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A generous Budget, but will the help reach all?

Some older folk, business owners may not know how to access benefits: Panel

Published on Feb 24, 2014 3:00 PM
 

THE Budget is a generous one bringing welcome relief for elderly Singaporeans, workers and companies alike but the devil will be in the details.

That is the conclusion of six panellists at The Straits Times Budget Roundtable last Saturday.

The experts, from the business to health care and audit fields, said careful implementation will be important to make sure the benefits get to those in need.

And there are plenty of goodies to go around, they said.

(From left) MR HO MENG KIT CEO, Singapore Business Federation; MS GAN KWEE LIAN Tax partner, KPMG; MR JIMMY KOH UOB's head of economic-treasury research and investor relations; MS FIONA CHAN ST's senior economics correspondent; DR MARY ANN TSAO Chairman, Tsao Foundation; MR JEREMY LIM Head of Asia-Pacific health and life sciences at Oliver Wyman and; DR LILY NEO Member of Parliament. -- ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KON

Tsao Foundation chairman Mary Ann Tsao was impressed by how the Pioneer Generation Package covered all aspects of health care that a senior citizen may need.

"Health care is pretty broad. There's hospitalisation, there's outpatient care to make sure chronic diseases are managed, and there's long-term care when you become frail. And this package addresses all those components, which is really very good."

However, the Government will have to ensure the benefits reach as many of those who are in need as possible, she noted.

For example, not all older people have Central Provident Fund accounts to receive planned Medisave top-ups.

"The ones who don't have CPF are most likely the ones who have the highest need," Dr Tsao noted.

Tanjong Pagar GRC MP Lily Neo praised the huge amount set aside - $8 billion - for the Pioneer Generation Package and the fact that it specifically targets the health-care needs of older folk.

"Many of them are very concerned about getting sick. There's this saying among the elderly that you can die but you cannot get sick," she said.

"Hopefully, with this package, we can take away that saying forever, because this package is really targeting their health, and not just now but for their lifespans."

Dr Neo also backed moves to narrow the gap in CPF contribution rates between older and younger workers, adding that she believes this gap will be narrowed further in time.

"I personally feel that especially for those 50 to 55, I think we will probably narrow it further. Because if you look at the age group... they are really considered fit and should be really contributing their best efforts still and should be paid accordingly."

This will likely be done progressively and depend on economic conditions and the ability of businesses to absorb the added costs, she added.

United Overseas Bank's head of economic-treasury research and investor relations, Mr Jimmy Koh, said the Budget was a good example of how the Government has been doing far more in recent years to help older Singaporeans and lower-income groups.

But thorough implementation is needed to ensure that those who need help know how to get it, he added.

"The people who need it are probably those who do not know how to access all these channels."

The same could be said of companies, noted Singapore Business Federation chief executive Ho Meng Kit.

Still, he praised the Budget for being balanced in offering support to both households and businesses in equal measure, adding that the past three Budgets provide a sense of certainty about the Government's direction towards a more productive economy.

"I think this certainty will feed into the system and I think the message would get absorbed and I think when the multinational companies look at us, the small companies look at where they want to be, I think Singapore will regain its competitiveness."

The next step, he said, would be to further simplify incentive schemes so that more firms, especially smaller ones, can benefit.

KPMG Singapore tax partner Gan Kwee Lian agreed, noting that the application process for some schemes, such as the Productivity and Innovation Credit (PIC), can sometimes seem too onerous to small business owners.

"Whenever a taxpayer wants to claim PIC, there are lot of queries being asked. And it also deters some smaller companies from making claims because they are very afraid that the moment they make a claim and it turns out to be an incorrect claim, they could be penalised."

Overall, however, the panel of experts could not fault the Budget for a lack of generosity in supporting all sections of society.

In fact, health-care consultant Jeremy Lim, of consultancy firm Oliver Wyman, said the Budget should nudge society into taking care of each other.

"Governments can put out the money but communities need to organise... and I think that it's now time for communities, for individuals to really step up and take this very generous largesse to say we can do good things with it, to build a great nation that we'll all be proud to call home."

yasminey@sph.com.sg