From the gallery

A delicate task balancing interests of all groups

A cleaner sweeping the road outside Raffles City.
A cleaner sweeping the road outside Raffles City.PHOTO: ST FILE

WAGE growth slowed last year as compared to the year before, and that has workers worried, said Nominated MP K. Karthikeyan, pointing out that many Singaporeans still earn low wages of under $1,000 a month.

They fear wages will stagnate and even deteriorate unless more is done to boost productivity.

Those in the manufacturing sector also fear losing their jobs as the industry hollows out.

Last year, eight manufacturing firms from the unionised sector relocated, Mr Karthikeyan said.

The unionist's speech was emblematic of a theme at yesterday's sitting: that of how Singapore can stay together as it strives to remake its economy and workforce.

Several MPs who spoke during scrutiny of the budgets for the trade and industry, manpower and finance ministries championed groups at risk of being left behind - low-wage workers, retrenched middle-aged professionals, managers, executives (PMEs) and small business owners.

To tackle low wages, Workers' Party Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam called for a minimum wage in sectors other than cleaning, security and landscaping, where this is being effected through a combination of regulation and productivity measures.

Three MPs spoke up for older PMEs displaced by economic restructuring.

Said Ms Jessica Tan (East Coast GRC): "Many residents who are mid-career PMEs have come to seek assistance at meet-the-people sessions. They share the challenges they have putting in many job applications but not even getting a response or an opportunity for interview."

She and senior ministers of state Heng Chee How (Whampoa) and Sam Tan (Radin Mas) asked for more targeted help so that such workers can secure replacement jobs quickly, as most of them have families to support.

Among businesses, too, there are those that struggle to stay afloat. Nominated MP and Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Thomas Chua appealed for more help for small and medium-sized enterprises and their trade associations.

Mr Inderjit Singh (Ang Mo Kio GRC) said data on the top 1,000 SMEs showed that the hospitality and F&B sector contracted by as much 7.7 per cent in each of the past five years.

Assurances from the front bench came in the form of reminders about the abundance of schemes to help vulnerable workers and businesses re-skill, upgrade, compete and find their place in the sun.

Low-wage earners, for example, benefit from the Workfare Income Supplement, Progressive Wage Model and Inclusive Growth Programme. PMEs have the Max Talent place-and-train programme and Professional Conversion Programme, and those above age 40 enjoy 90 per cent subsidies on training course fees.

SMEs have the Capability and Innovation Voucher, Productivity and Innovation Credit and Capability Development Grant.

Yes, the transformation of the economy and workforce is a work-in-progress but "we are making steady progress towards our goals", said Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-jin.

He held out statistics such as the 129,000 jobs created last year, one of the lowest citizen unemployment rates in the world at 2.9 per cent, and real median income growth of 1.4 per cent.

"Between 2009 and 2014, real incomes have grown by 2.1 per cent each year at the median, and 1.5 per cent per annum at the 20th percentile. We have managed to... avoid the wage stagnation that many developed economies are facing," he said.

He and other office-holders stood firm on balancing the interests of the haves and have-nots, with Mr Tan saying that "our shared vision must be expansive enough to reflect these differing aspirations, and our society must be inclusive enough so everyone has a stake in our future".

In other words, Singapore must strike a fine balance between supporting the economically vulnerable and remaining attractive to the fit and entrepreneurial.

Senior Minister of State (Finance) Josephine Teo spelt it out when replying to a question on a planned hike in the top personal income tax rate. The main risk was not tax evasion by top earners, she said, but that "our economy loses its entrepreneurial dynamism".

"If that happens, it will be difficult to grow incomes not just for the top end but also the broad majority of our population. That is why our income tax regime must remain competitive overall, to reward work and encourage entrepreneurship," she said.

To Mr Giam's question on wealth inequality, she said wealth taxes remained an important part of the system. The Government scrapped estate duty and shifted to higher taxes on luxury investment property as the latter "cannot be tax-planned away easily" and "does not reduce incentives to work or engage in entrepreneurial activity".

While it is right that individual MPs speak up for the weak, those who make national policies have the harder task of balancing interests of all groups, including - perhaps especially - the middle class, so as to hold society together.

lydia@sph.com.sg