A good and prudent Budget, Latest Views News - The New Paper

A good and prudent Budget

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Government has impressed by focusing on long-term efforts instead of instant gratification

In a year when it would scarcely have been criticised had it been exuberant in its gift-giving, the Government has impressed in keeping its Budget goodies to a judicious level - focusing instead on the needed long-term efforts to build and grow the nation.

With 2019 being the 200th anniversary of Sir Stamford Raffles' arrivval here, Singapore is marking the bicentennial year, with celebrations lined up.

Coupled with the general election rumoured to be around the corner, the temptation to hand out more sweeteners to the public would have been understandable (not to mention, expected).

But to focus on immediate gratification is what this Government has chosen not to do.

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat has instead chosen to "reflect on the twists and turns in our history" in this bicentennial year, to build "an even better future for our people".

That entails giving the economy, its businesses and manpower the wherewithal to thrive in the longer term, putting in place the infrastructure and support needed to help them survive and grow, and crafting a societal fabric tenacious enough to withstand pressures.

Achieving the first goal, Mr Heng said, will come through building deep-enterprise capabilities, deep worker capabilities and encouraging strong partnerships within Singapore and across the world.

The initiatives have come in myriad forms.

Briefly, schemes to build enterprise capabilities include those helping companies to scale up and innovate, creating additional forms and sources of funding, particularly for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), and programmes to continue helping SMEs with the digital transformation.

This year's initiatives have the added boost of being more customised to the needs and stage of growth of recipients.

The labour force will be aided by new Professional Conversion Programmes relating to blockchain, embedded software and prefabrication, while mature and retrenched workers will be helped by an extension of the Career Support Programme.

While there are some cost measures, such as a deferment of an increase in foreign worker levy rates in the troubled marine shipyard and process sectors, the message is clear: The support is there for businesses to innovate and upscale, but the re-skilling and re-designing of the workforce is focused on Singaporeans, and away from a dependence on foreign labour.

It is also telling that of the $4.6 billion the Government will spend over the next three years on these measures, $3.6 billion will go towards helping workers, with the remaining $1 billion going towards companies.

A key part of the Budget speech is the need to keep Singapore safe and secure.

A secure Singapore enables the advancement of the third goal: Building a caring and inclusive society, with better support in terms of education, support for lower-wage and older workers and more.

The benefits, in the form of top-ups and subsidies, for example, are geared towards helping this generation attain a better future by giving them greater assurance over their healthcare costs in their senior years.

Such spending, of course, has to be funded, but this year's Budget was notable for not including the expected tax increases hinted at before. That is not to say they are not forthcoming.

Still, it is notable that the government held back from firing off even more temporary good cheer to lift the mood of the electorate for the months ahead, choosing instead to invest greater energies into developing a stronger economy, a healthier people and a safer country for the years ahead.

This is an edited version of an article that appeared in The Business Times yesterday.