United, S'pore can overcome both Covid-19 and long-term challenges

The coronavirus crisis is a test of Singaporeans' resilience, strength of character, social cohesion and solidarity, said Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat. He added that the Budget expresses the spirit of staying united through thick and thin. ST
The coronavirus crisis is a test of Singaporeans' resilience, strength of character, social cohesion and solidarity, said Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat. He added that the Budget expresses the spirit of staying united through thick and thin. ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

Parliament yesterday approved a $106 billion Budget meant to help Singapore overcome the immediate effects of the coronavirus outbreak, while also tackling longer-term issues the country faces such as climate change.

In a 107-minute speech, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat addressed concerns raised by 57 MPs over three days, including the principles that underpin the Government's spending plans.

He said that this year's "unity Budget" came amid exceptional circumstances, with a softening global economy as well as the Covid-19 outbreak, and was so named to highlight the importance of unity among Singaporeans in this trying time.

"How we respond to moments of challenge and crisis is a test of our individual resilience and the strength of our character," said Mr Heng, who is also Finance Minister. "Even more, it is a test of our social cohesion and solidarity."

The Budget expresses the spirit shown by many of staying united through thick and thin, and the Government's confidence that Singaporeans will rally together to meet such challenges head-on, he said.

He called on Singaporeans not to take this unity for granted, noting that around the world, and even close to home, "we have seen societies torn by forces that foment polarisation, communal conflicts and political turmoil".

But united, Singapore can overcome not only the Covid-19 outbreak, but also longer-term challenges such as ageing, technological disruption, social inequality and climate change.

The three-day debate saw MPs such as Ms Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC) ask whether the goods and services tax (GST) had to be raised, given annual Budget surpluses, and if government revenue could be raised in other ways, such as a wealth tax or estate duties.

Workers' Party Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera asked if the Government could slow the rate of growth of national reserves and release more funds to invest in Singaporeans and local companies.

 
 
 
 

Responding, Mr Heng said a broad-based tax like the GST is an appropriate and responsible way to pay for major societal needs such as healthcare spending, noting that the $6 billion Assurance Package announced this year will provide a "bigger and thicker cushion" that will effectively offset the eventual GST hike for lower-income Singaporeans by 10 years.

As a recurrent need, such spending should be funded with recurrent revenues, not one-off surpluses such as those seen in this term of government, he added.

"This is ultimately about us collectively chipping in to look after the healthcare needs of our families," he said. "Each generation must pay for its own spending."

Quoting a Chinese saying that one generation plants the trees and the later generation enjoys the shade, he said Singapore's reserves are today like a tree with lush foliage because of the founding generation of leaders who had the foresight to save the nation's surpluses and invest them for the long term.

 

"If we use reserves or rely excessively on investment returns for regular expenditures, that would be the same as damaging, or even cutting down, this tree," he said in Mandarin.

As a country founded on a vision of a just and equal society, with broad-based prosperity and equal opportunities for all, Singapore cannot afford to turn inwards in the face of challenges such as technological and demographic change.

Instead, it has to continue to stay open and connected, continue to foster trust in society "and, above all, we must stay united as one people", said Mr Heng, who called on Singaporeans to see each generation as a set of relay runners who "always take good care of what we have inherited, run our best race and pass on a better future to those who come after us".

"This Budget is but one step in this long race, building upon the sweat and toil of generations who have run the race before us... Let us unite and forge ahead as One Singapore to build a better Singapore for tomorrow," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 29, 2020, with the headline 'United, S'pore can overcome both Covid-19 and long-term challenges'. Print Edition | Subscribe