SPEECH BY ER DR LEE BEE WAH, MP FOR NEE SOON GRC, IN PARLIAMENT IN REPONSE TO THE ANNUAL BUDGET STATEMENT FOR FY2017
Once again, Finance Minister Heng has delivered a Budget that is squarely aimed at the future. I commend him for his far-sighted approach and the courage to take measures that might be unpopular.
In this speech, I will first speak about innovation in government and industry, then touch on the impact on families.
1. Innovation in Government
First let me speak about government. Minister Heng boldly introduced a permanent 2% cut on the budget caps for all ministries and agencies.
Can the Minister clarify- what will be the implication of this? How will government ensure this makes them more effective, instead of cutting essential but overlooked expenditure?
Will this affect the budget for hiring and retaining civil servants, and thus the quality of the civil service?
I think the civil service in Singapore is corruption-free and competent, and much better than many other countries. But there is room for improvement in some areas. Some civil servants focus more on the rules of their own agency, instead of what outcome will benefit Singaporeans.
I visited a new BTO, Khatib Court, which is beside Khatib MRT station. It’s a beautiful development, but it has one strange feature. It has a sheltered linkway that to me it’s not completed. It comes all the way, and stops 10m away from the MRT station.
So I asked HDB, what happened? Are you training my residents to be 10-meter sprinters, especially during rainy days? So they said, they wanted to build it all the way to the MRT, but there are so many challenges, and they can’t meet the requirements from LTA, that they aborted the plan.
I called a meeting, asked them both to sit together, said that no matter what, I must have this done. I think they forgot about the need to provide hassle-free first mile and last mile connectivity.
I can give you another example. I have another BTO Palm Breeze, where as usual I asked them to build a covered linkway from the nearest block to the nearest bus stop. HDB agreed, but part of the linkway sits on top of a drain. PUB said, no srcuture is supposed to be on top of the drain, shift your linkway into the grass verge. NParks said, nothing is supposed to sit in my grass verge. I don’t know what innovative solution they will have to come up with. Today, Palm Breeze residents have collected their keys and are shifting in, but the plans are not approved yet. Maybe I should seek our Coordinating Minister’s help.
These are only small projects, and we meet so many obstacles. In bigger policy decisions, I’m sure there are even bigger roadblocks. Can’t our civil servants be more result oriented and objective driven instead of just guarding your own turf?
I note that some of the funds cut from agencies will be diverted to cross-agency projects. I hope this will improve cross-agency cooperation, and reduce such problems, instead of creating yet another layer of bureaucracy.
I also hope some of the funds will be used to examine innovation in government, and shoring up our ability to give innovative solutions. There are many ways government can be more innovative, and I will suggest some below, especially with regards to the construction industry and environment.
For the construction industry, I am pleased that the government will bring forward $700 million in infrastructure projects, including construction of community centres and facilities for the sports and the arts. At the back of my mind, I was thinking hopefully this would include a new swimming complex in Yishun which I have been asking for.
But ultimately for the construction industry, $700 million is not really enough to make an impact. Can government increase this number? The construction industry has been facing lots of pressure from the economic slowdown and government requirements. I heard that some smaller companies could not pay their worker on time. In 2017, their foreign workers’ levy will go up again, and they will be affected by the diesel tax too. Can the government consider deferring their levy increase till better times, like the marine and process sectors?
More generally, while there are many efforts to assist SMEs, I hope Government can support the construction sector more to adopt more efficient work methods, so they can raise their productivity. I spoke about innovation in government- is there anyone in government to focus on such efforts, instead of only implementing rules?
Give you an example, BIM (Building Information Modelling), that we’ve been talking about for the construction industry for many years. But today what’s happening? Architects do the BIM modelling, but just enough for submission. Later when the contractors come on board, they will do their own modeling, because they can’t use what the architects have done.
As Past President of Singapore Table Tennis Association and Adviser for Singapore Swimming Association, I witness how challenging it can be – from administration to the pressure of ensuring that our athletes perform at the highest level. But I have to ask this very pertinent question.
Are our NSAs given enough support for the retention of staff. The work which is done by the secretariat can be challenging and what’s worse, there is a lot of administrative processes which need to be completed before funding is released – all for good reasons.
