Budget 2021 likely to be more targeted as aid tapers off

Firms still need more help accessing existing grants as process can be tedious, say experts

Mr Liang Eng Hwa

Next month's Budget is expected to target sectors hit hardest by the pandemic, but spending overall will be reined in after extensive support measures were rolled out last year.

Mr Liang Eng Hwa, chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Finance, Trade and Industry, told a pre-Budget round-table yesterday: "I am a bit more realistic about what to expect for the upcoming Budget because there are only so much financial resources you can use to help."

The Government set aside a $100 billion war chest to tackle the pandemic last year, with most of the funds used to support businesses and save jobs.

"I expect this Budget to be a lot more targeted and differentiated than before, so we really channel and allocate funds to those businesses that need help, grow the economy and create jobs," Mr Liang said during the Institute of Singapore Chartered Accountants round-table. "We will still have to help, but the numbers will taper off along the way."

Trade association and industry experts said at the virtual event that more can be done to help businesses access existing grants as applications can be cumbersome.

Mr Ang Yuit, vice-president of the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises, said rental relief measures were a lifeline for firms but took a long time to reach small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

"For many cases, as of today or yesterday, many SMEs are only now receiving the rebate that was supposed to be given last year. It takes awhile (for the relief to reach SMEs) due to the imbalanced relationship between them and the landlords," noted Mr Ang.

Firms have also said they face a "laborious and bureaucratic" process to get support to reskill their workers, he said, adding: "We are concerned that with a slowness in getting that into effect, we will have people that have to be let go because their skills don't match."

However, less government assistance could actually be a good thing, noted Singapore Retailers Association executive director Rose Tong.

She said grants could distract companies from their business objectives as they tailor their goals to meet qualifying criteria. "This could stifle their authentic growth. Some retailers have also gotten addicted to grants and subsidies such that they may be unwilling to embark on a much-needed transformation initiative should there not be a grant available."

Professor Sum Yee Loong, a board member of the Singapore Chartered Tax Professionals, said the Jobs Support Scheme has kept many workers employed, "but now we need to ask ourselves, are we keeping alive firms that are prospering, or are we prolonging the death of inefficient companies?"

Mr Ajay Kumar Sanganeria, head of tax at KPMG Singapore, noted that there is a skills gap in the local workforce in deep-tech areas such as artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things that foreign talent can help meet.

Foreign staff have to be hired in a calibrated manner to plug the talent gap in the local workforce, he added.

"In addition to working for the company that hires them, foreign talent should train the local workforce in digital skills by working with the companies, trade associations and chambers, and government agencies," he suggested.

Singapore's workforce should also be encouraged to expand their horizons, he said, adding: "There should be support for the local workforce to look for job opportunities in foreign countries while working remotely. This will broaden their skills."

Join ST's Telegram channel here and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 15, 2021, with the headline Budget 2021 likely to be more targeted as aid tapers off. Subscribe