I attended a Budget 2021 Zoom dialogue with 170 youths. Their priorities were legit.

Sometimes there’s no right answer, but it’s still worth a discussion.

| Jason Fan | Sponsored | February 11, 2021, 11:58 AM

At first glance, Singapore’s annual Budget announcement may not seem like a topic that is relevant to youths.

After all, isn’t the Budget simply a resource allocation exercise for the various ministries? What does it have to do with the rest of us?

However, this cannot be further from the truth, as the Budget announcement affects all of us in many different ways.

In 2020, the government announced four separate Budgets, delivering almost S$100 billion in financial assistance to Singaporean workers and companies, in order to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.

This meant that the average individual likely benefited from the various Budgets, either directly or indirectly.

This can be in the form of the GST vouchers, Jobs Support Scheme (JSS) subsidies for employers, or the grocery vouchers issued to lower income households.

So yes, like it or not, the Budget will impact you significantly. Since that’s the case, doesn’t it make sense for you to give your opinion, whenever the chance arises?

A platform for youth to share their opinions

This was exactly what happened on Jan. 13, when a group of 170 youths gathered for “Our Two Cents”, a Pre-Budget 2021 Youth Conversation, organised by the National Youth Council (NYC), in partnership with the Ministry of Finance (MOF).

The dialogue (which was on Zoom, by the way) was attended by the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office and Second Minister for Finance Indranee Rajah, as well as Minister of State for Culture, Community and Youth Alvin Tan.

The aim? To give youths a platform to provide their opinions on key Budget 2021 themes, and to allow them to better understand government economic priorities.

This also allowed key political holders to in turn understand the sentiments of the Singaporean youth.

And what do I feel about the session, having just attended it earlier this year?

In short, I was surprised at how much thought went into the discussion topics, as the participants clearly showed that they have done their homework.

I was also a little embarrassed, given that my younger self was too busy playing video games and daydreaming about travelling to provide such impassioned, yet well-reasoned arguments for key issues in Singapore.

Different individuals provided different perspectives

During the session, the participants were introduced to the five key Budget 2021 themes:

1. Adapting our Way of Life to be a Safe and Smart Nation

2. Emerging Stronger – as an Economy

3. Emerging Stronger – as a Workforce

4. Emerging Stronger – as a Society and Community

5. Building a Green and Sustainable Future

After a brief introduction, the participants were split into separate breakout rooms, where they began to rank certain issues based on how strongly they felt about them.

The participants took part in a Quadratic Voting exercise, where they discussed various policy trade offs, and tried their best to allocate their limited votes across the various issues that matter to them, similar to how policymakers have to allocate limited resources to different issues.

For those unfamiliar with Quadratic Voting, here’s a handy video that shows how it works.

Some of these issues included supporting vulnerable groups in Singapore, building new strategies for the future economy, and encouraging sustainability in the local community.

Participants began by ranking these issues based on personal preference, before gathering as a group and debating the merits of their choices.

While I personally ranked boosting employment and providing support to our workforce pretty highly (hey, I would love to stay employed), I realised that my group favoured many issues evenly, such as preparing for climate change and helping vulnerable groups.

Image of my group's voting results.

I was rather intrigued by the diversity of the views expressed by my group, and was left wondering whether my own priorities were the “best options”.

And while it’s not surprising that certain issues were ranked similarly by the different participants, I noticed that different people may feel more strongly for certain issues, due to their own life experiences.

For example, a student studying occupational therapy explained that she ranked “Supporting our Vulnerable Groups” highly, due to her own experience working with the elderly.

She was concerned about the elderly being left behind, due to their lower proficiency in technology, in an increasingly digital world.

In particular, she pointed out that many of the Covid-19 measures that are ubiquitous today, such as SafeEntry and TraceTogether, may not be immediately intuitive to the elderly, so it is important for the government to ensure that the elderly receive the help they need to keep up with these new changes.

