Singapore Budget 2020: Singapore aims to ride storm with eye on future, says Heng Swee Keat

Budget will give a large boost to economy despite negative impact of outbreak, he says

DPM Heng Swee Keat arrives at the Parliament House for Budget Day on Feb 18, 2020. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

This year's Budget will provide a large fiscal boost to the Singapore economy at a time when it is in need of stabilisation, said Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat.

He also made it clear that this was not just to weather the immediate fallout of the coronavirus outbreak, but also so that the Republic stayed on track with its long-term goal of transforming its economy.

"This virus outbreak will have a fairly negative impact on the global economy and also on the Singapore economy," said Mr Heng in an interview with Bloomberg Television yesterday. Despite that, he said, Singapore still expected to see some positive growth this year "and this Budget will provide a fairly large fiscal boost to the economy", though much depended on how the virus hits the global economy in the coming months.

Meanwhile, Singapore has decided to use its financial firepower to incur a projected $10.9 billion deficit, with $6.4 billion set aside to support businesses, workers, families and front-line agencies. Mr Heng hoped this downtime would be used for restructuring.

He said: "We're dealing with a Budget not just in the short term but using the stabilisation measures... to also work on our transformation."

Mr Heng likened the current situation to being on a boat and seeing a huge wave coming. While one needs to survive the wave, one cannot focus on it to the point of losing direction. "What we're hoping to do is to both navigate this huge wave coming as well as to make sure that we maintain our course."

That is why Singapore needs to stabilise its economy and address long-term structural issues, he said, citing technology, innovation and entrepreneurship as particular areas of growth. "This is going to power growth in the next phase... not just for Singapore but for the global economy and we want to make sure that we are in that."

In a discussion with several Singaporean business owners and association representatives on Mediacorp's Channel 5 yesterday, Mr Heng said a big emphasis in this year's Budget was on skills upgrading and encouraging lifelong learning. This was to make sure that Singapore's workers and companies have the right skills to capture future growth opportunities.

Elaborating on the SkillsFuture credit schemes for individuals and enterprises, Mr Heng said: "As our enterprises transform, it is important that they also take efforts to reskill and retain their workers, and redesign jobs.

"In that way, the more capable workers can help the firms succeed and when the firms succeed, they can then pay the workers better. So we must aim for this virtuous cycle."

Asked about help for freelancers and those in the gig economy who do not qualify for the support packages given to businesses and employees, Mr Heng acknowledged "there would be some difficulty reaching out to everybody because some are (working) part-time and some are (working) full-time". But this group of people still receive help through schemes aimed at supporting households and individuals, he added.

Meanwhile, businesses and workers said that though the measures introduced in the Budget will provide some short-term relief, repairing Singapore's reputation as a safe travel destination is necessary to speed up the recovery.

At a roundtable discussion on the Budget measures, organised by The Straits Times and UOB yesterday, labour MP Patrick Tay encouraged companies to "cut costs to save jobs, not cut jobs to save costs".

Mr Tay, a National Trades Union Congress assistant secretary-general, said the support package "is also a catalyst to companies and encouragement for them to send their workers for training and upgrading in the interim, if business is poor".

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 20, 2020, with the headline Singapore aims to ride storm with eye on future, says Heng Swee Keat. Subscribe