Thursday 5 March 2015

Parliament Highlights - 4 Mar 2015


Grow economy, revenue to balance future budgets: NTUC chief Lim Swee Say
By Lee U-Wen, The Business Times, 5 Mar 2015

INSTEAD of having to balance future budgets by cutting back on spending, labour chief Lim Swee Say recommends growing the economy and revenue.

And whether Singapore is successful in doing this will depend on its ability to progress from one stage of development to the next, he said in parliament on the second day of the budget debate on Wednesday.

He pointed out that, even as the government would always put the welfare of the workers first, the extent to which the state can do this would depend largely on whether businesses are faring well in terms of profitability and growth.

"It is always easier to secure more for workers when there is a growing pie, and it is much tougher when we have to fight over a shrinking pie," he said.

He devoted much of his speech to the need for Singapore to clear the many bottlenecks in its path as the country prepares to deal with challenges in the coming years.

Mr Lim coined a new term, "futurisation", which he defined as the ability of a nation to move faster into the future and remain ahead of the competition.

Among the bottlenecks Singapore has to contend with is acceptance of the importance of boosting labour productivity and innovation as ways to expand capacity for future growth.

"Without additional capacity in our economy, there will be no room for growth.

"We have been expanding our workforce, but the pace has slowed. Our manpower utilisation is near full capacity, and unemployment is low."

Mr Lim, the secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), warned of the consequences that could arise if Singapore's productivity does not improve.

Over the course of the debate, MPs have expressed concern about the slow improvements in Singapore's labour productivity, even as the country undergoes economic restructuring; the latest figures show that productivity here has declined in three of the last four years.

Mr Lim told the House: "If productivity growth remains low or even negative, we could end up with low (economic) growth or even stagnation due to this lack of capacity."

While there is "encouraging progress" as more companies get on the productivity bandwagon, the majority of firms have yet to make significant strides.

"We need to widen the outreach and quicken the pace. The transformation is not just company by company, but also sector by sector. We have to make productivity a truly national movement," he said.

The labour chief also spoke about the need to realise the full potential of the Singapore workforce and work towards a stage where "every employer values every worker".

Addressing the concerns faced by many employers of the difficulty in recruiting locals in the tight labour market, Mr Lim said it was not necessary to make every single job attractive to local workers:

"Just two-thirds of the jobs will do. It's not our intention to drive away all foreign workers in Singapore," he said, adding that the remaining one-third of positions would be filled by those from abroad.

Returning to his earlier point about embracing the future, he urged Singaporeans to turn existing challenges into the "opportunities of tomorrow", citing new technologies such as 3D-printing and the use of big data as areas people should get into.

The House applauded him at the end of his 30-minute speech, which was significant also in that it was the final time he was speaking at a budget debate in his capacity as NTUC chief.

With the labour movement set to elect its next Central Committee later this year, he will not be putting his name into the hat for another four-year term.

The NTUC Constitution requires its leaders to step down upon reaching 62, and with his turning 62 in July 2016, he would be unable to serve another four-year term.

A total of 26 members of parliament (MPs) spoke on Wednesday, taking the total to 51 so far. Several more are expected to address the House at the start of Thursday's sitting, which begins at noon.

Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam will address the various issues and concerns in his wrap-up speech later in the day.

Once that is done, parliament will move on to the annual Committee of Supply debate, which is expected to run until next Friday. During this debate, MPs will scrutinise the estimated budgets and spending plans of all 15 ministries and the Prime Minister's Office for the coming financial year.

Key ingredient for SkillsFuture's success: Personal commitment
MPs also raise issues like interest, awareness and variety of courses
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 5 Mar 2015

MPS yesterday laid out the vital ingredients they believed would ensure the success of a new programme that aims to help Singaporeans keep mastering new skills for the workplace.

SkillsFuture, a star feature of this year's Budget, drew the attention of 17 out of the 26 MPs who spoke on the second day of the debate on the Budget statement.

They were intent in wanting the billion-dollar programme to work.

"SkillsFuture would end up as a white elephant if the majority of citizens are not aware of the courses or find it difficult to access them, (do) not utilise it due to lack of time or are not motivated to invest in themselves," said Mr David Ong (Jurong GRC).

Under the scheme, an initial $500 grant in SkillsFuture Credit will be given to each Singaporean aged 25 years and older to pay for approved courses. The Government has committed more than $1 billion for these credits from 2016 to 2020.

But for it to truly succeed, Mr Ong and other MPs said, Singaporeans must personally commit to learn and upgrade their skills throughout their lives.

"Without a personal commitment - rooted in a sense of responsibility towards oneself and one's family - we will not have the necessary buy-in for (it) to take off," said Mr Ong Teng Koon (Sembawang GRC).

