Every year, the Budget announcement is usually highly anticipated by industry leaders and policy planners, but often just whizzes over the heads of the man in the street.
Not so last year when the government committed nearly $100 billion through five Budgets, dipping into our past reserves to support Singaporeans, help businesses tide over the lean times and keep everyone safe during the Covid-19 crisis.
Suddenly, with Covid-19 lurking and economic hardship looming, Singaporeans were looking forward to the announcement of any help we can get.
It was testament to our sense of national unity that many Singaporeans still felt generous enough to donate their individual $600 Solidarity payments at the time.
This year, we may have weathered the Covid-19 health fears, with our frontliners already receiving their first jabs and mass vaccinations starting for the elderly on Feb 22.
But the economic repercussions of a global pandemic still resonate. Which is why it is great to see how the government is moving from simply surviving a pandemic to planning how we can emerge stronger in a post-Covid world.
In his Budget 2021 speech on Feb 16, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat said that the government’s aim is to build a green and sustainable Singapore that is economically vibrant, socially cohesive, and has the fiscal and social reserves to enable continued stability and progress.
While you can read the full text of his speech here, three things jumped out at me from the $11 billion Covid-19 Resilience package:
Boost for charities, arts and culture and sports
Charities and social service agencies have been an integral part of helping Singaporeans tide over the loneliness and isolation of the circuit breaker and social distancing measures. Sites like giving.sg have seen a rise in Singaporeans sharing their generosity.
Similarly, we have seen a blossoming of ground-up movements. Groups like #KampungKakis, founded by a Covid-19 survivor, migrant worker advocates like itsrainingraincoats and homelessness community partnerships like New Hope Community Services and Homeless Hearts of Singapore have flourished as a result of Singaporeans’ drive to help others.
Yet organisations in the social service sector have suffered from a drop in fund-raising as traditional methods like appreciation dinners and physical donation drives have taken a backseat last year.
That’s why it’s great to see the government encourage public donations, not to mention set up a new $20 million Change for Charity Grant to facilitate spontaneous acts of daily giving.
Similarly, the $45 million set aside for the arts and culture, and sports sectors to encourage the community to deepen skills, go digital, and transform business models is a welcome fillip to those already hurting as a result of our social distancing measures.
Help for fellow Singaporeans
For the man in the street, Mr Heng introduced a new $900 million Household Support Package to provide relief to all Singaporean families, with a focus on lower and middle income households and those with kids.
Lower- and middle-income households will get a one-off GST Voucher special payment of $200 cash and a special GST Voucher U-Save payment of between $120 and $200. And those living in HDB flats will also get extensions to their conservancy charges rebates.
Families with kids will get an additional top-up of $200 for each Singaporean child under the age of 21.
Something new this time round is the $100 Community Development Council Vouchers that will be distributed to about 1.3 million Singaporean households. These vouchers can be used at participating heartland shops and hawker centres.
If you don’t really need these vouchers, consider paying it forward by using them to purchase meals, products or even services for the needy. Here’s a useful link that gives some suggestions.
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Another encouraging sign is the government’s focus on helping lower-wage earners, including older workers and people with disabilities. There are already several avenues for our silver generation to find new ways of earning an income, but new ways of supporting them are always welcome.
Similarly, additional help for people with disabilities to boost their employment opportunities is a step in the right direction.
And on the right path too is the piloting of an Inclusive Support Programme for special-needs kids, integrating early intervention and early childhood education to allow them to be more meaningfully engaged alongside other children.
Care for environment
In an encouraging sign to many who are concerned about our environmental future, Mr Heng was clear in his speech. He said: “Climate change is real and urgent. We must act now.”
Unfortunately, this might be the hardest part of the Budget to be enthusiastic about. Even though there are good signs in the 2030 Green Plan, it comes with some challenges.
While going for a car-lite society is integral to the goal of net zero emissions “in the second half of the century”, drivers did not welcome the hike in petrol prices, which rose immediately after the announcement.
Proponents would argue that this is to be expected and that the new road tax rebates and additional help for cabbies and private-hire drivers would help cushion the blow. But it’s still a bitter pill to swallow for some.
Grab driver Raymond Leong told CNA that the news was too sudden. “I can understand and appreciate the argument (of going green) but it felt too abrupt even with the rebates,” he said, adding that this new measure, as compared to the upcoming GST hike, is “really unfair”.
There is some excitement over the possibility of more electric cars on our roads, but even that is going to take some time to implement.
And it was also unfortunate that on the same day we talked about “bringing more greenery to our island home”, it was reported that a contractor mistakenly cleared large swathes of the 70 hectare Kranji woodland area, sparking shock and disappointment from nature advocates.
Nevertheless, the 2030 Green Plan is still a very ambitious view to look towards creating a sustainable future for our children and a laudable goal to aim for.
As Singapore and Singaporeans prepare for a year of recovery in our new post-Covid normal, it is gratifying to see that we are headed in the same direction, together.
As Mr Heng said, there is no textbook answer to deal with a system shock like a global pandemic. But he noted that “everyone has been doing his or her part, to observe precautions, however inconvenient, to keep each other safe.”
“The past year showed that our values as a people matter – the values of unity, resilience, solidarity, and fortitude. The values of care and partnership, of adaptability and action, of working together. Our whole-of-society response is greater than the sum of its parts.”