tackles immediate cost-of-living challenges, invests in longer-term goals
By Goh Yan Han, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 17 Feb 2024

Everyone will have a slice of the Budget 2024 pie, which aims to address immediate challenges like cost-of-living pressures while investing in longer-term goals of strong economic growth, better jobs and a culture of lifelong learning.

Key policy moves include enhancements to the Assurance Package like giving out more Community Development Council (CDC) vouchers.

A significant top-up of SkillsFuture credits will benefit mid-career workers, while a corporate income tax rebate aims to help companies manage rising costs.

The Government will also be rolling out strategies to improve retirement adequacy, lower healthcare costs and provide more for lower-wage workers.

Many of these moves were signposted earlier in the Forward Singapore report released in October 2023.

Budget 2024 rolls out the first instalment of the Forward Singapore programmes, Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong said in Parliament on Feb 16 as he delivered his third annual Budget speech.

He laid out a $131.4 billion proposal – about 18.3 per cent of Singapore’s gross domestic product.

These moves are part of an “ambitious agenda” to achieve the shared goals of building a nation that is vibrant and inclusive, fair and thriving, as well as resilient and united, he said.

They come amid a mixed outlook for 2024, he said. Growth in major economies is expected to be resilient, but geopolitical risks continue to loom large.

At the same time, global inflationary pressures are tipped to further recede, said DPM Wong, who is also Finance Minister.

He was “cautiously optimistic” that 2024 will be better than 2023, as he projected a $0.8 billion surplus for the upcoming financial year – “essentially a balanced fiscal position”.

Tackling cost-of-living pressures

DPM Wong acknowledged the pressure of higher living costs faced by many households.

While the economic situation is expected to improve in 2024, there are still uncertainties, which is why he has further enhanced the Assurance Package, said DPM Wong.

The package, meant to offset the impact of the goods and services tax hike, will be boosted by another $1.9 billion.

This includes an additional $600 in CDC vouchers for all Singaporean households, with the first tranche of $300 to be disbursed in end-June, and the remainder in January 2025.

All adult Singaporeans with an assessable income of up to $100,000 and who do not own more than one property will also receive a Cost-of-Living Special Payment of between $200 and $400 in cash.

Other measures to help individuals with costs include a MediSave top-up of up to $300 for about 1.4 million adult Singaporeans aged 21 to 50.

To help parents, fee caps – the maximum amount that school operators can charge – will be reduced for government-supported pre-schools. There will also be fee reductions for special education schools.

In addition, there will be a personal income tax rebate of 50 per cent, capped at $200, for the 2024 year of assessment.

Businesses will also receive help to manage rising costs, such as a 50 per cent corporate income tax rebate, capped at $40,000.

Supporting workers and businesses

A key component of the Budget is a suite of measures targeted at mid-career workers.

All Singaporeans aged 40 and above will receive a $4,000 top-up in SkillsFuture Credit as part of a new SkillsFuture Level-Up programme.

This will benefit about 1.95 million Singaporeans currently, though those younger will receive the top-up as well when they turn 40.

While the existing basic tier of $500 SkillsFuture Credit covers a wide range of courses, the new credit will only be allowed for use for selected training programmes with better employability outcomes. More details will be announced later.

Under the new programme, there will be subsidies for all Singaporeans aged 40 and above to pursue another full-time diploma at polytechnics, institutes of technical education and arts institutions from the 2025 academic year onwards. Currently, only those studying for their first diploma benefit from government subsidy.

DPM Wong also unveiled a monthly training allowance for Singaporeans aged 40 and above who enrol in selected full-time courses.

These moves are meant to help Singaporeans develop to their fullest potential, and to have productive and meaningful careers, he said.

A key priority of the Government is to ensure a strong, innovative and vibrant economy – and it will do so by focusing on productivity and innovation, he added.

DPM Wong announced a new Refundable Investment Credit, a tax credit meant to help Singapore stay competitive and attract investments from global companies.

There will also be investments to upgrade the Nationwide Broadband Network to enable mass market access to broadband speeds of up to 10 gigabits per second in the second half of this decade. This would be 10 times faster than the broadband speed in most homes today.

DPM Wong also brought up the temporary financial support scheme for the involuntarily employed, which had been mentioned in the Forward SG report.

He said that the Government is working out the parameters for the scheme, and will provide more details later in the year.

“Ours must always be an economy that provides opportunities for all; an economy that benefits the many rather than the few,” he said.

In this vein, DPM Wong announced enhancements to schemes that uplift lower-wage workers, such as the Workfare Income Supplement scheme and Workfare payouts.

The Government will also provide more support for employers who raise the wages of lower-wage workers by increasing its co-funding levels of the Progressive Wage Credit Scheme – from a maximum of 30 per cent to 50 per cent.

To encourage and support more young ITE graduates in upskilling efforts, a new ITE Progression Award will be rolled out for those aged 30 and below.

This will include a $5,000 top-up to their Post-Secondary Education Accounts when they enrol in a diploma programme, as well as a further $10,000 top-up to their Central Provident Fund (CPF) Ordinary Account when they attain their diplomas.

Help for seniors

Another area that the Budget provides for is support for the retirement needs of senior citizens.

DPM Wong said there will be adjustments to the CPF system, such as an increase in CPF contribution rates for those aged 55 to 65 by 1.5 percentage points in 2025.

Employers will be able to benefit from the CPF Transit Offset for another year, to cover half of the increase in their contributions for 2025. This will help cushion the impact on business costs.

The Enhanced Retirement Sum – the maximum amount one can put in the CPF retirement account to receive CPF payouts – will also be raised from 2025, to become four times the Basic Retirement Sum (BRS). It is currently three times the BRS.

The CPF system will also be tweaked, as the Special Account will be closed for those aged 55 and above, starting in 2025. The savings in the Special Account will be transferred to the Retirement Account, up to the Full Retirement Sum. The rest will be transferred to the Ordinary Account.

In addition, there will be enhancements to retirement support schemes for seniors who need more help. These include the Silver Support Scheme and Matched Retirement Savings Scheme.

DPM Wong also provided more details on the Majulah Package, announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the National Day Rally in 2023. The scheme will benefit about 1.6 million Singaporeans.

The package includes an Earn and Save Bonus for seniors earning up to $6,000 a month to accumulate more retirement savings and a one-time Retirement Savings Bonus of between $1,000 and $1,500 for seniors with retirement savings below the BRS.

Rounding up his speech, DPM Wong said the Forward Singapore policy moves will cost around $5 billion in the 2024 financial year, and will in total reach close to $40 billion by the end of the decade.

Projections by the Finance Ministry in 2023 assessed that government spending would increase to around 20 per cent of GDP by 2030.

DPM Wong said that for now, that remains the Government’s assessment.

Assuming the Government stays within this range of spending increase, it should have sufficient revenues to maintain a balanced budget over the coming years, he added.

But the medium-term fiscal position is tight, as there are many pressures to spend more.

“We will have to manage these expenditures carefully, or we will end up with a significant funding gap,” he said.

This is already happening in many other advanced economies, where public finances are on an unsustainable path and fiscal systems are at risk of breaking, he added.

“We must never allow this to happen in Singapore. Instead, let us uphold the ethos of fiscal discipline and responsibility that has served us well, and ensure that our fiscal position always remains balanced, sound and sustainable.”

He reiterated that Singapore has been able to weather past storms and emerge stronger.

“I believe we can do so again in our road ahead, so long as we stay united, work together and continue to keep faith in each other.”

Parliament will debate the Budget and the spending plans of various ministries from Feb 26 to March 7.