The Emerging Stronger Together Budget 2021 was announced by Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat on Feb. 16.
On Feb. 24, the Leader of The Opposition Pritam Singh kicked off the 2021 budget debates.
In his speech, Workers’ Party’s Pritam questioned DPM Heng on three main areas.
1. Emerging stronger with skilled workers and innovative businesses
Capability Transfer Programme — what has it achieved and how much money has been spent on it?
Heng had stated that the government will promote capability transfer amongst Singaporean workers, as well as moderating the country's dependence on foreign labour.
To achieve this, the Capability Transfer Programme (CTP) will be extended till 2024.
However, Pritam said in his speech that he was surprised by the "relatively small number of Singaporeans" who have benefited from the CTP.
He subsequently asked:
"In extending the CTP until 2024, can the minister share what has been achieved by the programme for the Singaporean worker thus far, and how much money has been spent on it?
What skill sets have been transferred to Singaporean workers by sector and which industry clusters is the government earmarking for greater talent transfer through the CTP?"
Providing more details on multi-billion dollar initiatives
The Aljunied GRC member of parliament also sought clarification on the government's commitment of S$24 billion to enable firms and workers to revamp themselves in light of changes in the global economy.
"Can Minister detail what this multi-year allocation entails?
More importantly, in view of the headline numbers, how does the government plan to release information and account for the tangible and intangible outcomes on the money spent on these multi-year initiatives?"
Heng had shared that an additional S$5.4 billion will be allocated to a second SGUnited Jobs & Skills Package on top of the S$3 billion allocated in 2020.
Pritam noted that from Aug. 11, 2020, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) has been releasing weekly job situation reports, providing updates on the SGUnited Jobs & Skills Package.
But the reports soon started to be more periodic and lack further details, said Pritam, such as the salary levels, and the age ranges of those who have been successfully placed, particularly those in long term jobs.
"The public should be given greater insight into the effectiveness of multi-billion dollar initiatives that aim to improve job opportunities and outcomes for all our workers, but especially our mature workers. This is in light of the fact that a significant number of workers will also enter their 50s by 2030.
The effectiveness of government measures should be readily determinable. Without such scrutiny, a perception may crystallise of large sums of money being deployed to address an issue for which effectiveness is hard to establish."
Reviewing the wages of other frontliners
Heng had announced that healthcare workers working in public health institutions in Singapore will have their salaries enhanced. This, said Pritam, was a "high point" for him in Budget 2021.
However, Pritam also urged the government to look at reviewing the wages of other frontliners, particularly essential workers.
These include waste disposal workers, transport workers, and others who "proved indispensable in this Covid-19 fight".
2. Strengthening the nation's social compact
CDC vouchers — is it only for heartland shops or can it be used for supermarket chains too?
Heng had stated that each Singapore household will receive S$100 worth of Community Development Council (CDC) vouchers for Singaporeans to support heartland businesses.
Pritam has sought more clarity on the disbursement of these vouchers.
He noted that Heng did not say whether the CDC vouchers can also be used at supermarket chains such as Giant, Sheng Siong, and NTUC Fair Price.
Pritam suggested the government to focus purely heartland shops, which includes local provision shops, traditional Chinese medical halls, fruit sellers, barbers, and more.
"There is a risk that if this is not done, the bulk of the vouchers would be spent at supermarkets like NTUC, and bypass the heartland shops. If the supermarket chains are involved, the scheme would effectively mirror a cash top-up."
Is the CDC's role in the voucher scheme necessary?
Pritam also questioned the CDC's role in the voucher scheme.
He said that the CDC's functions can be carried out by other existing entities or ministries and statutory boards, including other organisations under the People's Association (PA).
On the CDC vouchers specifically, Pritam said that it is widely known that representatives of Market and Shop Association merchants are commonly represented on the Citizens’ Consultative Committees (CCC). There is a CCC for each ward or constituency.
Thus, he explained that CCCs are "even more closely connected to the ground" than the five CDCs, rendering the CDCs’ role in the voucher scheme potentially unnecessary.
With regards to the vouchers, Pritam also questioned that out of the S$150 million being allocated to resource it, how much is allocated for the scheme and how much constitutes the amount allocated for the administration of the program.
3. Building a sustainable home for all
A portion of Heng's speech was dedicated to building a sustainable home for Singaporeans.
He unveiled more investments for the Singapore Green Plan 2030 to mitigate and adapt to climate change impacts.
The Singapore Green Plan 2030 was launched on Feb. 10, 2021.
Petrol duty hike — why was it implemented so quickly and why is it necessary?
In response to this, Pritam quoted a Straits Times article that mentioned that the Singapore Green Plan 2030 already has existing environment initiatives.
Thus, he added that the government's decision to raise petrol duties came like an "ill-timed bolt from the blue"
Pritam said that there is much frustration and unhappiness on the ground regarding the petrol duty hike.
He then asked if Heng had considered a phased and gradual increase of the petrol duties in step with the availabilities of Electric Vehicles (EVs) as a "realistic consumer choice" and a rise in the number of roads in the years to come.
Pritam also asked the government to confirm if any assessment has been carried out as to inflationary effect of a rise in petrol duties and its impact on cost of living for Singaporeans particularly in the current economic climate.
And his last question pertaining to the petrol duty hike is if the government is prepared to look pro-actively into the prospects of profiteering by "unscrupulous businesses that seek to ride on this increase in petrol duties".
Top image via CNA on YouTube.