Acknowledgement to the Chair, Budget 2021 - Speech by Leader of the House Minister Indranee Rajah
Transcript of speech by Leader of the House, Minister Indranee Rajah at the conclusion of the Committee of Supply debates for Budget 2021 on 8 March 2021.
Mr Speaker, this year’s Budget Debate and Committee of Supply has many firsts.
It is the first full Budget delivered after GE2020.
This is the first Budget session for the first-term constituency MPs and NCMPs, as well as the newly appointed NMPs. For many of the NMPs, the Budget debate was the occasion of their first speech in Parliament.
There were 65 speakers over the three days of the Budget Debate, the highest number in the past five years.
The Committee of Supply saw 569 cuts filed, also the highest number of cuts in the past five years.
With backbenchers having up to 20 minutes of speech time, 18 minutes of cuts and additional time for clarifications, we spent 4,290 minutes, or 71.5 hours debating this year’s Budget and Committee of Supply, culminating in the unanimous support of all Members for Budget 2021.
In addition, we cleared 195 Parliamentary Questions, dealt with one adjournment motion and a Ministerial Statement on a matter of some importance.
But it is helpful to look beyond these facts and figures to the values which we have upheld in approving this Budget.
Our endorsement of the Covid-19 measures reflect our determination to bring Singaporeans safely through this pandemic and to build resilience.
We agreed on the approach to open up safely, bring our economy back to normalcy and provide targeted support for affected sectors, businesses and workers that remain hard-hit by the pandemic.
We rightly acknowledged the invaluable contribution of our healthcare workers in the fight against COVID-19 and the tremendous debt of gratitude we owe them for the sacrifices they have made and continue to make.
We wholeheartedly supported the salary enhancements for healthcare workers, with members putting forward suggestions for enhancing the career prospects and progression opportunities for nurses and healthcare professionals.
Creating a future-ready economy and workforce
We recognised that even as we tackle the immediate challenges presented by Covid-19, we have a rare window of opportunity to act to position ourselves to emerge stronger for a post-pandemic world.
We focussed on helping our businesses and our workers to ride the winds of change, to look forward not back, but providing the necessary support to see them through.
Members noted the need for companies to adjust to major structural shifts, such as accelerated digitalisation, rising protectionism, remote working and the reconfiguration of supply chains, as well as the need to seize new opportunities in growth areas and plug into critical parts of emerging business opportunities.
We affirmed support for business transformation, growth and innovation as well as cross-border collaboration.
We considered how to help SMEs leverage digital solutions and other resources and through collaboration with GLCs and MNCs to help them scale up and venture into global markets.
We were concerned for our workers, and the need to prepare them for the jobs of tomorrow while paying close attention to those in sunset industries, to help them to reskill and gain access to opportunities in growing industries.
The Labour MPs laid out proposals to better protect jobs and empower and support vulnerable workers such as the low wage workers and senior workers.
Members remained concerned about job security and employability of Singaporeans, highlighting issues such as increased competition from foreign manpower, unfair hiring practices and workplace discrimination and put forward many suggestions to address these. MOM, in reply, spoke about the legal and regulatory measures that are in place to keep our workplaces progressive, fair and inclusive.
Fostering a caring and inclusive society
We reaffirmed our commitment to be a caring and inclusive society.
COVID-19 has increased inequalities and the impact of the digital divide. Members called for greater support to ensure social mobility and to bridge gaps, especially for the lower-income. The expansion of Comlink will be a critical step towards achieving these objectives.
We affirmed our support for children with Special Education Needs, and students from disadvantaged families.
We will build capabilities and leverage technology to provide more seamless and integrated support for low income households.
We put a spotlight on mental health which has been made worse worldwide by Covid-19. We agreed to enhance mental health services, improve outreach and intervention, and provide a supportive environment for those with mental health issues.
