SINGAPORE - If Singapore's Budget 2022 statement was a post-pandemic road map for the city state, then the ensuing debates on each ministry's spending plans could perhaps be described as the building blocks for what this Singapore could look like.
Finance Minister Lawrence Wong's Budget speech on Feb 18 crystallised Singapore's priorities in generating revenue to meet rising healthcare expenses, to bridge social inequalities and to take proactive steps on sustainability.
He proposed that these be achieved through, among other things, a delayed goods and services tax increase; progressive moves in hiking personal income and property and luxury vehicle taxes for high earners; and a raised carbon tax rate to match a more ambitious target of net-zero emissions by or around 2050.
These headline changes to the tax system were set aside when MPs gathered in the House to scrutinise all 16 ministries' budgets, filing more than 600 "cuts" or short speeches containing questions and suggestions.
Over the past two weeks, some newly announced policies stood out for how they attempted to address concerns on the ground.
For some time now, Housing Board flat owners - usually from minority races - have felt penalised in the pocket by a policy that fixes quotas for units owned by each ethnic group in a block or precinct. They now have the option of asking the HDB to buy back their flats.
Employers long frustrated by the opaque nature of work pass approvals should welcome a new points-based system for higher-paid foreign professionals seeking a job here. The framework will evaluate factors such as their qualifications and the hiring firm's diversity of nationalities.
Another thread was support for the most vulnerable - from the low-income and migrant workers to former offenders and people with disabilities.
Under a Progressive Wage Mark accreditation scheme, employers must pay all local staff a salary of at least $1,400, and fulfil training requirements for workers at different skill levels, among other things. From March next year, companies will need this accreditation to take on government contracts.
There were also decisive near- and long-term moves in the drive towards sustainability, with hundreds of millions pumped into firms and industries to spur reduction of emissions, and into electric vehicle infrastructure to encourage adoption.
A hotly debated disposable bag charge will finally take effect, at minimally five cents a bag at most supermarket outlets here.
And as part of a wider healthcare strategy, 10 new polyclinics will be built by 2030, with their doctors plus general practitioners taking on a larger role in attending to the public. This will free up hospitals to focus on the demands of a rapidly ageing population.
Taken together, these themes provide some indication of the contours of a future society being shaped - one which Mr Wong envisioned, in his Budget round-up speech, as a fairer, greener and more inclusive one.
Building on the feedback from the ground
In further delaying a hike in the goods and services tax to next year and implementing it in two stages, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong cited concerns over rising prices.
This attention to ground sentiment was a theme throughout the ministries' debates, as measures were announced to tackle issues raised by various groups - from home owners struggling to sell their flats, to residents dealing with noisy neighbours, to healthcare workers increasingly facing abuse amid the pandemic.
Some of these changes seek to address concerns over fairness and just treatment, across race, nationality, jobs and aptitude in school.
• The Housing Board will offer to buy back flats from owners who find it difficult to sell them due to the Ethnic Integration Policy. To be eligible, they need to have owned the flat for at least 10 years and made regular, genuine attempts over six months to sell it at a reasonable asking price on the open market.
• A points-based system called Compass (Complementarity Assessment Framework) will be used to evaluate higher-paid foreign professionals applying for Employment Passes to work in Singapore. This is in addition to a salary threshold that was raised for the third time in under three years. The minimum pay for mid-level skilled employees on S Passes has also been increased, although those in seven selected occupations will be able to switch to become work permit holders instead.
• As part of a shift in focus away from grades alone, more schools are being added to the subject-based banding programme, which lets students take subjects at different levels according to their strengths. The programme will eventually replace the current streaming system. Junior colleges will also offer more places under the direct school admission (DSA) route for students with talents other than in academics. Mid-year exams in all primary and secondary schools will be scrapped.
• Make-up pay for operationally ready national servicemen (NSmen) will be automatically computed, removing the need to manually claim lost income during NSmen activities. There will be a base monthly pay of $1,600 for all, regardless of rank and vocation.
• A panel will be set up to define what constitutes unacceptable neighbourhood noise disturbances. The Government will refer to these norms when facilitating mediation at the Community Disputes Resolution Tribunals. Consumers and small businesses can also settle drawn-out complaints and issues with telcos through an Alternative Dispute Resolution Scheme, instead of going to court. The telcos will bear 50 per cent to 90 per cent of fees.
