Wednesday 25 January 2023

DPM Lawrence Wong at IPS Singapore Perspectives 2023

Singapore has a vision for tomorrow – to improve work and employment
Concrete suggestions to improve the future of work, the security of work and the reward in work can strengthen both the workforce and society.
By Terence Ho, Published The Straits Times, 18 Jan 2023

In his speech at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) Singapore Perspectives conference on Monday, Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong highlighted three challenges relating to work. These are the changing nature of work, retirement security and income distribution – what Mr Wong dubbed the “future of work”, the “security of work” and the “reward of work”.

Mr Wong also articulated three corresponding responses: redoubling investments in skills and human capital, bolstering retirement security, and investing in quality jobs to make every profession and pathway viable and rewarding.

These aims are not new, but what struck me, both from the speech and the dialogue that followed, was the opportunity we have to transform society by making work better.

Given the centrality of work to Singapore’s social compact, improvements to the world of work hold the promise of building a happier, healthier and more cohesive society.

Realising this vision, however, will not be straightforward. It will take significant investments in time and finances, mindset shifts as well as partnerships across the whole of society to get us there.

Building a world-class skills, training and job placement ecosystem

The first response – stepping up human capital investment – entails strengthening the skills and training ecosystem, improving adult learning and creating pathways to better jobs. It is easy to train workers, but much harder to translate training into higher productivity, better jobs and improved pay.

Few countries have managed to build a well-oiled, comprehensive system of adult learning and placement. So if Singapore succeeds in this endeavour, it would be a notable accomplishment with significant benefits to our economy and society.

Achieving this will not be an easy task. Beyond the careful curation of training programmes to meet current and future skills demand, there is also the need to match workers to programmes and jobs that best align with their aptitude and inclination.

For those in employment, it may be a challenge to find the time to invest in training amid the demands of work and family. Without the assurance of better pay and prospects, few would commit time and effort to acquire new skills.

Company-led training is therefore critical, but cannot be the sole route of skills upgrading. After all, firms may under-invest in transferable skills that make employees more marketable elsewhere. Worker-initiated training meanwhile can open the door to new jobs and opportunities. For instance, some have taken up graduate diploma or professional certificate courses to equip themselves for a change of career.

Monday 2 January 2023

As GST goes up, is it time to rethink support from Government?

As prices stay high and Singaporeans get older, some are calling for more government help. But what kind of help do they need, and where should the money come from?
By Grace Ho, Insight Editor, The Straits Times, 1 Jan 2023

For many, getting older stirs mixed feelings of anticipation – finally, retirement! – and anxiety for the future.

With one in four citizens here aged 65 and older by 2030, more Singaporeans will have to grapple with the challenges of living longer, from maintaining job security and health, to caregiving and finances. As seniors become more well-educated and have richer work experience, they, too, are likely to be more vocal about their needs and wants.

How can their expectations be funded sustainably? Is government aid a universal right of citizenship, or should it be targeted at the poor? These and other burning questions were tackled in a recent study on ageing-related policies by researchers from the National University of Singapore.

As part of the study, two workshops were conducted with 82 citizens of different ages and socio-economic backgrounds. Participants took a survey before the first workshop to establish their baseline sentiments on policies, and were surveyed again after the second workshop to measure the change in their opinions.

More help wanted for caregiving and health

When asked how they would make use of an extra $10,000 per person for age-related government policies and programmes, participants cited the following:
  • Health ($2,900)
  • Caregiving, to help with physical mobility ($1,700)
  • Transfer payments to seniors ($1,700)
  • Housing ($1,200)
  • Social and emotional support ($1,200)
  • Transport ($970)
Health and caregiving were top-of-mind. Those in the sandwiched generation were worried about sacrificing their wages and time, should they become caregivers for their elderly family members and children.

They felt that the Home Caregiving Grant$200 a month in cash to support family members with at least permanent moderate disability – was not enough to tip the balance in making the decision to take on caregiving responsibilities easier.

They also wanted the state to come up with nursing care and broader caregiving arrangements, including those to manage dementia among the growing number of seniors.

Middle-income participants felt they did not have the heavily subsidised support that lower-income households enjoy. Means-testing, they said, is too blunt an instrument, especially for those who are asset-rich yet cash-poor. They proposed assistance that is more attuned to the health rather than socio-economic status of seniors.

What about caregivers whose work is unpaid and invisible? The study suggests that tax reliefs and having caregivers’ savings multiplied through the Central Provident Fund (CPF), compared with just having family members contribute to their personal bank accounts, can move the needle.

Today, the maximum annual tax relief for cash top-ups to family members’ Special/Retirement Accounts and/or MediSave Accounts is $8,000 – not a huge sum considering that some caregivers have to completely give up work, and hence their retirement security, to look after an unwell senior.

One solution is to extend this tax incentive so that caregivers have up to the Basic Retirement Sum for CPF Life, or achieve a payout equivalent to it, said Institute of Policy Studies deputy director for research and senior research fellow Gillian Koh, who is one of the study’s co-authors.

“The difference would be to either remove the current cap of $8,000 or provide more leeway to reach a sensible limit, so that anyone who is a caregiver has that assurance of a basic payout sum from CPF upon reaching 65 years of age,” she said, adding that a more ambitious target could be the Full Retirement Sum.

Depending on whether the support is more generous or restrained, some criteria can be set, such as whether there has been significant disruption to a person’s earnings. More discussion and design work are needed to identify a suitable upper limit for the top-ups. But as Dr Koh pointed out, this is not an insurmountable problem.

Where will the money come from?

At first, the participants’ preferred sources to fund the increase in public expenditure were:
  • Corporate tax ($2,200)
  • National reserves ($2,100)
  • Income tax ($1,600)
  • Stamp duty on purchases of property ($1,600)
  • Goods and services tax ($1,300)
  • Carbon tax ($1,200)
This isn’t surprising; people the world over love taxing corporates and the rich. But what’s interesting is that after they attended the workshops, 15.2 per cent of the participants said the Government should draw more on GST to meet demands for ageing-related social support.

There was a distinct shift in attitudes towards the use of GST when the policy trade-offs – as well as greater help for lower-income households, such as permanent GST vouchers and cash transfers through the Assurance Package – were explained to them.

There’s an educational dimension here: Participants with only post-secondary education were more likely than those with polytechnic diplomas, university degrees or other professional qualifications to indicate support for generating more resources from GST.

This is because those in the lower socio-economic strata, of which education is a proxy indicator, understood that they would benefit significantly from the help.

Another notable point is that participants ranked the national reserves second highest among the funding sources.

Not only did this not decrease after the workshops, but 8.3 per cent of the participants allocated even more to the reserves to finance expanded age-related policies. A similar proportion of participants also allocated more to property tax.

Does this mean that Singaporeans expect the Government to tap its own resources before relying on individual efforts or families? Not quite: The participants said in the same breath that they planned to save more and get more help from family and friends.