Today is International Women’s Day. But MSF has gone further, declaring 2021 as the Year of Celebrating SG Women. The Women MPs rose to the occasion – quite literally! – by standing to speak in sisterhood on women’s issues. They canvassed ideas to support women in their career and parenthood aspirations, as well as their caregiving responsibilities. We will also be having the Conversations on Women’s Development, with a view to a White Paper later this year as mentioned by MOS Sun Xueling.
Building a liveable and sustainable home
In this Budget, we also signalled clearly that the little red dot has a big green agenda.
Climate change adaptation and sustainability have taken the forefront in our plans for the future. These have been consolidated into the Singapore Green Plan 2030 which was debated in the Joint Segment in the Committee of Supply as execution will be across different ministries.
We were agreed on future plans and the need to do more to support Singaporeans. At the same time, all these good things need to be paid for. Hence, a crucial part of the debate was on our fiscal strategy.
We begin the financial year with a deficit, following a year that saw the largest deficit in our history, due to circumstances beyond our control. We have had to seek a draw on our reserves to the tune of up to $53.7 billion to fight the crisis. Current revenues and taxes are inevitably impacted by the economic downturn. We are already using 50% of our Net Investment Income (NII) and Net Investment Returns (NIR).
At the same time, government is called upon to do more. How do we fund all the good things we want to do, going forward?
Members welcomed the use of borrowing to finance the costs of nationally significant infrastructure, such as new MRT lines. The long lifespan of such infrastructure makes it equitable to distribute the costs across different generations who will benefit directly from it.
Mr Liang Eng Hwa also suggested funding economic investments to help us emerge stronger through one-off, special purpose borrowing. The Government will study the suggestion.
For recurrent expenditure however, the government reiterated that it should be funded through recurrent revenue. Even before COVID-19, we had already signalled the need to raise GST to fund the anticipated structural increase in healthcare spending, correlated to an ageing population. As these structural trends remain unchanged, the GST raise remains on the cards, with the exact timing subject to the economic outlook.
Alternatives such as wealth taxes were proposed and discussed. Some opposition MPs suggested tapping on land sales proceeds or using 100% of the NIR, instead of 50%, both of which essentially involve using more of our reserves.
Deputy Prime Minister Heng addressed these, explaining the need for fiscal prudence in order to ensure fiscal sustainability. He reiterated the Government’s commitment to help our people manage the impact of the GST rate increase through:
a. First, enhancement of the permanent GST Voucher scheme when the GST rate is raised;
b. Second, the $6 billion Assurance Package to offset the GST increase, which will effectively delay the GST rate increase for the majority of Singaporean households for 5 years, and 10 years for lower-income Singaporeans; and
c. Third, keeping our overall taxes and transfers system fair and progressive.
Mr Speaker, while we are in agreement on the fiscal approach for Budget 2021, based on what opposition MPs have said on GST, I rather suspect we may have to debate this issue again at a future time. I wish only to leave Members with this thought. If we want to do more for our people, we will have to spend more. In a tight fiscal situation, this Parliament will not be able to avoid having to make difficult decisions. We will have to choose between what may be popular and what is right. This will require political courage.
Mr Speaker, let me conclude by thanking Members for their active participation over the past weeks and for their support for B2021.
On behalf of the House, I would also like to thank you, Mr Speaker, and your deputies for presiding with great stamina over the proceedings. You have taken pains, Mr Speaker, to be fair and even-handed to MPs on both sides of the House.
We are also grateful to the Clerk of Parliament and the Parliament Secretariat and staff for their support behind the scenes. Members should be aware that for every late night spent in the Chamber, the Parliamentary staff have to stay even later, to ensure that all is in order for the next day’s proceedings.
A big thank you also to the translators – who have had to follow the speeches in two languages simultaneously.
And I would also like to express my thanks to the teams from Speedoc Pte Ltd, BGC Group Pte Ltd, and Chye Thiam Maintenance Pte Ltd who – you’re wondering what they did – facilitated the smooth running of the antigen rapid testing in Parliament.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.
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