• The courts will be given more powers to ensure judgments in civil proceedings are enforced, a move that will help small businesses and people representing themselves - who may otherwise spend disproportionate time, effort and cost to ensure compliance.
• A work group will look into preventing abuse and harassment of healthcare workers. Work processes will also be reviewed and measures put in place to boost well-being - especially of junior doctors. Healthcare staff have been under siege throughout Singapore's Covid-19 fight, with long hours and fatigue leading to higher resignation rates.
Building a secure country and sustainable economy
Budgets are also about concrete moves to meet immediate, pressing needs - and with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it was apt that the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) announced a major upgrade to deal with the looming spectre of digital threats.
Just as key is preserving Singapore's status and competitiveness as a global hub, and for the nation to become more sustainable through the Singapore Green Plan 2030. Here are significant steps taken in these directions.
• A new branch of the military - the Digital and Intelligence Service (DIS) - will be set up to complement the army, navy and air force. It will integrate the Singapore Armed Forces' military intelligence services, cyber defences, electronic protection and C4I (command, control, communications, computers and intelligence) systems. Mindef and Nanyang Technological University have also launched a programme to train selected full-time national servicemen to become digital specialists under the DIS.
• As part of efforts to stop scams, money mules will no longer be able to escape punishment and will instead face money laundering charges with lower culpability. It was previously difficult to prove their intent and hence prosecute such individuals who move tainted funds for crime syndicates.
• A safety rating system for e-commerce platforms will be introduced, and telcos will be required to install enhanced safeguards to block scam calls, SMSes and websites.
• Support will be injected into all levels of the economy - from $50 million to help heartland shops go digital, to the Singapore Global Enterprises programme that will help to raise local talent and local firms into global players. These come under the Singapore Economy 2030 vision, which includes an overall target to grow exports to at least $1 trillion by 2030, and plans and strategies across the key economic pillars of services, manufacturing, trade and enterprises.
• The aviation sector will get $500 million to rebuild capacity and reclaim Singapore's position as a global air hub. The sum will be used to support manpower, industry transformation and safe air travel and operational needs.
• A new research institute on Jurong Island will explore ways to reduce the industrial sector's carbon footprint, while manufacturing firms and building owners will get more funding and grants to adopt energy-efficient technologies and cut down on emissions. At least $300 million will be invested to reduce emissions in the maritime industry as Singapore, a global cargo hub, gears up for a multi-fuel future.
• Singapore's food security goals will also get a leg-up with the introduction of leases for coastal fish farms, which will provide more certainty for farmers and encourage technological investments to improve yields and increase overall production.
• The number of places where smoking is banned will be extended to include all public parks, gardens and 10 recreational beaches, among others. When the ban kicks in on July 1, smokers will largely be able to light up only in designated smoking areas and open public spaces such as vacant land, uncovered walkways and uncovered areas on the top deck of multi-storey carparks.
Building stronger safety nets to renew social compact
Extending a helping hand to the vulnerable groups in society played a big role in the debates across ministries.
The various measures announced over the past two weeks illustrate Budget 2022's stated intent to build a fair and inclusive society.
• Low-income families who seek support from different agencies will not have to go through the hassle of making multiple applications as the Ministry of Social and Family Development will be allowing those on ComCare to automatically qualify for other help schemes. This move tackles a common bugbear for these families - that they have to spend extra time providing the same documents and evidence to qualify for different support schemes.
• Other vulnerable groups getting more support include those with disabilities - a new school for children with multiple disabilities will be set up in the west of Singapore - as well as inmates, as a new masterplan will see them pick up digital skills prior to their release in a bid to help them better reintegrate into society.
• Aspiring para-athletes will have a clear pathway from recreational participation to high-performance sport with a new Para Sport Academy. The academy will offer 10 sports, such as cerebral palsy football and wheelchair tennis, to about 500 participants.
• With the rapid take-up of digital technology, a worry among parents is that their children will be exposed to online harms - territory that is continually evolving. The Ministry of Communications and Information announced that online platforms will be legally required to take prompt action when users report harmful content, and implement systems such as content filters to protect children.
