Speech by Kwek Hian Chuan, Henry, MP for Nee Soon GRC for the 2016 Budget Debate
Madam Speaker, I rise in support of the budget.
Spending more, and spending right
I would like to start by commenting on the principles of this Budget.
The Finance Minister spoke about “spending more, and spending right”. We are fortunate that we are able to spend more. What is just as important is that we commit to spending right. Right, because this budget upholds the fundamentals that have made Singapore special. Right, because it adapts to changing realities. It is decisive. And it is bold.
This budget embodies the principles that made us special. It continues the work to keep Singapore safe. It strengthens the fabric of our multi-racial society. It invests in our people, so that everyone has the best chance to do well.
It delivers on our promise to our people. That we will take care of those who have less. That we will help those who fall behind get back up on their feet. That we will give our children a better future. That we will help our seniors age with dignity, assured of proper healthcare.
Let me spend the rest of my speech on how the budget adapts to changing realities. I would first talk about how our Industry Transformation Program helps our economy today, and builds our economy of the future. Next, I will talk about how our budget help Singaporeans through restructuring, and the slowing economy. Last, I will share briefly about how our community programs build shared experiences among Singaporeans.
Transforming our economy today
Madam speaker, this bold budget helps us adapt to that changing world. Especially so for companies. Most SMEs I spoke to are supportive of the Industry Transformation Program.
Most SMEs acknowledge that increasing productivity and restructuring are critical and urgent. But to make further progress, SMEs face the three challenges.
One, they are too small to implement major productivity efforts within their company. Two, our SMEs generally find it difficult to understand and tap onto the many government incentives. Three, our government can do more to improve on internal government processes, to benefit our companies.
The Industry Transformation Program is a strong start to address these concerns. First, the program strengthens our trade associations and chambers as the voice of their industries, so that they can best represent diverse views, and be strong partners to make use of government resources to implement change.
Second, the business grant portal improves SMEs’ access to government assistance, so that SMEs can focus on getting the help they need, rather than on figuring out who to get help from. Third, the national trade platform helps our trade sector cut through unnecessary red-tape. It is an excellent example of how the government can actively spark industry productivity.
Building our future economy
Madam Speaker, this budget also builds the foundation of our future economy. It addresses many of the concerns of high-technology start-ups, some of which I raised during the Debate on the President’s Address.
One, the four billon R&D funding for industry research collaboration is a big step to push the best ideas out of the labs, and into the marketplace. Because when it comes to innovation, the circulation and popularization of the ideas are as important as the ideas themselves.
Two, Jurong Innovation District (JID) is a strong move to strengthen our start-up eco-system. It creates an innovation “Sand-box” to test-bed and integrate technologies in areas where Singapore can boldly invent the future.
Three, our robotics initiative helps our SMEs get ahead of the curve, to be active disruptors, rather than passive bystanders in the coming era of robots and machines. And some people I talked to, are heartened to see that we are using robotics not just to build our economy but also to improve Singaporean’s lives. An example would be our hospitals.
Taking our transformation program further
Now, what more can we do to improve the transformation program? I want to touch on four ideas. I hope they can be considered.
First, I hope SG Innovation can work hand-in-glove with the Jurong Innovation District, so that ideas born in the former have a fair chance to be realized in the latter. As Singapore invents the future in areas of urban planning, digital health, smart nations, and advanced manufacturing, we can and we must bring our start-ups along on this journey.
Second, Lead-Plus is a good start. But once we achieve a few quick wins, I hope we can extend to more sectors. Even to those without strong trade associations and chambers. Given how critical and urgent our restructuring efforts are, the government must come in and provide strong leadership. We cannot leave it to chance.
Third, The National Trade Platform is a step in the right direction for the government to to drive productivity. As we come up with “Industry Transformation Maps” for different sectors, we should pin-point the inefficiencies and come up with solutions. What matters is not whether the inefficiency comes from the industry, or from the government. What matters is that the government and industry come together to solve these inefficiencies.
