COMMENT: Singapore’s Big Bang Budget 2020 silent on that one big thing

P N Balji
Contributor
Heng Swee Keat presenting Budget 2020 in Parliament, 18 Feb. SCREENCAP: Ministry Of Finance video

SINGAPORE — Budget 2020 had something for nearly everyone. It was exceedingly generous with Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, the heir apparent to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, dishing out a bumper crop of giveaways for employers, workers, families and older Singaporeans.

The goodies were not unexpected as the 4G leadership had to show the people that it will put its money where its mouth is in helping them get over the double hump of an invisible enemy called the coronavirus, and that other visible foe called the economic slowdown.

First off the block was the $6.4 billion package to protect jobs, help companies struggling to make ends meet and make sure those directly affected by the virus see some hope. Then there was the $8.3 billion to be paid out over the next three years to help companies transform and grow.

So far, so good. But where was the plan to remodel the economy to make it fighting fit for smart workers and even smarter machines?

There was no clear vision on this in the Budget. A lot of the goodies that are being given out are rehashing old schemes. The post-Budget headlines tell the story: more support for workplace training and learning new skills, $500 extra SkillsFuture Credit for mid-career workers aged 40 to 60, $8.3 billion to spur businesses to transform and grow, Jobs Support Scheme to subsidise wages of local workers…They all looked very familiar, and that’s because they were taken from the old Budget playbooks.

Even Heng, perhaps in a moment of misplaced candour, admitted that the Enterprise Grow Package to push companies to innovate and go global will be a mixture of new grants and enhanced versions of the old. The long view is absent. A sliver of hope appeared in the announcement on Deep Tech, a source for technological wonders like brain-sensing headbands that translate one’s thoughts into actions and rockets that could fly one to Mars. These are essentially start-ups in hardcore scientific research and backed up by patents.

Heng said he was putting in another $300 million to attract investments in companies in that space. But analysts say the money is too little, maybe even a little too late as the likes of China, Taiwan and Israel are already doing a lot of work in that field. It is debatable if such industries can take root here as the Singapore is a risk-averse country and lacking in enough right talent. Not only that, the gestation period for such innovations takes time and they can fail.

It is not that Singapore doesn’t have the money.  Just look at the surplus the current government has amassed: a hefty $18.5 billion. And it is likely that it will have a surplus of $15 billion, come Budget 2021. It can throw money at a problem if it wants to. We have seen that happen in its social programmes for the Pioneer and Merdeka generations.

The problem can be easily addressed by recruiting more foreigners for these industries. But after what happened in the 2011 election, the government has been going slow on this front. This is one challenge for the 4G leadership: it has to go out there and convince the country that immigration is needed to help resolve economic problems. Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing has addressed this issue but his comments were too nuanced for the common man to grasp. 

I say, choose a good and an unflappable and earnest minister-communicator to put across the dark scenarios that can arise if the immigration policy is not calibrated even further. That is, bite the bullet and tell the people the hard truths Singapore will face if the country continues to shadow box on this front. 

Is this an election Budget? One eye is on the coming election, for sure. But it is not an out-and-out one aimed at the ballot box. I am sure the government does not want to come across as cashing in on the virus crisis and making political capital out of it. That would be seen as being irresponsible.

My sense is that the Prime Minister will wait for the crisis to taper off before pushing the election button. With Singapore winning praise internationally on its handling of the health scare, the Opposition will be extremely hard put to counter the ruling People’s Action Party this time round.

P N Balji is a veteran Singaporean journalist who was formerly chief editor of Today, as well as an editor at The New Paper. He is currently a media consultant. The views expressed are his own.

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