SPEECH BY MR KWEK HIAN CHUAN HENRY IN RESPONSE TO BUDGET 2017
I rise in support of the budget.
Impact of the Water Tariff
1. I have been making my rounds in the constituency in the last couple of weeks. I have been reading the local and regional media. I have received very frank, blunt feedback. The concerns of our people and business regarding the water tariff are understandable, given the current economic challenges. And much has been said about this issue, both in and outside of this chamber. It is sometimes useful to take a view from outside Singapore. For example, how do our competitors see us?
2. South China Morning Post, widely seen as Hong Kong’s flagship English newspaper and not always a fan of Singapore, recently carried this headline. “Can Hong Kong follow Singapore’s lead in water tariffs.” In its sub headline, the report noted: “Among Asia’s thirstiest metropolises, Hong Kong is stuck with frozen tariff rates that are hurting water conservation efforts’’.
3. The report said experts are calling for HK and other Asian cities to follow Singapore’s lead. SCMP quoted experts from the UN and other think tanks, who called for countries to invest more in water infrastructure, reduce water wastage by reflecting the real cost of water, while insulating the vulnerable from the impact – all of which the Singapore government are doing. South China Morning Post’s views are also shared by leading world water experts such as Professor Asit Biswas and Robert Brears.
4. Indeed, the challenges of pricing water right, to ensure access amidst climate change, are not unique in Singapore. We must deal with them decisively, while taking care of our vulnerable.
5. Therefore, I’m heartened to hear our government’s recent clarification – that additional rebates will limit the impact on low income and middle-income families: families in 1-2 room HDB flats will on average see no net increase, and families living in a typical 4 room HDB flat will pay $5 extra on average. I also am concerned about the impact on our hawkers in my constituency, which affects the cost of living of my residents. So I took a look at their water bills. I saw a bill for an entire coffee shop with six stalls. On average, each stall is using around 50 cubic meters of water, which currently costs around $100. With the new water tariff, each stall will see an increase of around $30 a month. So while the increase is there, it is unclear that it will lead to a significant increase in the cost of living.
6. I am also relieved to hear that three in four businesses will see an increase of less than $25 per month. Nevertheless, I call for the government to continue monitoring the situation – both for individuals and businesses, to see whether further policy tweaks are necessary.
7. Madam Speaker, now that the CFE and budget have mapped out the broad directions ahead for our economy, I would like to focus my budget speech on how to best execute our plans for the CFE, and about creating a gig-economy for our senior workers.
Singapore Succeeds Because We Get Things Done
8. Recently, I had breakfast with a senior retired official, who worked for Mr. Goh Keng Swee. I asked him what did he learned working for Mr. Goh. He thought for a while, and quoted Mr. Goh, “Don’t tell me the why. I know the why. Tell me the how. Tell me how you are going to get this done.” Indeed, many retired senior officials whom I speak to shared the same view – what separates Singapore from the rest, is our focus on getting things done quickly, quietly, and efficiently.
9. So now that we are at a new economic crossroad, how do we best translate our broad CFE strategies into concrete actions? Here are some good ideas I have come across.
Strong National Coordinating Body
10. One – A strong national coordination body. To implement our decade-long CFE strategy, we will be well served by a strong national coordinating body. This coordinating body, like the CFE committee, should comprise not just our civil service officials, but also key union leaders, business leaders, and educators.
11. This coordinating body will serve as a strong center to:
a. Oversee our ministries’ efforts to translate broad strategies into detailed plans,
b. Regularly review the progress made,
c. Incorporate good ideas and seek out industry proposals along the way, and
d. Communicate to all stakeholders annually on where we are, and where we must go.
12. The current National Productivity Council could serve as a basis for this coordinating body. Why is this high level of coordination and communication necessary? The answer is simple. To fundamentally transform our economy, we need to go beyond the whole of government approach. We need our government to move as one, we need a whole of nation effort.
Transform our Industries Boldly
13. Two – transform our industries boldly. Our Industry Transformation Maps (ITMs) must contain bold ideas. The premise of the ITMs is this – each industry requires bespoke solutions to achieve deep transformation. So I hope that we must be fully prepared to remove policy sacred cows when necessary.
14. If the new plan for the industries ends up do not differing from existing plans, and if many of our ITMs look too similar, then we should question whether we are fully stretching our imagination and aspirations. Some may say there is no Big Bang in the CFE. But it is no longer sufficient to push for a single Big Bang industry. Our government must light 23 sparks with each of the 23 ITMs. And our industries must turn these sparks into a bright future for all.
Start Our Transformation Quickly
15. Three – start our transformation quickly. We should roll out our ITMs as quickly as we can, far earlier than the proposed deadline of end of this financial year. The ITMs are supposed to rally their respective industries. Many businessmen, stuck in the trenches of disruption, are looking for direction amidst the storm. Not all of them found clarity for their sector, in the measures provided for in this budget.
