GST hike will be among key issues in Budget debate

GST will be a leading topic when Parliament starts its nine-day Budget debate.
GST will be a leading topic when Parliament starts its nine-day Budget debate.
(From left) Chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Finance and Trade and Industry Liang Eng Hwa, Manpower GPC chairman Patrick Tay and MP for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC Saktiandi Supaat.
(From left) Chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Finance and Trade and Industry Liang Eng Hwa, Manpower GPC chairman Patrick Tay and MP for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC Saktiandi Supaat.PHOTOS: ST FILE, LIANHE ZAOBAO, BERITA HARIAN

Others include move to let govt agencies borrow to fund infrastructure

The planned increase in the goods and services tax (GST) will be a leading topic today when Parliament starts its nine-day debate on Budget 2018, unveiled last week by Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat.

Mr Liang Eng Hwa, who, as chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Finance as well as Trade and Industry, will be the first to speak, said he intends to discuss how the proposed 2 point rise in GST to 9 per cent can help ensure the Government's long-term plans are fiscally sustainable.

But they will also burden the poor and middle-income households, he told The Straits Times, saying he will call for "further work to be done" to help these families.

Another issue Mr Liang, an MP of Holland-Bukit Timah GRC, will raise is Budget surpluses.

He will ask whether they can be redistributed back to poor and middle-income families to help ease the impact of the higher GST, which will be introduced some time between 2021 and 2025.

Other key topics MPs interviewed said they will discuss, question and seek clarification on are: Using half the returns from investing the reserves on current needs, slowing the growth of ministries' budgets and the new move to let government agencies borrow to fund infrastructure projects.

These are among the topics in the Budget that has been called forward-looking, with its focus on the longer-term questions of what Singapore can do to fiscally address its ageing population and pay for costly infrastructure projects.

PLANNING FOR THE LONG TERM

The usual Budget takes a look at being prudent for the immediate two to three years, but this time, the Government is extending that prudence to the next decade, making sure the next part of our story is well funded. Typical governments do not think that far, especially when spending is expected to increase significantly.

MR LIANG ENG HWA, chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Finance and Trade and Industry.

HELP FOR WORKERS

One area I am looking at is how we can help the professionals, managers and executives in particular. They made up 70 per cent of all layoffs last year and are linked to structural unemployment. With the talk of innovation, we should take more proactive measures to look at all the at-risk jobs and skills that can become obsolete very quickly.

MR PATRICK TAY, chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Manpower.

CONCERNS OVER SPENDING CUTS

Part of my speech will touch on the reduction in the ministries' budget growth caps, and whether that will lead to trade-offs for each ministry. From the education point of view, I am concerned if this may impact financial assistance schemes in the Institute of Technical Education, for example, since more than 50 per cent of the cohort relies on these schemes.

MR SAKTIANDI SUPAAT, an MP for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC.

The annual marathon debate is part of the parliamentary checks and balances before the Government can go ahead with its financial policy for the year.

The debate on the budgets of individual ministries will be conducted under five themes: good governance, keeping Singapore safe and secure, reviewing our economy and providing opportunities for all, transforming our urban landscape, and partnering Singaporeans to build a more caring society.

As each MP has only a total of 18 minutes to debate the ministries' budgets, it is typical for MPs to work in concert with one another to cover as much ground as possible.

Mr Liang said his GPC met last week to strategise and "split up what we want to say. Some of us also have our pet topics".

Workers' Party MP Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) declined to disclose the party's plans, saying they will be made known during the debate.

Several MPs will lobby for policy changes, allocating more time for the arguments they will make.

Manpower GPC chairman Patrick Tay will spend seven minutes arguing for the removal of the $4,500 wage cap in the Employment Act, which does not protect workers paid more than that.

As a GPC chairman, Mr Tay (West Coast GRC) gets 20 minutes, two minutes more than other MPs.

Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC), who has submitted 18 cuts, will point out that public servants need more avenues to give their personal take on policies to political leaders. He also said the debate is one of the few opportunities MPs have to hear from the ministers on their suggestions.

He feels the 18 minutes MPs are given for the ministries' budgets is too little. "It is a struggle for MPs to decide what needs to be included, how to crystallise all our ideas and to edit the speech to fit the given time," he added.

SEE EDITORIAL


Key terms

Budget debate: This annual marathon parliamentary sitting is expected to last nine working days, from today until next Friday.

Cut: The debate on a ministry's plans and budget is launched by an MP first proposing a token $100 "cut" in the estimates for its expenditure. It ends with the MP withdrawing the cut, an expression that he or she is satisfied with the minister's explanations.

Time limit: Each MP gets a total of 18 minutes to debate on the budgets of all the ministries and government agencies. Government Parliamentary Committee chairmen get an extra two minutes.

Debate ends: Likely on March 9, before the school holidays start - a practice started in 2005 for better work-life balance for the public sector.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 27, 2018, with the headline 'GST hike will be among key issues in Budget debate'. Print Edition | Subscribe