In contrast, people with positive attitudes will find ways to learn the skills that they need but lack, said Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) Yee Jenn Jong.

This is why the success of the various SkillsFuture schemes, which include study awards and fellowships, hinges on personal responsibility, said Mr Patrick Tay (Nee Soon GRC) and Ms Penny Low (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC).

Reaching out to more people and explaining how they can use the scheme is also important, said Mr David Ong and Mr Zainudin Nordin (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC).

Likewise, a mindset change, with Singaporeans going from fixating on academic qualifications to understanding the importance of skills. This is important if SkillsFuture is to stand out from previous national learning drives and succeed, said Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC).

Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC) said: "We should pursue lifelong learning because of our own interest and our job requirements, so that we can do our work more effectively and efficiently, and not just for that piece of paper qualification."

To reinforce the mindset that "education is for everybody at any level, not just those who are academically-inclined", she suggested the scheme offer a wide variety of courses.

Having career counsellors in schools, so that students start learning and thinking about their future and jobs at an earlier stage, is important, said Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC).

Bosses can also top up the SkillsFuture credits of their staff to motivate them to embrace learning, said Mr Tay.

Other MPs offered ideas on how the Government can improve the way the scheme is designed and carried out.

Mr Png Eng Huat (Hougang) proposed having continuing education classes, conducted both online and on campus by institutes of higher learning, that can be paid for with SkillsFuture credits.

Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar (Ang Mo Kio GRC) wanted the new Earn and Learn programme - which matches fresh polytechnic and ITE graduates with employers for on-the-job training while letting them further their studies - to be extended to university graduates and housewives wanting to work again.

NCMP Lina Chiam said SkillsFuture programmes should take a targeted approach and identify skills needed in each job sector.

But Denise Phua (Moulmein-Kallang GRC) said it was also important to teach digital skills such as building an online presence and online marketing. Doing so will help people be ready for the future no matter what industry they are in, she added.

Employers should support SkillsFuture initiatives: Patrick Tay
By Saifulbahri Ismail, Channel NewsAsia, 4 Mar 2015

Employers should lead by example and support the programmes and internships that will be offered under the SkillsFuture initiative, said MP for Nee Soon GRC Patrick Tay during the Budget debate in Parliament on Wednesday (Mar 4).

Mr Tay said employers play a crucial role in supporting this spirit of lifelong learning and should proactively send workers for training and upgrading.

Starting next year, Singaporeans aged 25 years old and above will receive an initial SkillsFuture Credit of S$500 to be used for a broad range of courses. He noted that training support and funding is at an all-time high and employers should not use lack of resources as an excuse.

Said Mr Tay: "As Singaporeans embark on individual initiated training and on tapping on their SkillsFuture credits come next year - to undergo training and upgrading - I urge employers to give the much needed support, encouragement and even time-off from their work. This is especially so when some of these individual initiated training and their practicums and exams may be conducted during working hours."

Singaporeans need to be more resilient, says Tan Tai Yong
By Siau Ming En, TODAY, 4 Mar 2015

Singaporeans need to build strength and resilience to cope during times of uncertainty and unpredictability, said Nominated Member of Parliament Tan Tai Yong during the Budget debate in Parliament today (March 4).

With an unpredictable future that brings about challenges and possibly crises, Prof Tan, who is also the executive vice-president (Academic Affairs) at Yale-NUS College, said this will demand a “new kind of Singapore”.

“The kind ironically, that does not come from stronger social security alone, but the sense that we can be strong even without having to rely solely on inanimate things such as infrastructure or systems or institutions but on people and communities that can count on one another,” he said.

Every successive Budget since 1965 has tried to introduce a slew of initiatives to “deliver the good life to Singaporeans”, said Prof Tan. This includes emphasis on job survival, the build-up of physical infrastructure to recent concerns of meeting education and career aspirations.

“But to truly build a future, to make sure that Singaporeans are ready for the future we need not just ensure comfort and peace, but also to prepare for difficult conditions and uncertainty,” he said.

Too often, he noted, the Government tries to build the means to continuously improve the infrastructure so that Singaporeans are spared the discomfort. This includes adding more trains, buses to address complaints about the overcrowding public transport system, for instance.

But Prof Tan felt Singapore remains quite vulnerable when it comes to having the systems and actors to adapt to changing realities.

“If under severe conditions, our infrastructure, our much-lauded forward-planning can no longer cushion from the very worse, what will happen?”

No amount of over-provision can guard against outlier crises, he added.

To be more resilient, Prof Tan suggested that Singapore can learn from Australia, which conducts regular water rationing exercises in order to remind people that water is in short supply and if there was a severe drought, its people would be able to adapt.