However, are our NSAs secretariat staff being remunerated well enough at least up to market rate? How will any, if at all, funding cuts affect the secretariat staff? Also, are our NSAs getting enough support from the Singapore Sports Institute –sports science, nutritionists, biomechanists etc.
These are as important as funding itself. For example, the SSI’s biomechanist who is assigned to the Singapore Swimming Association does not ‘look after’ just the needs of SSA, but also has other NSA responsibilities. Likewise, for the physiotherapists. But these sports science support systems must be almost round the clock, 24/7, including weekends.
Joseph Schooling’s gold medal at the Rio Olympics has only further proven how sports is an important component for nation building. We should try to find more ways to support our athletes and NSAs.
Now let me turn to the environment. This Budget introduced some bold moves to change habits, like the water price increase, carbon tax and diesel tax. But there are more ways we can be more sustainable.
One. I urge the government to invest more in infrastructure for green energy, such as the use of natural gas.
Two. We need to do more to promote reduction of consumption, i.e. use less, reduction of waste and recycling, i.e. reduce, reuse, recycle. We need to push the awareness of what will contaminate recyclables, so nearly half of the recyclables collected don’t have to be thrown away. Every time I pass by the blue bins, I will peep in, and almost all of them are contaminated. I don’t think these blue bins in the housing estates work.
Besides the recycling bins, how can we make it easier for everyone to recycle? More recycling bins in public next to trash cans perhaps? Reward people for recycling? I urge MEWR to think deeper about this.
Three. In Singapore, electric cars are still expensive, around three times as expensive of regular cars. What can we do to provide incentives to car buyers? For example, in the US the Federal Government provides tax credits of up to US$7,500 for each electric vehicle purchased.
Some states also allow electric vehicles and vehicles carrying two or more people to use special lanes, to beat the jam. All these encourage consumption and production of electric vehicles.
Four. Ensure that foreign cars coming into Singapore are subject to the same emission standards as local cars, if they want to drive on our roads.
Five. The water price increase will have an impact on production costs, e.g. a 2-4% increase in production of semi-conductors, I was told. Our companies are competing in the global markets. In Malaysia, China and Taiwan, for example, the price of water is negligible. So, we would lose our competitiveness. Many of our companies are already doing water recycling and I hope the government can work with the industry to see how we can do more water recycling to retain our competitiveness.
I was told that currently, around 40% of the water is recycled in this industry. Can we increase it to 70% like in Germany or Taiwan? Will there be any tax rebates or grant for the cost of adopting water recycling?
5. Impact on Families
Speaking of water costs, let me briefly speak in Malay.
Bolehkah Menteri berikan penjelasan dengan terperinci tentang kos pengeluaran air dan mengapa peningkatan sehingga tiga puluh peratus? Apakah kesan bil air pada sebuah keluarga sederhana? Saya lihat di media sosial orang ramai mendakwa “cukai atas cukai” lantaran peningkatan bersih akan menjadi lebih daripada tiga puluh peratus, bolehkah Menteri jelaskan?
Seperkara lagi, jika musim hujan baru-baru ini, takungan di Johor hanya mengumpul satu pertiga dari muatannya, bolehkah kita mendapat bekalan air tanpa gangguan semasa musim kering? Atau akan ada krisis air? Apakah langkah-langkah PUB untuk membantu penduduk menjimatkan air dan mengurangkan bil-bil mereka?
Akhir sekali, saya harap pemerintah akan memantau kes-kes pengendali yang memindahkah kos kepada pengguna. Sama ada pengendali penghantaran dengan cukai diesel, atau kedai-kedai makanan dengan kenaikan harga air. Kenaikan harga jualan mereka tidak boleh melebihi daripada peningkatan kos.
(English translation: Can the Minister give a detailed explanation of our water production costs, and why the increase has to be so much? What is the impact on water bills for a normal family? I see people claim on social media that due to “tax on tax”, the net increase will be more than 30 percent, can the Minister explain? I would also like to ask, if during the recent rainy season the reservoir in Johor is only at one-third of its capacity, are we able to continue to get uninterrupted water supply during the dry season? Or will there be a water crisis?
And what will PUB do to help households save water and reduce their bills?
Finally, I hope the Government and CASE will monitor cases of operators passing on costs to consumers. Whether it be delivery operators with the diesel tax, or eateries with the water price increase, the price increase should not be more than the cost increase. )
Please allow me to summarise my speech in Chinese.