SINGAPORE: Parliament has started debate on this year’s Budget, and MPs lauded it for its greater wealth re—distribution while helping the low— and middle—income groups.
But many raised concerns over the cost of living, issues of social mobility and struggles faced by companies as they restructure.
Chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Finance and Trade and Industry, Jessica Tan, was the first of 27 MPs to speak.
Like many in the House, she stressed the need for quality growth — a key theme for this year’s Budget.
Ms Tan, who is also an MP for East Coast GRC, said there is a need to raise the real wages of low—income workers, many of whom have seen their pay stagnating over the years.
She said: "We must push forward for growth but at the same time we must create an environment that is inclusive and that people feel that they have ’Hope’ to chase their dreams and that they are able to achieve more for themselves and their families.
"The government plays a crucial role in enabling and creating that ecosystem where Singaporeans feel that they can run their own race and have a fair chance for success.
"The government cannot promise success but it must have the vision and provide the environment for Singaporeans to believe that they and their families can do better and to succeed in Singapore."
Social mobility was a running theme in the speeches delivered by not just the MPs from the ruling party, but also opposition members of Parliament.
Ms Sylvia Lim, chairman of the Workers’ Party, was the first opposition MP to speak. She said there is room for a greater progressive tax system.
"I acknowledge the government’s attempts in this Budget to introduce further progressivity into our tax system and its focus on targeted help, which will go some way to mitigate the inequalities faced by Singaporeans.
"What is of utmost concern to Singaporeans is worry over the rising cost of living. This should give us greater incentive to have more progressive taxes which will reduce the need to raise other kinds of taxes which increases the overall cost of living, such as the GST.
"In this regard, I urge the government to continue to look at ways to introduce more progressivity into our tax system for the well—being of our society and the nation as a whole."
Hougang MP Png Eng Huat said he is pleased that the government is placing emphasis on helping the disadvantaged.
Nominated Member of Parliament Laurence Lien cited a study underway by the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre, which said Singapore is "still in a social recession".
He said: "We looked at nine dimensions of social health. By our assessment, Singapore has a negative trend in five dimensions: individual well—being, family, income security, healthcare, and housing & transport.
"We are neutral on culture & values, education, and social connectedness & community cohesion, and positive only on civil & political participation."
He said Singapore needs to carry out a social and economic reset.
"What underpins this work is the building of a new social contract among the public, private and people sectors. I repeat a point I made last year: we need a more radical review, and not merely build on current policies and programmes.
"More critically, what we need is good leadership — not just from the government, but also from the private sector and civic community. This is a dynamic process.
"We have a valuable chance now to bring our national conversation to a different level. The work ahead would be much tougher, because for real progress to happen, there probably needs to be cultural and mindset shifts from all parties, and we have to engage with one another in a way that is unfamiliar.
"I am confident that the outcome will be worth it. But we must take a leap of faith first."
MPs also spoke about the need to do more for older Singaporeans.
One of them repeated the call to extend the re—employment law to workers up to age 67, from the current 65.
Mr Heng Chee How, NTUC deputy secretary—general, said: "I once again urge the government to initiate tripartite discussions as soon as possible to take stock of the progress of the re—employment law since it came into effect on 1 January 2012, and in particular to consider how soon and how best to further extend the re—employment age band from the current (62 to 65) to (62 to 67)."
Mr Heng, who is also the MP for Whampoa, said: "I made this call because of the tight labour market, the need to slow down the net inflow of foreign manpower, the need for companies to preserve experience and expertise, the improved health profiles of succeeding cohorts of older workers and the requests from older workers to further facilitate their continued employment, where they wish to do so, and can continue to work. I call upon the government to indicate a time frame to start this discussion."
The Wage Credit Scheme, aimed at helping companies offset costs as they restructure, also got its fair share of airing in Parliament on Tuesday.
While many MPs appreciate the scheme, they also raised some concerns such as: what happens after three years when the scheme ends? how about contract workers who already have their salaries fixed?
MP for Pasir Ris—Punggol GRC, Zainal Sapari, said: "While I welcome the WCS, I am however very concerned that it may not bring immediate or short—term benefit to low—wage workers who are working under outsourced contracts, like cleaners, security officers, car park attendants and many others.
"Many of these companies are operating on an amount that is already specified and fixed in the contract, which may last for two to three years with possible options to extend by another one to three years. Hence, there is little motivation for them to leverage on the WCS to increase the salary of their workers."
Mr Zainal suggested licensing companies that implement a Progressive Wage Model.
"The Progressive Wage Model offers more than just minimum wage but a pathway for workers to earn better wages," he said.
"A bold action that the government can do is to mandate for Progressive Wage Model to be a requirement for licensing to enable companies to operate in sectors like cleaning, landscape, and security, which have a high portion of low wage workers.
"This potentially could also have a ripple effect on wages of low—wage workers in other industries.
"As the Wage Credit Scheme provides a government subsidy for wage increases, I feel that this will go some way in providing some financial support for companies to adopt the Progressive Wage Model."
The Progressive Wage Model helps workers obtain salary increases based on a wage ladder concept which incorporates skills, productivity and career progression.
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