More primary school children should be encouraged to take the school bus instead of being chauffeured by their parents. Students should clean up and be responsible for their school’s cleanliness, instead of relying on cleaners, added Prof Tan.

Minimum wage 'will offer comprehensive longer-term solution'
By Chong Zi Liang, The Straits Times, 5 Mar 2015

THE controversial issue of a minimum wage surfaced in Parliament again yesterday, after MP Inderjit Singh (Ang Mo Kio GRC) repeated a call he had made in previous years to introduce a national salary floor.

Back in 2013, Mr Singh had asked the Government to help with making a five-year transition to a minimum wage of $1,500 monthly.

But labour chief Lim Swee Say had rejected the idea at the time, saying that Singapore's combination of wage subsidies and skills training for low-income earners was more effective to raise incomes at the low end.

Undaunted, Mr Singh said in yesterday's Budget debate that while he acknowledged the continuing efforts to boost the pay of low-wage workers, a minimum wage across the board was still necessary so that those with the lowest salaries will not need to rely on continual state aid.

"A Singaporean earning very low wages - who has a family to support - cannot cope with unrealistically low salaries," he said.

"We should formalise a national minimum wage so that Singaporeans are more self-sufficient and don't have to rely on regular government interventions to help them cope."

One measure the Government has put in place to help low-income workers is the Progressive Wage Model (PWM), which prescribes a minimum wage in certain industries.

Launched in 2012, the PWM has been implemented in the cleaning industry and will apply to the security sector next year.

Mr Singh recognised that the PWM has helped Singaporeans to cope with the rising cost of living, but feels the scheme "does not provide the comprehensive longer-term solution that is needed".

"Some companies have gotten around the PWM by reclassifying jobs in the two sectors affected by it, while employers in sectors not covered by the progressive wage model have little incentive to redesign their jobs," he said.

In a separate speech, Nominated MP K. Karthikeyan encouraged companies to boost productivity under the PWM so that workers can carry out their jobs more effectively and efficiently.

This will lead to real, sustainable wage increases, he said.

"We need companies to be more forthcoming in identifying gaps, redesigning work, reviewing work processes, innovating and developing new products and services; only then can we be more hopeful that we can have a quantum-leap improvement in productivity," he added.

Mr Karthikeyan, who is a vice-president at the National Trades Union Congress, had previously suggested applying the PWM to more sectors, ahead of starting his term as NMP in August last year.

Budget incentives don't help firms manage daily woes
SMEs badly hit by rising business costs and labour shortage, MPs warn
By Chia Yan Min, The Straits Times, 5 Mar 2015

THIS year's Budget contained plenty of incentives for companies to grow and restructure, but not enough to help them cope with daily woes, MPs said during the second day of the Budget debate in Parliament yesterday.

These woes include rising business costs and an ongoing manpower shortage, which are hitting small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) especially hard.

Mr Inderjit Singh (Ang Mo Kio GRC) was among the speakers who sounded warnings about the "plight of SMEs", saying many of them are too preoccupied with managing day-to-day costs to think about raising productivity or venturing overseas.

"The general feeling is that things have become worse for SMEs in the last few years and business owners wonder if the Government is listening enough to their problems," said Mr Singh, who is himself an entrepreneur.

"Are we doing enough to help them? Or are we prepared to allow a substantial proportion of them to exit, shut down or die a natural death?"

The "exodus" of companies relocating out of Singapore to lower-cost countries has already started, "and it is going to accelerate further unless we do something about rising costs", he said, adding that firms are unlikely to come back once they move away.

Mr Singh also joined a chorus of MP voices calling on the Government to fine-tune its foreign manpower policies.

Instead of a blanket foreign worker levy, companies employing fewer foreign workers than the average for their sector should be given a rebate, he said.

Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC) said that while companies welcomed the foreign worker levy deferment announced in the Budget, they were "disappointed" that there were no other measures to address their manpower woes.

Foreign workers are a necessary part of the economy, particularly for jobs which locals do not want to do or lack the skills to take up, added Ms Lee.

A "one-size-fits-all solution" will not work and some sectors might need more "hand-holding", she said.

Mr Ong Teng Koon (Sembawang GRC) agreed that manpower policies need to be more sector-specific, and warned against going too far in tightening the tap on foreign workers.

MPs also said SMEs should be given more opportunities to take on public-sector projects, so they can build up a track record for overseas ventures.

In encouraging companies to go abroad, "we should not put them on a boat with some rations and then expect them to sail the high seas", said Ms Lee, who added that local companies should first aim to gain experience at home.

The Government "should lead by example" in awarding major projects to local SMEs, she added.

