Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat delivered the Budget speech on Thursday with confidence, and he gave some assurance for our future. Many measures were proposed for resilience in enterprises and industry, and for infusing care for young and older people and for those with disabilities.
However, I have three wishes that were not addressed. The wishes relate to women, the young and to retrenched workers.
In Singapore, like in most developed countries, there are basically two types of economy which support each other - the formal market or cash economy, and the informal care economy. Our society cannot exist without one or the other.
The market economy - and this includes industry, trade, job creation, research and development, technology - is considered essential for society and is the yardstick for measurement of the gross domestic product. However, how can people go out to work if there is no one looking after the home, children, the elderly and other vulnerable people?
Some of these needs of the care economy were addressed by the Budget but not completely. I am not suggesting that the market and competition be devalued but rather that care be revalued.
The care economy is a missing market in Singapore. In 2014, the Singapore GDP at current market prices was about $390 billion. However, this figure excluded the unpaid care sector, where women perform much of the work of caring for children, and the elderly and disabled relatives.
According to the Ministry of Manpower's Labour Force Survey, in 2014, 11.3 per cent of women outside the labour force, aged 25-54, cited care-giving to families/relatives as their main reason for dropping out of the workforce. Last year, 14.2 per cent of this age group cited this reason.
As highlighted in the Association of Women For Action and Research's 2016 Budget recommendations, statistics from the Government suggest that at least 10 times more women than men are out of the labour force due to care-giving provided to families and relatives.
As a result, these family caregivers not only lose income, but themselves also become the dependants of other working family members and, very often, have inadequate savings for old age. This negative economic impact is borne not only by them but also by society as a whole. The effects include labour shortages, impoverished older women and a burden placed on limited family economic resources, thereby limiting the use of these for children and other family members.
The value of family care should be materially recognised by the state, so that those who provide it do not risk personal impoverishment.
Whether through CPF credits or a state allowance, this support should be a collective responsibility, not a problem to be solved by each household.
The Budget announced measures for children in the form of First Step Grant and KidStart, but I would like to propose another initiative: StopSugar. This will lead to better health for our children and young people and this will advantage them throughout their life course.
Already, Singapore has a very high rate of diabetes which leads to kidney disease, heart disease, strokes and amputations. We have to stem this increasing threat to our health and to the health budget. We keep worrying that ageing will increase our health expenditure but diabetes is a big culprit in this area as three in 10 Singaporeans have this condition before turning 40 and this is the highest proportion of younger patients among nine Asian territories, according to a study done by the Asian Diabetes Foundation between 2012 and 2014.
We should therefore try to stem this tide early. One step is to start taxing sugary drinks like we are taxing tobacco to disincentivise excessive consumption of these drinks by children and the young. These drinks contain only empty calories. In fact, many scientists think that sugar is the new tobacco. We should emulate France, Finland, Hungary, Mexico and Britain in this regard by taxing high sugar content in soft drinks.
Children stand to benefit, if sugary drinks are priced out of their reach and they turn to healthier options.
My third wish concerns retrenched workers. The Minister mentioned various schemes to help those who have been laid off find new jobs, including training opportunities with SkillsFuture and the Adapt and Grow initiative. I would like to suggest that Singapore start an unemployment insurance scheme whereby every worker, self employed or otherwise, uses 1 per cent of his or her Medisave account annually to pay into this insurance scheme and the Government can contribute a matching amount.
Workers who lose their jobs and would like to continue working should be given a grace period of six to 12 months during which time they get assistance to find another job or be retrained for a new career with the help of various schemes mentioned in the Budget speech. However, to be able to survive in this interim period with some dignity, the worker and his or her family should get a living wage from the insurance scheme which allows Singaporeans to help fellow citizens in times of need.
These three pragmatic wishes for Singapore can make us more healthy, equitable and inclusive, and I hope that they will be considered in the near future.
Kanwaljit Soin, a former Nominated MP, is the founding president of Wings, a non-profit that promotes active ageing for women.
This article was first published on March 26, 2016.
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