Budget debate: Government working closely with firms and workers to develop Singaporeans, says DPM Heng

This comes amid profound structural changes to the labour market and economy. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The Government is committed to developing Singaporeans and is working closely with enterprises and workers to do so, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said on Friday (Feb 28).

This comes amid profound structural changes to the labour market and economy, such as an ageing population, multiple careers, and rapidly advancing technology and business models, he told Parliament in his speech rounding up the three-day debate on the Budget statement.

Mr Heng said this tripartite approach has three prongs.

First, the Government is investing in enabling lifelong learning and smooth job transitions. It is investing heavily in institutes of higher learning, which, together with other training providers, offer a large suite of industry-relevant continuing education and training courses. These courses are heavily subsidised by up to 90 per cent and provide a key pathway for people to gain the skills and confidence to make career transitions and realise their aspirations, said Mr Heng, who is also Finance Minister.

He also noted that the outcomes of the Adapt and Grow initiative are encouraging. It aims to help workers find opportunities, refresh their skills and move into new roles faster.

Career coaches work with about 27,000 job seekers every year, and in 2018 placed about seven in 10 job seekers within six months, said Mr Heng.

For workers who went through professional conversion programmes, about nine in 10 remained in employment two years after getting a job, and seven in 10 also earned higher wages after starting their new jobs.

The new SkillsFuture Mid-Career Support Package announced in the Budget will further help workers in their 40s and 50s, said Mr Heng, noting that Workers' Party MP Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) had spoken about the anxieties this group faces.

The second prong of efforts is to enable workers to take ownership of their own learning and growth through the SkillsFuture movement.

Mr Heng had announced a $500 SkillsFuture Credit top-up for all Singaporeans aged 25 and up in the Budget speech, with an additional $500 for those aged between 40 and 60.

This can cover, for example, the $450 course fee a Singaporean worker aged 40 or older would need to pay after a 90 per cent government subsidy for a $4,500 course in big data engineering for analytics, he said.

The labour movement is also building on workers' efforts by helping them with job transition and upskilling through the Job Security Council and company training committees, he noted. The council was announced by labour chief Ng Chee Meng on Wednesday when he spoke during the debate.

The third focus is on enterprises stepping up their transformation while redesigning jobs and upgrading workers.

Mr Heng said that the new $10,000 SkillsFuture Enterprise Credit and the expansion of the Productivity Solutions Grant to include job redesign consultancy services support this.

In response to Mr Ong Teng Koon (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC) who raised the concern that smaller firms may have difficulty taking workers away from day-to-day business needs to go for training, he said "there is no better time than now to do so".

"Many businesses are already making use of the downtime to accelerate change," he said.

Mr Heng said that besides these tripartite responses, the Government has also been investing upstream in education and housing.

For example, he said, by the time a Singaporean child reaches 16, he would have received more than $180,000 in education subsidies, including for preschool. If he goes on to an institute of higher learning, he would receive an additional $15,000 to $22,000 in subsidies each year.

More is being done to support students from low and middle-income households, provide affordable and good quality pre-school education, and help students gain cross-cultural skills to navigate the new economy.

Meanwhile, housing subsidies keep Housing Board flats affordable, with new flats sold below market rate. A resale flat can cost less than five times the annual salary of a median-income household, which is much lower than other cities such as Hong Kong, Sydney, London or New York, said Mr Heng.

"By intervening upstream in these areas, we provide a foundation of broad-based opportunities that enables everyone to earn their own success."

All these efforts enable Singaporeans to enjoy the fruits of progress, said Mr Heng, citing the fact that resident employed households have seen median real income rise by 3.7 per cent per year over the last decade - higher growth than that of many other advanced economies.

"In short, our approach to these changing times is to take structural measures to strengthen opportunity at every stage of life, with all individuals, employers , unions doing their part," he added.

For all the Government programmes in place, each individual will also have to take responsibility for their own growth and learning, he added.

"If we can all take on a mindset of growth and a spirit of resilience, we can be assured that we will emerge stronger and better to face the future ahead."

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.