Fourth, the government can consider developing an “Industry Transformation Map” for the HDB retail sector as well. They face differing challenges compared to the rest of the retail sector. I hope that HDB, NEA and even TCs, as major regulators for our heartlands, can partner with Spring Singapore, and the Federation of Merchants’ Associations of Singapore, to drive this important effort.
Taking the difficult but right way forward
As someone familiar with both business and economic development, it is clear to me that the Industry Transformation program is ground-breaking.
It is ground-breaking because we are re-aligning and networking ourselves in an unprecedented way to support our economy. In this new way forward, our economic agencies will have to work much closer with our non-economic government agencies, our research sector will have to work much closer with our companies, our government will have to work much closer with our industry. This may not sound significant, but increasing the intensity of the partnership, working as one Team Singapore, will strengthen our odds for success in an exponential manner.
It is also ground-breaking because the government will provide much needed industry leadership to sectors which usually lack clear and holistic government direction, such as the F&B and retail sectors. In addition, the civil service will also develop a deeper knowledge in these sectors. Over time, the knowledge gained can help us best evolve government regulations and programs in safety and health, manpower and labor, education and SkillsFuture. This could go far to address concerns from the businesses about excessive regulations.
But all these efforts won’t be easy. In fact, the Industry Transformation Program is the difficult way forward. But it also the right way forward. We must be prepared to give the program ample time to take effect, and for us to get the formula right. We must be prepared for both success and failure.
Yesterday, in this chamber, we heard several ideas on how we must measure how we spend on our economy carefully. I believe we have to strike a good balance. The risk of over-measurement in the name of accountability is that we will move too slowly and too cautiously. Especially for the future economy, we should move decisively, but be prepared to make quick adjustments when circumstances change, or when better methods emerge.
I agree with the Finance Minister’s pronouncement that there is “no rule book” for us, at this stage of development. I would also like to add: “time is short; let’s get to work”.
Supporting our people
Another reason why I support this budget is because it helps Singaporeans through restructuring, and the slowing economy. It does so in at least 4 ways:
One. This budget continues to help us evolve to a skills-based economy. Many enterprising business leaders I have met understand the importance of skills. Our SkillsFuture movement, coupled with industry collaborations such as TechSkills Accelerators, are closely watched by many of them, and they have high hopes for it. The government must deliver.
At the same time, I hope that more of our companies will hire based on skills, especially workers being re-skilled. Taking re-skilled workers on board makes good business sense. Because companies get to hire employees who are committed to success, committed to staying relevant, and committed to change.
Two. This budget strikes a fine balance between companies and the Singaporean worker. In this slow-down, the rise in most types of worker’s levies is tough for businesses to bear, but it helps level the playing field for Singaporeans. It reinforces the message, that Singaporeans must form the core of our workforce and our economy.
Three. This budget continues the Government’s efforts to encourage companies to hire older Singaporeans as they re-skill.
Four. This budget helps provides a lifeline for many Singaporeans involved in private sector construction. Having smaller government construction projects means giving Singaporean main contractors, many are of mid-size and doing private sector work, a fighting chance to win much-needed government contracts. The effect will be felt all the way down to numerous Singaporean sub-contractors and Singaporean workers. This is a cost-effective way for us to pump-prime our economy and help our Singaporeans. I have raised this idea several times during consultation sessions. I am very heartened to know that the government is acting immediately on this issue.
The sum total of our 2016 budget policies related to the Singaporean worker, is this: even as we restructure, even as sectors and companies rise and fall, the government will make sure that Singaporeans are looked after. This principle is worth supporting.
Building shared experiences
Last of all, I concur with the Government’s effort to build shared experiences among Singaporeans. By getting every youth to go through OBS. By getting more people to visit the National Gallery. By encouraging Singaporeans to come together and adopt ground-up initiatives under the Our SG fund. By encouraging companies to get their employees to do more for our society. All these will deepen our people’s sense of identity, and strengthen our unity.
Writing our next chapter together
In conclusion, the Finance Minister spoke about the Singapore Story. This budget will help us write the next chapter together.
With that, I support the motion.