"I am not asking for a protectionist policy, but we should promote buying Singapore products and services first."

Start-ups should also be able to test-bed their ideas locally before selling them worldwide, suggested Non-Constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong.

To help SMEs survive and thrive, Ms Denise Phua (Moulmein-Kallang GRC) proposed appointing a minister dedicated to business issues, and having the Government conduct a comprehensive review of SMEs' needs.

She added that large firms should get incentives for mentoring smaller ones, and should also be encouraged to set up training institutes to develop workers in the industry.

Ms Phua also spoke up for micro-enterprises that employ fewer than 10 workers.

They face the same problems as their larger peers but may not have the capability to overcome them and grow, she said.

The Government should help these businesses grow and scale up if appropriate, she added, praising the outfits for their spirit of entrepreneurship, tenacity and energy.


GST is a regressive tax and the Government should identify essential goods and remove the GST on these essential goods.

To help cushion the impact on lower-income earners, we should exempt GST on certain necessities such as milk powder, diapers, medicine, health supplements, mobility aids and exercise equipment for the elderly. Apparently, the usage of diapers was rationed in some nursing homes to reduce costs.

This is very unhygienic for the wearer.

I would also like to point out that between (economies) like Sweden, which spends about 30 per cent of gross domestic product on social spending, and... Hong Kong, which spends about 3 per cent, there is a middle path. Finding the middle path is what Singapore has to get right.

- Non-Constituency MP Lina Chiam, on exempting essential goods from goods and services tax


While we may not be very rational beings, in the long run, we all have to face reality, whether in relationships, in the career we choose or the politicians we vote for. And a competency check is also a good reality check.

Singaporeans have had 56 years of experience with (the) People's Action Party's competency, starting in 1959 when Singapore achieved self-government.

Admittedly, competency is always a work in progress and we can always improve, even if we make mis-steps along the way, such as delay in improving our infrastructure and capacity of our public services, as our Prime Minister mentioned recently.

But by any international standards and in the large scheme of things, our PAP Government has always been competent.

- MP Sitoh Yi Pin, on picking a competent government

Silver Support 'must not replace family support'
MPs also want less bureaucracy, more flexibility in scheme
By Walter Sim, The Straits Times, 5 Mar 2015

THE Silver Support Scheme that gives the poorest elderly payouts for life every quarter does not absolve their family members from supporting them in their twilight years, MPs said yesterday.

Family is still a key pillar of social support, and the duty to care for seniors should not fall solely on the Government, said Mr David Ong (Jurong GRC) and Mr Alex Yam (Chua Chu Kang GRC).

Mr Ong said: "It will go against the spirit and intent of this meaningful scheme if children take a step back, reduce or stop their support for their elderly parents who now have help from the Silver Support Scheme."

The permanent scheme, to be rolled out early next year, aims to support the bottom 20 per cent of Singaporeans aged 65 and older, with a smaller degree of support extended to cover up to 30 per cent of seniors.

About 150,000 elderly people stand to receive payouts of $300 to $750 every quarter.

But MP Seng Han Thong (Ang Mo Kio GRC) warned that this vulnerable group tends not to be as well-informed and may be wary about getting free money, even from the Government.

"Some of them work as cleaners, hawker assistants and there are reports that they're being cheated of their hard-earned money and savings," he added. "When they receive money from someone, they also ask: 'Why give me? Is it true?'"

That is why more effort must be made to communicate properly the intent of the Silver Support Scheme to them, Mr Seng said.

He suggested using a multi- platform approach to explain the scheme, like what was done for the Pioneer Generation Package of life-long subsidies and Medisave top-ups for 450,000 Singaporeans born in 1949 or earlier.

One such method was the use of specially-designed red packets, which expressed the nation's gratitude to the pioneer generation for their hard work.

There were more calls for less bureaucracy and greater flexibility in the Silver Support Scheme on the second day of the Budget debate yesterday, with Mr Yam asking for "less hoops, more heart".

It has been announced that factors such as lifetime wages, housing type and the level of family support will be considered in determining eligibility.

But rather than an "administratively expedient" blanket approach, there should be room for discretion and appeals, said Mr Yam, citing experiences with poor residents who were unable to get help under other schemes owing to their housing types.

Non-Constituency MP Lina Chiam wants the scheme to be reviewed every four years to deter under-declaration of income.

The Silver Support should be seen in tandem with the arsenal of strategies employed to help an ageing population manage retirement, said MP Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC).

These include measures that let people capitalise on their assets like the Lease Buyback Scheme, which will be extended to four- room flats from next month.

While Silver Support shows the Government is cognizant of the needs of the poor, Mr Nair feels there is room for greater flexibility in helping Singaporeans manage their retirement.

