Enterprise and partnership needed for the future: Heng

Published: 12.09.2018 Related countries:  Singapore Singapore

Finance minister: Budget 2017 is a step towards putting in place these building blocks for a mutable word

DETAILED economic plans are no longer enough for Singapore as it moves into an uncertain future, said Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat on Thursday. Instead, what the country needs urgently is a pervasive sense of enterprise and partnership so that risks - wherever and whenever they crop up - can be mitigated, he said in his Budget 2017 round-up speech. In positioning the Budget as a forward-looking one, he said to Parliament: "The world is changing, but we do not know for certain the pace and the direction of change. ... What we need is not a cast-in-stone roadmap, but a spirit to constantly forge forward, and to find a new way forward.

It also comes three weeks after the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE) issued recommendations on Singapore's economic transition.

But growth was not even. Some companies and sectors, such as the marine, construction and retail, bore the brunt from cyclical and structural woes, said Mr Heng.

He stressed that the S$1.4 billion set aside for immediate help is "not a trivial amount"; the sum is spread across the existing Wage Credit Scheme and Special Employment Credit, along with enhancements to corporate income tax rebates and the Additional Special Employment Credit.

It comes "on top of substantial stimulus measures introduced in the last three to four years, the cumulative effects of which are still working through the economy," said Mr Heng.

This is because across-the-board stimulus will distort price signals, and prevent an otherwise-healthy economy from functioning properly.

The mandate for the CFE, which Mr Heng co-chairs, is to find ways for the Singapore economy to create new opportunities for its people and improve their lives, even as demographic woes and external uncertainties hit.

Some S$2.4 billion, spread over four years, has been pencilled in to implement the CFE recommendations.

Expanding on the theme of enterprise made in his maiden Budget speech last year, the minister urged Singapore firms and workers to continue fostering that spirit.

The spirit of enterprise can also turn Singaporean firms and workers into disruptors themselves.

These include the International Partnership Fund for firms and Global Innovation Alliance, which helps young people gain more overseas exposure.

Equally important in helping Singapore navigate its way forward is a strong sense of partnership. The Industry Transformation Maps (ITMs), first proposed in last year's Budget, are a good platform for this, he said.

Partnership also extends into the social sphere, as "community action" is critical in providing customised assistance to the specific needs of certain communities. "Even the strongest social safety nets are no substitute for the caring hearts and helpful hands of neighbours," said Mr Heng.

The government stands ready to help and foster the spirit of enterprise and partnership, for example by reviewing regulations where appropriate, said Mr Heng.

For example, the Manpower Minister will soon talk about what can be done to help freelancers.

The Health Ministry is also doing a "major review" of severe disability insurance scheme ElderShield.

But executing these plans requires prudence on the government's part so as not to squander fiscal resources. That means agencies must "do more, do better, with less".

Turning his attention to the proposed water price hikes, the most hotly-debated topic for this Budget, Mr Heng said that in the next five years, some S$3 billion will be spent on sewerage network projects to beef up the resilience of the water supply.

This is more than the revenue from the water conservation tax, which will be about S$1.6 billion over the same period, he said.

"The cornerstone of water policy is the pricing of water on sound economic principles to reflect its long-run marginal cost."

At the same time, the government is conscious about the sustainability of Singapore's tax base. It also has to strike the right balance between current and future generations.

"There is no step-by-step guide for how to venture into the volatile, unpredictable future that lies ahead.

"But for Singapore, we have our compass, a compass of our shared values and our common hope," he said.