Budget 2024 makes significant policy shifts to better position Singapore for future: DPM Wong

Budget 2024 makes significant policy shifts to better position Singapore for future: DPM Wong
DPM Lawrence Wong said he hopes this year's Budget will give Singaporeans confidence to build a better future even in an increasingly troubled world.
PHOTO: Mediacorp

SINGAPORE - Beyond tackling immediate concerns, Budget 2024 makes significant policy shifts to better position Singapore for the future, said Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong.

These include measures aimed at achieving better growth and jobs, and to equip workers for life through a very significant enhancement to SkillsFuture, he said.

Speaking during an hour-long panel discussion on the Budget, DPM Wong, who is also Finance Minister, reiterated that Budget 2024 rolls out the first instalment of the Forward Singapore agenda.

“There will be more to come, because you can’t do everything in one Budget. But we will continue to fine-tune, review and update our plans,” he said.

The recording was aired on local broadcaster CNA on Feb 21.

DPM Wong recapped plans he had laid out in his Feb 16 speech that included more CDC vouchers, cash payouts for the lower- and middle-income groups, as well as a corporate income tax rebate for businesses.

He also touched on the moves to strengthen safety nets and give greater assurance to families and seniors in areas such as housing, retirement and healthcare.

Many of these initiatives were signposted earlier in the Forward Singapore report released in October 2023.

The panel included Nominated MP Abdul Samad Abdul Wahab, who is vice-president of the National Trades Union Congress; Singapore Management University sociology professor Paulin Straughan; and married couple and entrepreneurs May Leena Krishnan and Jeevan Ananthan, who have a two-year-old daughter.

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Ms Katherine Chua, a single mother of five, was also interviewed in a pre-recorded segment on the topic of upskilling, as she had enrolled in part-time courses while working as an executive secretary.

DPM Wong said Budget 2024 comes as dramatic changes are happening around the world, and Singapore is entering a new era that will be marked by conflict and confrontation.

“We can’t do very much about that – we have to accept the world as it is,” he said.

But Singapore can take heart that the country had navigated similar external disruptions and shocks in the past, and each time had emerged stronger than before.

Calling Budget 2024 “a good first step” on the road ahead, DPM Wong said he hopes it will give Singaporeans confidence to build a better future even in an increasingly troubled world.

“I am confident that we can do so again so long as we stay united, work together and continue to keep faith with one another. And that’s what this Budget is about.”

Finding support within the community

Support for families is one clear focus in Budget 2024, with pre-school made more affordable through lower fee caps, said DPM Wong.

A new voucher scheme, meanwhile, helps young couples rent a flat on the open market before they get their Build-To-Order flat.

These build on measures in Budget 2023, such as a higher baby bonus, baby support grant, and a doubling of paternity leave to four weeks.

Budget 2024 also provides healthcare and retirement support for seniors, which in turn helps those who worry about their ageing parents, said DPM Wong.

Prof Straughan said she was excited about the Age Well SG initiative, a $3.5 billion plan to help seniors keep active and have better care options in the community.

Also director of SMU’s Centre for Research on Successful Ageing, she stressed that ageing well does not mean being able to work till one dies.

“We’re not telling people how to retire, but we are saying that through all these very positive policies that the Government has rolled out, if we can maintain good health and our mobility and maintain our cognition, then you are well,” she said.

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DPM Wong noted that lifespans are getting longer, with babies born today potentially living to their 90s – decades beyond retiring at 65.

“It will be very sad for many of us if our health deteriorates, and the last 20 and 30 years of our lives are led in ill health and bedridden,” he noted.

This is why the national Healthier SG scheme focuses on preventive health, while Age Well SG is about creating a senior-friendly environment.

Prof Straughan asked if the “gifts” and financial assistance in Budget 2024 are sustainable. In response, DPM Wong said the best way to ensure this is for the Government to maintain its current system of fiscal discipline and responsibility by maintaining a balanced budget – something it continually strives to do.

He said: “We don’t want to diminish the ethos of self-reliance and individual effort.”

Within the community and in society, Budget 2024 also aims to encourage a culture of giving, he said.

Financial support aside, people can also contribute through befriending and mentoring, he added.