He suggested letting the CPF Life scheme to be charged against one's HDB flat.

For example, if one does not have $200,000 in his CPF account but wants higher income when he turns 65, he could agree to a charge against his property to make up for the shortfall, with the amount to be paid back when the flat is sold.

Mrs Chiam went one step further, asking for regular payouts of $500 twice a year as a form of "allowance" to all Singaporeans aged 65 and older - on top of the Silver Support for those who qualify.

Estimating that it will cost $450 million in the first year, she said: "Many citizens over the age of 65 have contributed much to Singapore in their younger days, (and) the Government could recognise the contributions."

NMP Kuik Shiao-Yin on the importance of inclusivity to young people in Singapore:

"There is no value that speaks louder to this generation of young people than inclusivity.

Deep down, we all want a Singapore that is full of grace, that perceives every person who shares this island as worthy and accords the same level of respect and dignity to the strong as well as the weak.

We all want to feel that no matter who I am, this country will always have my back.

That is why so many young people pay close attention to how the State talks to and treats its weakest, and are so critical of any sign of inconsistency. They take it personally as a sign that some day, that could be how the State will talk to and treat me.

It's important for us young Singaporeans to lay down our self-righteousness and admit that we all struggle with inconsistency - not just the Government.

Many of us who want inclusivity also find ourselves excluding (others) still. Some of us may speak compassionately about the poor and powerless but are filled with loathing for the rich and powerful. Some of us may fight lovingly for animals, but talk hatefully about new migrants.

If we are honest, we should admit that we are all inconsistent. But if we are mature, we would also in the same breath say we are not satisfied with being inconsistent - we will always try to stay open to changing how we view (others) and creating a place that welcomes them.

I hope all of us - the people and the State - will be honest, mature and humble enough to keep an open conversation going as we (hold a) dialogue together about how to develop compassionate policies that include everyone: the rich and the poor, the young and the old, the strong and the weak, the native and the foreigner, the PAP (People's Action Party) and the opposition, the ones who got their act together and the ones who screwed up.

Don't write off older workers, MPs say
By Chong Zi Liang, The Straits Times, 5 Mar 2015

OLDER workers still have much to offer, and should not be seen by employers as strains on the bottom line, MPs said.

Their value at the workplace should also be reflected in the Central Provident Fund (CPF) contributions they receive, they added, in calling for further raising CPF contribution rates for workers aged above 55.

"There is still a lot left in the tank when you are 60 or even 70," said MP David Ong (Jurong GRC).

"Many still want to be socially engaged in work, be it for active ageing or for sustenance."

Said Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar (Ang Mo Kio GRC): "Now, a 50-year-old is considered still young, with about 30 more years to live and (he) can be economically active for at least another 15 years."

They were among several MPs who spoke yesterday in support of the Budget's recent move to raise CPF contribution rates for workers aged 50 to 55 to be on a par with those for younger workers - with the employer contributing 17 per cent of a worker's monthly pay to CPF, and the worker, 20 per cent.

Mr Ang Wei Neng (Jurong GRC) asked for the CPF contribution rates of workers aged 55 and above to be brought to the same level too, so they can save more for retirement.

While workers aged 55 to 65 will get a 0.5 to 1 percentage point increase in their CPF contribution rates with recent changes announced in the Budget, the rates are still lower than those of younger workers.

"Do professionals, managers and executives (PMEs) become significantly less productive after turning 55 years old? In fact, some may argue that older PMEs have deep experience and may be more productive than their younger counterparts," said Mr Ang.

Mr Ong, meanwhile, called for more to be done for those above 65, since there will be more such workers as the population ages.

He said the workers faced a "double whammy" as their wages and benefits are reduced at re-employment, on top of their employer's CPF contribution.

The MPs added that they empathised with companies' worries about business costs going up with higher CPF contribution rates for older workers, but said a mindset change was needed amid a tight labour market.

"The tide has turned as many employers now cannot find enough local workers," Mr Ang said, adding that many firms have resorted to hiring older local workers so as to meet the quota to hire foreign workers.

Workers' Party MP Png Eng Huat (Hougang) said earlier tweaks to CPF contribution rates to make older workers cheaper to hire had unintended negative effects.

"It ingrains the notion older workers are a liability rather than an asset to hire so there must be some trade-off," he said

"This is certainly not aiding the effort to eliminate ageism in hiring, especially in an ageing society like ours."

'Tailor policies to support growing pool of freelancers'
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 5 Mar 2015

THE pool of independent workers is growing in Singapore and Ms Irene Ng (Tampines GRC) yesterday called on companies to take advantage of the situation.

She also urged the Government to support and protect these workers, who are disadvantaged despite their growing numbers.