16. But it does not mean that help for them is lacking. In fact, I am heartened to hear that considerable resources are set aside for our industries – close to 7 billion for the whole CFE, including 4.5 billion for the Industry Transformation Program.
17. When we can translate this significant budgetary firepower, into concrete policies industry by industry, policies that our businesses and people can touch and feel, they will naturally gain the quiet confidence that the future is bright for all.
18. Also, rolling out our ITMs quickly provide much needed clarity to the supporting CFE’s efforts. For example, in this chamber, we frequently talk about using of SkillsFuture funds efficiently. But it is not easy for our officials in SkillsFuture, or any other CPE supporting efforts, to make concrete plans until they know the precise direction we want to take each industry to. So a quick rollout of our ITMs is critical.
19. In summary, to execute our decade long CFE transformation, we need a strong center to pull everyone together, we need bold plans to transform our industries, and we must provide our industries with quick and clear directions.
Creating a Gig-Economy for our Seniors
20. Now, let me talk about creating a gig-economy for our seniors. When I speak to our senior workers about the CFE, they are not sure how they fit in our future economy. Today, we already have forward-looking policies for our senior workers, such as our Special Employment Credit, and the Retirement and Reemployment Act. Nevertheless, there is room to do more. I think there is room for our government to catalyze a gig-economy for our seniors, by creating micro-jobs.
21. Despite legislation, it is hard for us to fully remove ageism, especially towards seniors above 67. Many companies, especially in tough times, are not willing to take the risk of hiring, or even retaining senior workers. This issue will get more serious as we continue our restructuring, and as our workforce continues to age.
Combating Ageism and Prejudices
22. The gig-economy can help us combat ageism. Compared to companies, consumers using the gig-economy are less willing to discriminate. A good example is Uber. Through technology, Uber empowers hearing-impaired drivers to work: consumers can, without the need to speak, communicate with the driver in the car using the Uber app. Other examples include delivery services such as Honest Bee, Food Panda, and Deliveroo. Our consumers are less likely to discriminate, on who shows up at the door, as long as that person can do that one-off “micro-job” well.
Creating Many Micro-jobs
23. So how can the government create a gig-economy for our seniors? By doing three things: a) creating micro-jobs for our seniors starting with those in the social services, b) creating a national digital platform and app, and c) equipping our seniors to do these micro-jobs through SkillsFuture.
24. Let’s use the example of delivery of home-based health care. Today, we sometimes send two nurses to visit patients, many of who are bed-ridden or have mobility challenges. Why don’t we cut down to one nurse instead, and then hire a trained senior, living in a nearby block or street, to provide the necessary support, such as carrying the patients, and assisting in wound dressing.
25. There are many seniors living in our midst who can qualify to do such micro-jobs. How do we page for these seniors? Through a gig-economy app that the government creates, perhaps by working with our start-ups. How do we prepare our seniors for these micro-jobs? Through SkillsFuture, of course. How do we ensure quality of service by these seniors? Through the apps that ask for feedback from the nurse, and maybe even the patient.
26. Imagine the vast possibilities. What if we certify some of our able grandmothers to provide infant care service for a few infants at their home, or retired teachers to provide after school care for a few students at home? What if we equip our seniors to provide caregiving or respite care to their neighbors? How many purpose built infant-care, after school care centers, and respite care centers can we end up not building?
From Public to Private Sector Micro-Jobs
27. When I talk to public officials or VWO leaders about this idea, they get it. But they also confide that they cannot do it alone. That’s why we need the government to spearhead a gig-economy for our seniors, using social services as a start.
28. We can even extend this to the private sector, for example in food service. There’s already a company that hires retired prata-makers today, and deploy them to meet shift gaps throughout Singapore. So we can help our seniors to find micro-jobs in the food service industry in their own neighborhoods. We can also help stay-at-home mothers and special-needs workers to find micro-jobs nearby.
Data as the New Invisible Hand
29. What about meeting the practical realities like CPF contributions, or verifying who is eligible for what micro-jobs? These can be easily done, by inserting lines of code, to wire micro-contributions to one’s CPF account, and to check on our seniors’ SkillsFuture individual learning portfolio. In this digital age, data is the new invisible hand. We should fully tap on data; combine it with our social policies, to orchestrate our economy and society of the future.
Starting this New Digital Initiative Now
30. In short, creating a gig-economy for our seniors benefits Singapore. It can erase ageism. It can put money directly in the hands of seniors. It can cut down on unnecessary manpower including foreign manpower. And it can help reduce our social spending. Therefore I call for the creation of a national digital initiative for our seniors involving our social services ministries, VWOs, and SkillsFuture. It will take a few years to get this idea done, so I hope we can start now.
31. With that, Madam Speaker, I stand in support of the budget. Thank you.