Everyone is anticipating the upcoming 2019 budget statement next month, scheduled to be delivered by Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat on 18 February. As usual, the government has set about to garner feedback from the people on the issues they are concerned about and would like the government to focus on.
Discussing this gathering of feedback, MP of Ang Mo Kio Darryl David, who is a member of the supervisory panel of the government’s official feedback arm REACH, said that the government narrowed in on 5 specific areas: ageing and healthcare, pre-school, innovation, security, and philanthropy.
When asked on a Money FM podcast about how REACH came to those five areas, Mr David said that it was conceptualised by the REACH team. He said:
“If you look at it from a different perspective for example from an average person’s point of view, you would expect your government to provide you with five basic areas, right: transport, housing, healthcare, education, and food. Those are the five basic necessities that you actually would need. So if you look at the five areas that REACH looks at as well, I think a few of those areas would cover these five basic areas.”
Since 3 December 2018, REACH has organised listening points sessions and structured dialogue sessions to get a feel for what Singaporeans are thinking about and what they would like to see included in the upcoming budget statement. According to Mr David, healthcare was a major concern for the people. He also said many were concerned about housing, specifically that they were looking for more details on the schemes announced at the 2018 National Day rally.
No details of upcoming plans for the year to come
Though unable to provide confirmation, Mr David said he thinks people can expect details to be rolled out during the budget statement. He also expects more concrete details to be announced for the Merdeka Generation package.
The interviewer, Michelle Martin, then prompted Mr David about how the feedback process works. Essentially, she asked where the feedback that REACH receives actually goes. Mr David responded by saying, “So in REACH what we will do is we will collate the feedback and send it also to the government via the REACH feedback channel.”
He didn’t go into much details, though. He added, “Of course if you want me to break down the exact details of what actually gets done and how does that translate, I don’t have the micro details.” That's less than assuring.
Moving on to the topic of technological disruption, Mr David was asked if Singaporeans had voiced their concerns on the matter during REACH’s feedback sessions. To this Mr David noted that the ones most worried about technological disruption are businesses, especially small and medium enterprises (SME). Mr David mentioned the Go Digital platform that he said was "certainly very much welcome" and expressed his "hope to see more that’s being done this time around". He elaborated that he hoped the government would ramp up the Go Digital programme and do more to help SMEs innovate in order to stay competitive.
The Go Digital programme has been received with mixed reviews. On the one hand, digitisation has helped some companies increase efficiency and allowed them to expand their business to clients abroad. On the other, there are the business going digital for the sake of appearing advanced without any real substance of value such as the tray robots at food courts which have been described as just another advertising gimmick.
He also said, “I think I’d also hope to see more concrete plans regarding our industry transformation maps (ITM).” Noting that the ITMs are already in place, he said “what could be done better is to link the industry transformation maps and what they are proposing with our industry and make sure that they lead to concrete results for the people who are undergoing this kind of skills training”.
MP says cost not a reason for couples not to want to have kids
Wrapping up, Mr David said he would also want to see the government provide more support to young families. Now, whether or not this is something the people can expect in the upcoming budget, he cannot confirm. In fact he said, “what’s going to happen next year, I don’t know. But I would imagine that the basic staples like your GST vouchers, your rebates for the SNCC the service and conservancy charges should be there because we have a group of people who do need this. Anything else, your guess is as good as mine.”
He did however stress that he thinks the government could be doing better to provide more support for young families and parents with young children, especially since there are significant expenses to factor in when raising a child. Specifically, he said "well I won’t say it’s not cheap to raise a child but there are significant expenses with raising a child".
I think I would say Singapore is an expensive place to live let alone raise a child. SmartParents.sg did the math and estimated that the cost of raising a child in Singapore from the day they are born till they are about 22 years old will be approximately $670,000 – that’s using the lowest costs where possible quoting prices specifically for Singaporeans and doesn’t include living expenses such as utilities.
However, Mr David did say that cost is not a reason for people not wanting to raise a child in Singapore. He said, “I’ve never had someone tell me ever that they are not having children because it’s too expensive. Seriously, they’ve never said that.”
That’s quite surprising to be honest given that the Marriage and Parenthood (M&P) Survey commissioned by the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) showed 61% of the respondents citing financial cost as the top reason they do not want to have any or more children.
He elaborated, “I have had, to be honest, parents tell me that ‘well I’ve got one kid now’, and they say ‘I’m thinking of having a second kid now but I’m not quite sure lah, because so expensive you know’…when they talk to me they say ‘actually it’s not that I don’t want or I can’t afford to have a second or even a third child, but I’m choosing to have one child because I want to give a lot to that child’”.
Mr David notes that he would “like to see more support given to young families and parents of young children” to help them in raising their children to “let them feel that actually there are very, very good affordable options” so they would consider expanding their families.
So what Mr David seems to imply is that it’s not that Singaporeans don’t want to have children because it’s too expensive but rather they don’t want more than one child because good options are too expensive for more than one child.
On this point, Mr David expressed his hopes that the government ease the burden of parents by providing better support for them in their child’s early years. He pointed out that he’s met constituents who have more than one child and they "believe that the other option that the government has provided in raising children is good, is affordable and they are happy to take those options". He was talking about childcare, in this instance.
Now, while the government does provide subsidies for childcare centres that are available to low-income families, a report on poverty by gender equality advocacy group AWARE showed that mothers from low-income households are constrained by inadequate formal childcare. The waiting lists at subsidised childcare centres are extremely long and sometimes there are simply no vacancies at all. Basically, there is a shortage of affordable childcare for low-income families and the consequence of that is that many mothers are forced to stay home to care for their child, meaning they are not able to work to lift themselves out of a difficult financial situation.
So on that note, I’d concur with Mr David’s hopes that the government will do more to better support families with young children so that they are able to get quality care and education.
Overall though, it seems Mr David, though he is part of the supervisory panel of REACH, was quite vague about the feedback they've received from Singaporeans though he assures listeners that their feedback is being channeled up to the relevant people. He's also hopeful that the 2019 budget will have a little something for everyone including a focus on helping SMEs ride the wave of technological disruption and details on various schemes already announced by the government.
Editor's note: Mr David assures that feedback are being channeled to the relevant people. Come on... his interview was conducted in January and REACH is holding its feedback sessions from Early Dec to this coming 11 Jan while the announcement of the Budget is this coming February. It is ridiculous to assume that the ministries have yet to conclude what they are coming up with and will use one month to consolidate the feedback for the Ministers for green light or willing to make amendments at this point in light of ground feedback. Either Mr David is not sharing the details of what he knows or he is not provided with the information of the government's plans that have been concluded.