Known also as contractors, freelancers, consultants, portfolio workers, temps or the self-employed, their rise is driven by the tools that let people work independently across industries such as software, design and legal services, said Ms Ng.

In other global cities, leading companies take advantage of the situation in hiring these workers as and when needed instead of having to employ full-time staff, which is costly, she noted.

But in Singapore, companies are not making full use of them.

One way companies can do so is to offer them more jobs that can be done remotely, she said.

Ms Ng told the House she had met many professionals in Singapore of various ages who chose to be freelancers rather than full-time employees. "They put a high value on freedom, flexibility, purpose and meaning. Work-life balance is important to them."

And she wants the Government to tailor its policies to take into account this growing sector.

"Our current system is heavily geared towards people working in conventional ways - from applying for housing to preparing for retirement - and must change."

For instance, self-employed workers like cabbies do not have income security, and many do not have enough Central Provident Fund savings, she said.

They are not entitled to retirement and health benefits like CPF contributions from their employer and medical leave.

"Our policymakers must review how the greater use of contingent work arrangements affects income, consumption, and access to health and retirement benefits," Ms Ng said.

'Extend exam fee waiver to more students'
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 5 Mar 2015

THREE MPs yesterday called on the Government to go further in eliminating exam fees for students.

This comes after a decision in Budget 2015 to waive the fees that Singaporean students pay to sit national examinations in government-funded schools.

From this year, students will no longer have to pay to sit the Primary School Leaving Examination as well as the GCE N, O and A level exams.

The fee waiver also covers Singaporeans enrolled full-time in Institute of Technical Education (ITE) colleges and the polytechnics.

The move will save families with school-going children up to $900 over the primary to pre-university years.

Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar (Ang Mo Kio GRC) asked that the fee waiver be extended to Singaporeans studying full-time in private schools, not just government- funded ones, and who are sitting national exams for the first time.

"This proposal is similar to the allocation of Edusave funds for all Singaporean students," she said.

"I believe no Singaporean student should miss the opportunity to pursue their dreams through education."

Mr Faisal Manap (Aljunied GRC) echoed Dr Intan's call to apply the exam fee waiver to a wider range of students.

"I'd like the Ministry of Education to consider extending this waiver to students who are in private schools, and students in the polytechnics and ITE who are doing part-time studies," he said.

And Mr Zainudin Nordin (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) asked for exam fees to be waived for those studying at madrasahs, or Islamic religious schools.

'Make tax deduction of 250% for donations permanent'
By Marissa Lee, The Straits Times, 5 Mar 2015

ENCOURAGING the rich to give to the needy can help to better redistribute wealth in Singapore, alongside other measures like raising income taxes at the top end, Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC) said on the second day of the Budget debate yesterday.

To put donors in a generous mindset, Mr Seah called for the Government to make permanent the 250 per cent tax deduction for donations.

This policy, which lets people deduct from their taxable income 2.5 times the amount they donate to charity, was due to expire this year but was extended to 2018 in last month's Budget.

For this Jubilee Year, donors will be allowed a 300 per cent tax deduction for their donations.

Mr Seah, who is FairPrice chief executive, suggested that this bonus deduction be extended to 2018.

Allowing the rich to "to redistribute wealth in their own way, and towards causes which they support" makes Singapore a "fairer" place, he said.

Mr Seah also asked for data on whether the increase in donations after the introduction of the 250 per cent tax deductions policy had offset the fall in tax revenue.

"I think we could be gaining in donations more than we are losing in tax revenue," he said, based on his rough calcuations.

Last year, individual donations reached a record high of $1.25 billion, a 14 per cent increase from the $1.10 billion raised in 2012.

This is "no small amount", considering that the budget for the Ministry of Family and Social Development was only $1.69 billion in 2013, said Mr Seah.

He emphasised that he was not ask to raise the top marginal tax rate beyond the 22 per cent proposed in the Budget, but that more incentives be given for individuals to perform their "public duty" through donations.

Important to ensure Singapore does not end up becoming a ‘luxury’ city: Irene Ng
By Vimita Mohandas, Channel NewsAsia, 4 Mar 2015

Even as Singapore becomes more cosmopolitan, it is important to ensure that it does not end up becoming a luxury or a generic city that is no different from other cities or countries. Member of Parliament for Tampines GRC Irene Ng sounded this caution as she cited Orchard Road as an example.

The shopping belt boasts many luxury shops which make it no different from those one can find in London, New York or Paris. Ms Ng added that these luxury shops that sell branded goods are beyond the budget of the average Singaporean.

Hence, she stressed that it was important to ensure that these trends do not overwhelm the local cultures in the Republic and the national identity.