• Protections for vulnerable workers are also being reinforced. The new Progressive Wage Mark accreditation scheme to be rolled out by the Ministry of Manpower means that employers will have to commit to paying all local workers - Singaporeans and permanent residents - at least the local qualifying salary of $1,400, and follow any relevant progressive wage models. This aims to give a boost to lower-wage workers and narrow the income gap.
• Another group of vulnerable workers are migrant workers, whose dangerous conditions while being ferried in lorries have raised concerns, including from MPs and activists. All lorries ferrying migrant workers must now be equipped with speed limiters and must have a designated person on board who can stop the driver if he is too tired or driving in an unsafe way. There will also be new rules to ensure drivers ferrying these workers have enough rest.
• More support for migrant workers in terms of medical coverage is also on the cards. Employers of maids and other migrant workers on work permits and S Passes will need to buy higher medical insurance coverage for these workers by the end of the year. They must buy plans with a minimum annual claim limit of $60,000 for hospitalisation and surgical procedures, up from $15,000 now.
Building for Singapore and Singaporeans of the future
At each Budget, the Government lays out its plans not just for the upcoming year but also for the future - sometimes decades away.
Measures were introduced this year to address the issue of the fast-ageing population and its potential strain on the healthcare system, as well as the ever-pressing climate crisis.
• As part of preparations for a green transition, every Housing Board town will be "EV-Ready" by 2025 - a commitment made by Transport Minister S. Iswaran to install at least three electric vehicle charging points at each of nearly 2,000 HDB carparks over the next three to four years. The Land Transport Authority also aims to have 60,000 charging points across the island by 2030.
• Consumers will, from mid-2023, have to pay at least five cents for every disposable bag, regardless of material, they take at most supermarket outlets here, in a bid to encourage the public to be more judicious with their use of disposables. Excessive use of disposable bags has a negative impact on the environment and environmental groups here have been calling for a charge on disposable bags for years.
• Singapore is broadening its focus for local food production beyond leafy vegetables, eggs and food fish to other food types, such as tomatoes, mushrooms and shrimp. This is part of efforts to transform the agri-food industry here with climate-resilient and sustainable technologies to provide 30 per cent of the country's food needs locally by 2030.
• Major changes in how healthcare is delivered are afoot to better prepare for an ageing society. To shift the pressure from acute hospitals to more community settings such as general practitioner clinics or polyclinics, each resident here will from next year be invited to enrol with one general practitioner or polyclinic doctor, who will work with the resident to prevent or manage chronic conditions. Doing so would free up hospitals to focus on emergencies and complex treatments as demand rises from a fast-ageing population.
• Ten new polyclinics are slated to open between this year and 2030, while existing ones in towns such as Pasir Ris and Clementi will be redeveloped. There are currently 23 polyclinics here. One of the newly announced polyclinics, in Taman Jurong, will have elderly-friendly and accessibility features for the convenience of patients and incorporate pandemic-ready infrastructure.
• Lifelong learning will also be reinforced as industries and careers are set to experience greater volatility in the coming years. A new SkillsFuture Career Transition Programme for mid-career workers will be launched next month to help Singaporeans looking to switch careers. They can take industry-oriented, modular training courses lasting from three to 12 months.
• From June 1, the Additional SkillsFuture Credit (Mid-Career Support) will be expanded to cover around 7,000 courses, up from about 350 courses now. This move comes after feedback from the ground that individuals not looking to switch careers would also like to use their free SkillsFuture credit for upskilling.
10 upcoming changes to look out for
April 2022: SkillsFuture Career Transition Programme for mid-career workers launches
July 2022: Smoking ban extended to more parks, gardens and beaches
2nd half of 2022: Progressive Wage Mark accreditation scheme takes effect
End-2022: Higher medical insurance coverage required for helpers, migrant workers
By end-2022: 2nd batch of assisted living HDB flats in Queenstown
By end-2022: Digital and Intelligence Service set up as fourth branch of Singapore Armed Forces
Mid-2023: Disposable bag charge kicks in at larger supermarkets
By 2023: No more mid-year exams for primary and secondary students
September 2023: Points system for Employment Pass applications implemented
From 2023: Each resident is invited to pair up with a general practitioner or polyclinic doctor of his choice