“These are ways in which we can continue to uplift our families in Singapore,” he said.

[embed]https://youtu.be/TvereNbPeOY?si=Nx1H_XuXyzKmRKzv[/embed]

Helping workers and companies

As businesses grapple with rising costs and transformation, and workers prepare for a future with more career transitions, the Budget also has a slew of measures for workers and companies.

Among the most significant is the enhancement to SkillsFuture, said DPM Wong of the programme launched in 2015 to encourage lifelong learning and upgrading.

Singaporeans aged 40 and above will get a $4,000 top-up in credits which can be used for selected training programmes, including part-time and full-time diploma, post-diploma and graduate programmes.

They will also be given subsidies if they want to pursue another full-time diploma at polytechnics, the Institute of Technical Education and arts institutions.

A monthly training allowance when they enrol in selected full-time courses will partially offset income loss from taking time off work.

The allowance will be equivalent to 50 per cent of a person’s average income over the latest available 12-month period, capped at $3,000 per month.

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This was what Ms Chua was hoping for.

The single mother of five children holds a full-time job as an executive secretary, and is also studying for a part-time diploma in data protection as well as a postgraduate course in human resources.

In the pre-filmed segment, she said she hoped upgrading herself would give her better career prospects and had been using her SkillsFuture credits to do just that. But she also worried about her employer being unhappy since she sometimes has to take leave for her studies.

To this, DPM Wong said that besides the SkillsFuture credits, the Government was also working closely across industries and with the unions, such as through the Company Training Committee Grant scheme.

This provides some funding for employers who support their employees in training and picking up new skills.

Mr Abdul Samad added that sending a worker for training represents a “sacrifice” for both employers and employees. The worker may lose out initially by taking time off work, and the employer may not want to release the worker due to work exigencies.

Mindsets need to change, he said, as both parties will eventually benefit when a worker is more qualified and a company gets to retain a higher-skilled worker.

With people living longer, it has also become too idealistic to think that a worker can just stay in one job forever, said Prof Straughan.

She said the SkillsFuture credit, by providing training opportunities at mid-life, is one way to keep people employed longer.

However, Mr Ananthan said the older workers he has hired are typically less productive than younger ones. He and Ms Krishnan started out as hawkers with a fishball noodle stall, but have since expanded their business and now run several stalls as well as a coffee shop.

“So why would employers be more inclined?” he asked.

Prof Straughan said that unless Singapore is going to continue to rely on foreign workers, employers will have no choice but to rely on older workers, especially because of the declining birth rate.

She suggested that jobs be redesigned to better suit older workers.

For certain industries, though, there is only so much that retraining can help with, acknowledged DPM Wong.

Even if the overall economy is doing well, it does not mean that every industry will do well, and some may find it more challenging than others to grow, he said.

Some like hawkers serve not just an economic function, but also a social function in society, and the Government will help in other ways, such as it has done by giving people CDC vouchers, instead of cash. This was meant to support heartland shops including hawkers.

The Budget also had other measures to help companies, said DPM Wong.

Ms Krishnan and Mr Ananthan said the corporate tax rebate of 50 per cent, capped at $40,000 in the year of assessment 2024, would provide a “cushion” amid rising costs.

Citing the Partnerships for Capability Transformation (PACT) scheme, Ms Krishnan asked how they apply to smaller businesses like hers.

DPM Wong said while PACT is focused more on helping SMEs scale up by promoting collaboration with multi-national enterprises, there were many other schemes under Enterprise Singapore that are aimed at helping smaller businesses adopt technology, as well as expand beyond Singapore’s shores.

Increasing productivity is one way for businesses to overcome the manpower crunch, said DPM Wong, noting that the labour market will continue to be tight in a small country like Singapore with a growing economy, which means workers can choose the job they want to do.

Employers who embrace a mindset of supporting worker training will see workers gravitate to them, while those who do not change will feel the pressure to improve their practices through market competition, said DPM Wong.

“In the end, it may cost (firms) more in the short term because they do have to put in some investments into their workers’ training, but in the end, they will emerge better as a company,” he said.

“This has been proven time and again: the more progressive employers, the ones who have moved, can already see the benefits, and hopefully more can see this is the way forward.”

This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.

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