Ms Ng noted: "To preserve the feel of Singapore as a familiar home, we need to invest more in our local arts and heritage, and in conserving our distinctive landmarks and localities even if they do not seem to make immediate or obvious economic sense.

“We should jealously guard our few remaining sleepy hollows, such as our outer islands, with their small local businesses and rustic charm. May Starbucks never set up shop in Ubin."

Expand public spaces to allow more interaction among Singaporeans: Seah Kian Peng
By Vimita Mohandas, Channel NewsAsia, 4 Mar 2015

Public spaces should be well-funded and well-thought out for all Singaporeans to interact, said MP for Marine Parade GRC Seah Kian Peng.

Speaking in Parliament on Wednesday (Mar 4), Mr Seah said public spaces such as hawker centres could be more conducive for people to “hang out at”. He also encouraged hawkers to foster a closer relationship with their customers.

Mr Seah also brought up his National Service (NS) days, where he says he gained experience through his interactions with other Singaporeans.

He added that public spaces should exist for Singaporeans of all income groups to come together with a common goal, “whether (it is) something humble such as enjoying a meal together, or a worthy and higher endeavour such as protecting our home”.

“We have to make them bigger and brighter, if we are to build a common future together,” Mr Seah said.

Petrol duty hike unlikely to encourage switch to greener cars: Ang Wei Neng
By Laura Elizabeth Philomin, TODAY, 4 Mar 2015

Pointing out that the increased petrol duty has been labelled as the “biggest stink” in this year’s budget by car users, Jurong GRC Member of Parliament Ang Wei Neng said the move appears unwise.

He had calculated that the increased petrol duty would yield about S$177 million a year, or net revenue of S$33 million in the first year after the one-off road tax rebate.

“If this budget is an election year budget as framed by Ms Rachel Chang of The Straits Times in her commentary, then the S$33 million gain from the petrol duty hike does not appear to be a clever move,” he said. “This is because most of the budget goodies only take effect later this year or in 2016 but the increase in petrol duty is immediate, burning a hole in the pocket before one can smell something sweet.”

Mr Ang was the last of the 17 speakers in the debate on the Budget Statement today (March 4) before Parliament adjourned for a break. However, he also noted that the petrol duty hike needs to be looked at together with the policy tweak on the Carbon Emission-based Vehicle Scheme (CEVS).

While the Government may be trying to urge Singaporeans to buy car models with lower carbon emissions by increasing rebates and petrol prices at the same time, Mr Ang estimated the impact of increase petrol tax of S$0.15 per litre to cost S$4,610 over 10 years. This is less than the S$5,000 rebate for an A4 band car — the lowest band that enjoys rebates for lower emissions.

Pointing out that the cost of a greener car is much higher than a normal car, and the current tweak in the CEVS only increases the rebate for the highest band of lower carbon emission cars, Mr Ang urged the Government to be more generous in the Additional Registration Fee rebates under the CEVS.

“Otherwise, the increased petrol duty is unlikely to nudge Singaporeans to buy greener car and will be portrayed as a means to raise tax revenues,” he said.

Calls by several MPs for Govt to be prudent in spending
By Marissa Lee, The Straits Times, 5 Mar 2015

MORE calls for prudence in Government spending were heard from three MPs as the Budget debate moved into its second day.

Mr David Ong (Jurong GRC) warned that Singapore must not be like some of the oil-producing countries that had committed to "huge long-term social spending", only to be shocked when crude prices plunged.

"Whilst we are in a fortunate position to tap the Net Investments Return (NIR) Framework to help balance our Budgets, we cannot take it for granted that these returns will be constant and bottomless," said Mr Ong.

Mr Ong Teng Koon (Sembawang GRC) supported the Government's move to include Temasek Holdings in the NIR framework, a step that will allow the Government to spend up to 50 per cent of Temasek's long-term expected returns to the service of the nation. But he urged the Government to be "prudent" in spending down its "critical mass of reserves".

Mr Ong Teng Koon also called for the Government to establish a "robust" framework to determine the value of its expected long-term returns from Temasek, GIC and the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS).

This is important because "any modelling errors will not just be mathematical mistakes - they would have a real impact on future generations of Singaporeans", he said.

Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) from the Workers' Party also called for more clarity on Temasek's expected contribution to revenues.

He said his concern came from a statement that Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam had made on Budget Day when he noted that Temasek's "equity-only portfolio will continue to be more volatile and subject to more pronounced investment cycles than the MAS and GIC portfolios".

With other MPs pointing out that the global investment climate has become more volatile and uncertain, Mr Singh wanted to know how much of subsequent Budgets would be supplemented by Temasek's inclusion in the NIR framework.