On the other hand, another student reasoned that “Building New Strategies for the Future Economy” should be a priority, as maintaining a strong economy allows Singapore to not only safeguard jobs, but also to provide financial support to vulnerable groups.

She then argued that supporting a strong economy allows one to kill two birds with one stone, and should thus be ranked higher than the other issues.

The discussion is more important than the results

Over the next hour, youths discussed and shared passionately about the issues that were important to them.

I was particularly impressed with how vocal they were regarding their views, as it probably wasn’t easy for them to speak up in front of so many people.

While they sought to persuade, they were also willing to listen to the viewpoints of others, often coming to a consensus after an animated discussion.

And this is what I realised after the session: this dialogue was never meant to find the one issue that youth agreed on.

After all, there was no “right answer” to these questions, and I think the organisers of the dialogue rightfully recognised that fact, having emphasised several times that participants need not be wary of being wrong.

Sometimes, the journey is more important than the destination.

Youths prioritised supporting vulnerable groups and reopening Singapore safely

However, this does not mean that the dialogue did not also yield some concrete results.

Toward the end of the session, NYC compiled the rankings from the 10 groups, giving a relatively clear picture of what concerned youths (or at least, those present at the dialogue) the most.

Image of the overall results across all 10 groups.

“Supporting our Vulnerable Groups” and “Ensuring a Safe Reopening” tied for first place, while less emphasis was placed on driving economic growth and boosting employment.

Youths who prioritised supporting vulnerable groups felt that it was more important to provide support to them during the pandemic, given that they were likely the most badly affected by it, while youths who supported a safe reopening believed that it should be prioritised, as it would ultimately ensure economic competitiveness.

Responding to the results, Indranee noted that issues such as “Boosting Employment through Jobs Creation”, “Providing Support to our Workforce” and “Driving Economic Growth” were ranked relatively lower by the participants.

She also explained that these three issues were “all linked”.

She shared that policy-makers have to consider the various trade-offs for different priorities, and emphasised that it was not “either or”.

“When we talk about focusing on economic growth, people may think, oh, you know, you’re just concerned about the money aspect and you’re not worried about people. But actually, in order to help the vulnerable groups, it takes money. And the money has to come from somewhere,” said Indranee.

Just last year, for example, when Covid-19 hit Singapore’s shores, many jobs were on the line, due to the economic downturn.

This meant that many workers who were still employed were actually in a vulnerable position, since the recession threatened their employment, Indranee explained.

To provide aid to vulnerable Singaporeans, the government had to rely on the country’s reserves, built upon the surpluses from previous budgets.

And while policy makers would love to ensure that Singapore can reopen its borders safely, focusing only on that may affect the economy, which may in turn affect the country’s ability to help its vulnerable groups.

“It’s all intertwined,” said Indranee as she summed up the difficult considerations that policy makers have to make, for the good of Singaporeans.

Budget 2021 will be announced on Feb. 16

This NYC youth dialogue was one of the many channels for Singaporeans to provide suggestions for Budget 2021.

In early Dec. 2020, MOF extended an invitation to Singaporeans to provide their feedback for the upcoming budget, and the feedback exercise lasted from Dec. 2, 2020 to early January.

While you may not be able to submit any more opinions, you should probably tune in.

After all, the Budget affects wide swathes of society, including you, your family and your peers.

Whether you’re a jobseeker, or a student, or someone who needs financial assistance due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Budget is likely to affect you in some shape or form.

And if you didn’t manage to attend the session, but still want to engage in a discussion with other youths, you’re in luck.

You can do so at NYC’s Youthopia Website, where you can also find a summary of the entire session, alongside more information on the topics discussed.

Remember, the Budget 2021 will be announced in Parliament on Feb. 16. Will you be tuning in?

Top image via NYC Zoom Dialogue.

This sponsored article by the National Youth Council made the writer wonder why he wasn’t able to make such reasoned arguments about national affairs when he was younger.