COMMENT: Budget 2019 is unimaginative and all-too familiar

Screenshot of Heng Swee Keat during Singapore Budget 2019. (PHOTO: Yahoo News Singapore)
Screenshot of Heng Swee Keat during Singapore Budget 2019. (PHOTO: Yahoo News Singapore)

A $6.1 billion fund to meet the Merdeka Generation’s healthcare needs. A $1.1 billion handout to celebrate Singapore’s bicentennial. A payout of $4.6 billion over three years to small and medium-sized companies to raise their game in a disruptive world. Work permit and S-Pass quotas for service sector jobs to be further tightened.

Now, doesn’t all this sound familiar? Haven’t we seen similar goodies dished out in previous Budgets? There was the generous handout for the Pioneer Generation, while money was also given out during the 50th anniversary of Singapore’s independence. A helping hand has been regularly stretched out to Small and Medium Enterprises, while the whip was used on foreign worker quotas, with the latter a political device deployed since the rude awakening of the 2011 general election.

I set out looking for a surprise in Budget 2019. I found one – a small one at that — in the outlay for defence, security and diplomacy. A hefty 30 per cent of total expenditure will be set aside for these three areas, up from 27 per cent in last year’s Budget, with the lion’s share going to defence. Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat described it as “significant but indispensable”. With Malaysia’s recent actions in Singapore waters and the recent arrests of Islamic State sympathisers, a defence focus is understandable.

All of this has happened before

Singapore’s Central Business District. PHOTO: Wei Leng Tay/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Singapore’s Central Business District. PHOTO: Wei Leng Tay/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Once again, what is sorely missing in Budget 2019 is the lack of decisive measures to tackle the biggest bugbear of the economy – productivity. A poll by enterprise software firm Unit 4 showed Singapore’s productivity figure is the lowest among 11 countries polled. It found that Singapore workers spent only 60 per cent of their time on productive work.

Productivity was a major focus in Lee Kuan Yew’s time. He even initiated a productivity month in November every year. Yet, the modern day statistics are a sad reflection of how Singapore is underperforming on this front. And Heng only touched on productivity growth very briefly when he said that the statistics showed uneven progress across the sectors.

Nightlife businessman Dennis Foo told me, “The Budget announcement that cuts foreign worker quotas further does not bode well for productivity as Singaporeans will feel more ‘privileged’ and employers will find it even harder to get higher output from them.”

What makes Budget 2019 even more underwhelming is the fact that there are no big bang measures to identify new economic winners and tell Singaporeans how the government plans to seize them. Instead, we see the Budget expanding on existing schemes such as the Workfare Income Supplement and incentives for employers to hire older workers being extended to 31 December next year.

Heng’s speech sounded more political than economic; it was peppered liberally with phrases like “Singapore DNA”, “openness to diversity”, “grit and determination” and “strong and united Singapore”.

The most significant takeaway was his reference to Singapore’s precarious future. “Our workforce growth is tapering and if we do not use this narrow window to double down on restructuring, our companies will find it harder in the future,” he said.

He is right about the narrow window. But policy mistakes like an over-dependence on cheap foreign labour and a reluctance to retrain workers earlier have made Singapore’s challenges even greater. What is needed now is to take the bull by the horns and make the restructuring exercise more purposeful and meaningful.

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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