'50 years to get rich, now let's get wealthy'
MPs emphasise the need to create an inclusive Singapore that people can find meaning in
By Chua Mui Hoong, Opinion Editor, The Straits Times, 5 Mar 2015

HAVING become rich, can we now focus on learning to be wealthy in the things that matter?

Such as on being truly inclusive. On valuing people for their intrinsic worth and not just their economic contribution. On being the kind of cohesive, innovative, fun city that Singaporeans young and old would love to call home?

This was the impassioned call from several MPs yesterday on Day 2 of the Budget debate.

This is not to say that the nuts and bolts of Budget 2015 were forgotten. Many of the 26 MPs who spoke had specific suggestions for its many policies - sometimes contradictory ones.

For example, MPs like Ms Denise Phua (Moulmein-Kallang GRC) wanted tighter control of SkillsFuture credits so they cannot be used for hobby courses, while others urged more flexibility in their use.

As on Tuesday, MPs continued to stress the need for fiscal sustainability, an apt emphasis for a generous Budget that will generate a $6.67 billion deficit.

They also dealt with the thorny question: How can revenues be raised to fund future spending?

It is noteworthy that both opposition parties in Parliament have stated their stand on this.

Workers' Party leader Sylvia Lim on Tuesday called for the top marginal tax rate to go beyond 22 per cent (it is now 20 per cent and will rise to 22 per cent in 2017).

Yesterday, Non-Constituency MP Lina Chiam of the Singapore People's Party urged the Government to raise the top tax rate to 25 per cent.

"This would still be one of the lowest top-marginal income tax rates in the world and, at the same time, would raise a revenue of $500 million - $1 billion," she estimated.

She also called for the re-introduction of estate duty for assets above $10 million and for higher casino taxes.

Any debate on the Budget has to deal with the brass tacks of tax policy. Still, it was refreshing to hear many MPs get back to fundamentals to speak about what really matters.

What is the Budget for, anyway? What is all that spending and investment in aid of?

Here, Nominated MP Kuik Shiao-Yin, who declared herself the second youngest MP in the House (at age 37), delivered an impassioned speech that had many ministers and MPs thumping their seat armrests in approval.

"Our country spent the first 50 years of our history getting rich. I would love to see us spend our next 50 years charting our course towards becoming truly wealthy. I believe if the state commits itself wholeheartedly to encouraging innovation, promoting inclusivity and empowering identity, we would be on the right track to creating the kind of Singapore many of our young people would want to live in. A Singapore that balances both our material and immaterial needs," she said.

What was also relevant was Nominated MP Tan Tai Yong's sober reminder that perhaps Singapore isn't so resilient after all.

The history professor identifies two types of resilience. The first, alleviation, refers to the ability to carry on "business as usual". He calls this R1.

This means, for example, building the future to continuously improve the infrastructure so that Singaporeans are spared discomfort. Not enough trains? Build more. Water shortage? Have enough in reservoirs to avoid having to ration water.

The other type of resilience, which Professor Tan dubs R2, refers to adaptation: recognising new realities and adapting.

He gave an example of how the two types of resilience worked:

"Last year, around this time, Singapore had its worst drought in 140 years. But there was no water rationing, and businesses experienced no interruption in water supply. This was a great feat. It showed that our systems are highly resilient. Even under severe conditions, we are able to stand up to the stress.

"But under R2, which requires systems, including actors, to adapt to changing realities, Singapore, in my view, could be seen to be quite vulnerable."

Can Singaporeans be toughed up with this R2 kind of resilience?

"As the Singapore Government continues to do more for the population, this will make us more resilient, as (with) R1 - we will be able to withstand more shocks and continue 'business as usual'," he said.

"But what about our ability to adapt, to change, to endure and persevere? Will we then gradually lose that toughness, resilience and resolve that the pioneer generation showed in such good measure?"

To build this muscle of resilience, Prof Tan suggested that fewer parents drive their children to school, and let them take the school bus. Students should also clean their own schools.

It got me wondering: If the country did not have the nice cushion of several billion dollars of reserves to spend each year on social spending, how would we fare as a people? Would we become more fractious or will there be more community efforts to help the poor?

Hopefully the latter.

Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC) shared the heart-warming story of a hawker in Ang Mo Kio. Mr Toh Ah Wat runs a drinks stall and gives 50 free breakfast meals each month to the needy. Other people came to know of his efforts and helped pay the costs. As Mr Seah said, this enlarged the common space of Singaporeans.

That story is a reminder of what matters. The Budget is a means to an end, and the end is a nicer country for our people. And in that effort, whether the Budget goes into deficit or surplus, whether taxes are raised or not, we all can play a role.

No comments:

Post a Comment