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Budget 2019: Like a ‘small but quick-witted mousedeer’, Singapore can make its way in the world

SINGAPORE — Delivering his first Budget speech since he was earmarked to succeed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat on Monday (Feb 18) sought to reflect on Singapore’s 700-year history while, at the same time, provide assurance to Singaporeans and prepare them for a future of “faster and deeper” changes.

In an expansive speech lasting about two hours, Mr Heng spelt out a raft of initiatives covering areas ranging from security and support measures for businesses and households, to environmental and fiscal sustainability.

In an expansive speech lasting about two hours, Mr Heng spelt out a raft of initiatives covering areas ranging from security and support measures for businesses and households, to environmental and fiscal sustainability.

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SINGAPORE — Delivering his first Budget speech since he was earmarked to succeed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat on Monday (Feb 18) reflected on Singapore’s 700-year history and, at the same time, sought to provide assurance to Singaporeans and prepare them for a future of “faster and deeper” changes.

In an expansive speech lasting about two hours, Mr Heng spelt out a raft of initiatives covering areas ranging from security and support measures for businesses and households, to environmental and fiscal sustainability.

To a population afflicted with anxiety amid great technological and geopolitical changes, Mr Heng called on them to draw on the “Singaporean DNA” of openness, multi-culturalism and self-determination.

Singapore should also turn its size and strategic location into an advantage, he added, by serving as a neutral, trusted node in “key spheres of global activity”.

“Like Sang Kancil, the small but quick-witted mousedeer, we can make our way in the world,” he said, referring to the character of Malay folklore which uses quick thinking to triumph over bigger animals.

LEARNING FROM THE PAST TO CHART THE FUTURE

It has been 200 years since Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles set foot on this island, while a thriving seaport existed in Singapore as early as the 14th century.

“1819 was a key turning point in Singapore’s development. The British decision to declare Singapore a free port plugged us into an emerging network of global trade,” said Mr Heng. “This, and subsequent developments, transformed Singapore into a global node.”

Singapore’s bicentennial year, he added, was a good opportunity to learn from the country’s past, in order to chart its future — which will be marked with uncertainty, amid new forces reshaping the global environment.

In particular, Mr Heng noted that the decline in support for globalisation has added a layer of complexity to the major global trends which he had mentioned in last year’s Budget: The shift in global economic weight towards Asia, rapid technological advancements and changing demographic patterns.

The rising scepticism towards globalisation, which has led to trade frictions between the United States and China, are developing into a deeper strategic competition of strength and of governance systems, Mr Heng pointed out. This is causing greater geopolitical uncertainty even as the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) is stable and thriving economically.

Working together, Asean nationals can maximise their potential, he said. But he added: “Closely connected neighbours will have occasional differences.”

Referring to the recent bilateral disagreements between Singapore and Malaysia, Mr Heng reiterated that when such differences occur, Singaporeans “must stay united as a people, and present our positions firmly and calmly”.

Singapore, he noted, has worked through difficult bilateral issues with its neighbours in the past, based on mutual respect and common interests, and in accordance with international law and norms.

SECURING SINGAPORE'S PLACE IN THE WORLD

On the domestic front, Singapore has to address longer-term challenges such as ageing, social mobility, inequality, economic transformation and climate change. To do so, the country has to constantly build up its security and resilience and plan for the long term, while remaining open to diversity, Mr Heng said.

“As a multi-cultural society, our openness to diversity is our strength. It has inculcated a global mindset and deepened our knowledge of Asia. We must continue to cultivate cross-cultural literacy among our youth and encourage them to build bridges with peoples across the world,” he said.

The country and its people must stay relevant and useful so they can secure their place in the world, Mr Heng said. “We must develop deep capabilities, stay open and connected, and draw ideas and talents from around the globe,” he added.

While external events will “shape and reshape our lives”, Singaporeans have shown time and again that they can “take the long view, adapt with the times and thrive”, he reiterated.

Mr Heng, who was delivering his fourth Budget since he became the Finance Minister following the 2015 General Election, described Budget 2019 as “a strategic plan to allocate resources to build a strong, united Singapore”.

The financial resources will go towards keeping Singapore safe and secure, developing a vibrant and innovative economy, building a caring and inclusive society, and nurturing a global city that is smart, sustainable and globally connected, he Heng said.

Even as Singapore invests more in these areas, Mr Heng stressed the need to “not only take care of this generation, but our children and their children”.

“It is a core value that we must uphold,” he said.

Returning to his call for unity, he pointed out that financial resources alone will not help realise the Government’s strategies.

Singaporeans have to partner with the Government, he said, and support one another to succeed in this endeavour — just like the days of yore.

“We draw strength from our diversity, by focusing on what we have in common. In the earlier years, our forefathers clustered around ethnic and religious groups to support one another,” said Mr Heng. “Today, Singaporeans support one another, regardless of race, language or religion.”

BUDGET 2019 MEASURES

Keeping Singapore safe and secure

  • Invest 30 per cent of total government expenditure to support defence, security and diplomacy efforts

  • The creation of a new Home Team Science & Technology Agency

A global city and home for all

  • Invest in infrastructure to enhance connectivity — airport, seaport, the MRT Cross Island Line

  • Prepare for climate change

A fiscally sustainable future

  • Financing for long-term infrastructure

  • Strengthen resilience of tax system

  • FY2018: S$2.1 billion surplus (0.4 per cent of Gross Domestic Product)

  • FY2019: S$3.5 billion deficit (0.7 per cent of GDP)

A skilled workforce, innovative firms and a vibrant economy

  • Building deep enterprise capabilities such as a new programme to help companies scale up, enhanced support under the Enterprise Financing Scheme, and an expansion of the SMEs Go Digital programme

  • Helping Singaporeans seize opportunities such as new Professional Conversion Programmes, extension of Career Support Programme and reduction in foreign worker quotas for services sector

  • Making Singapore a Global-Asia node of technology, innovation and enterprise

    • New Centres of Innovation in aquaculture and energy

    • New programme to create a pipeline of “global-ready talent” for Singapore companies through internships and management associate programmes

A caring and inclusive society

  • Uplifting every Singaporean

    • New Uplifting Pupils in Life and Inspiring FamilIes Taskforce (UPLIFT)

    • Enhanced Workfare Income Supplement

    • Extension of Special Employment Credit (SEC) and additional SEC

  • Greater healthcare assurance

    • Community Health Assist Scheme (Chas) extended to all with chronic conditions

    • Creation of new Long-term Care Support Fund

    • Merdeka Generation Package

    • Five-Year MediSave top-ups for older Singaporeans not in Merdeka or Pioneer Generations

  • A community of care and contribution

    • ComCare long-term assistance

    • Nurture youth community leaders in Institutes of Higher Learning

    • Encourage senior volunteerism

    • New movement to encourage volunteerism among public service officers

  • Commemorating the Bicentennial

    • S$200 million Bicentennial Community Fund to encourage individuals and firms to give back to the community

    • S$1.1 billion Bicentennial Bonus for Singaporeans via cash handouts, personal income tax rebate

  • Other support for households

    • Service and Conservancy Charge rebate

    • Top-up to Public Transport Fund

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