Growth, jobs, and fiscal matters main themes of debate as MPs highlight areas of concern


AS ECONOMIC reopening continues amid the Covid-19 pandemic, pilot schemes - safe cruises, for instance - will help businesses adapt and let Singapore play a role in setting global standards, said Minister of State for Trade and Industry Alvin Tan on Wednesday.

Growth, jobs, and fiscal matters were the main themes on the first day of debate on last week's ministerial statement by Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, with Members of Parliament highlighting areas of concern and proposing tweaks to the Jobs Support Scheme (JSS), among others.

With the Ministry of Trade and Industry's (MTI) advance estimates earlier in the day showing a 7 per cent year-on-year contraction in the third quarter, Mr Tan reiterated a warning that the recovery will be slow and uneven.

He stressed the need for careful and calibrated reopening. Apart from domestic resumption of activities, Singapore is progressively reopening its borders, with reciprocal green lanes and pilot concepts to support businesses in the new operating environment.

"These efforts will also allow us to play a role in setting the global standards required to resume such activities safely," he added.

For example, some cruise lines will start operating cruises soon, under stringent hygiene and safety measures.

Singapore is one of the world's first countries to develop and implement a mandatory audit and certification programme for this, noted Mr Tan, with CruiseSafe certification required before sailing can commence.

Cruise lines that have been allowed to operate have reported overwhelming bookings, he added.

Similarly, Singapore is piloting MICE (meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions) events with up to 250 attendees, with event organisers first required to show their ability to meet health and safety outcomes under the Singapore Tourism Board's Safe Business Events Framework.

In the immediate term, countries that manage the Covid-19 situation best can reap economic dividends, as they will be able to minimise further disruptions, said Mr Tan.

He also gave a recap of how the government has been helping businesses. For instance, since the start of the year, Enterprise Singapore has supported more than 28,000 projects under various capability schemes such as the Productivity Solutions Grant, Enterprise Development Grant and Market Readiness Assistance.

Besides aiding sectors with good growth prospects and those facing a temporary demand drop, MTI will help firms that need to pivot as their sectors have changed permanently.

Replying to Hougang MP Dennis Tan of the opposition Workers' Party who asked for an update on the nightlife industry, Mr Tan said the government has been in consultation and details will come shortly.

"We will continue to help our businesses and workers to adjust and transform," he said in summary.

One support scheme that received attention on Wednesday was the JSS wage subsidy.

Sengkang MP Louis Chua felt that more JSS funds could be channelled to small and medium-sized enterprises, while West Coast MP Ang Wei Neng suggested that thriving firms should donate their payouts.

With the next payouts due this October and next March, Edward Chia (Holland-Bukit Timah) said that an interim payment could instead spread out cashflow support.

Labour MP Mohd Fahmi Aliman (Marine Parade) called for the JSS to be extended beyond March 2021 for specific sectors such as retail or food and beverage.

He also proposed tweaks to the Workfare Income Supplement for low-wage workers, such as lowering the age eligibility criterion and equalising payouts regardless of age.

Other labour issues included working-from-home burnout, protection for workers in micro-jobs, helping older PMETs (professionals, managers, executives and technicians) find jobs, and support for the self-employed, with Mr Ang hoping that the Self-employed Person Income Relief Scheme could be extended further.

Saktiandi Supaat (Bishan-Toa Payoh), meanwhile, called for greater help for the unemployed.

"The gap between someone who is gainfully employed with income for months, and someone who is unemployed will simply keep widening if the economy continues to see scarring in some sectors," he said.

He suggested that Central Provident Fund (CPF) members be allowed to temporarily tap S$5,000 in CPF monies to resolve financial emergencies if needed, and hoped the authorities would monitor the situation when loan repayment relief measures end.

Looking beyond the crisis to longer-term growth, several MPs highlighted areas such as the green economy and opportunities in Asean.

Fiscal matters were another concern. Bukit Panjang MP Liang Eng Hwa asked how Mr Heng sees Singapore balancing its budget in the next two to three years, as well as for the term of government.

The WP's Gerald Giam (Aljunied) asked for a timeline for the government's commitment to restore the S$52 billion drawn from past reserves, noting that doing so in a short timeframe could require austerity and constrain the government's fiscal space.

Some opposition MPs also questioned the timing of various tax and fee hikes. The upcoming goods and services tax hike could worsen the already precarious financial position of some Singaporeans and hurt consumer demand, said the WP's Mr Chua.

Delaying hikes such as higher MediShield Life premiums would allow households to recover before their financial burden increases, said non-constituency MP Leong Mun Wai of the Progress Singapore Party.

More MPs will speak during the second and final day of the debate on Thursday afternoon, with Mr Heng expected to respond to their points when he delivers his round-up speech at the end.