Give greater priority to social safety nets: Academics, economist

Give greater priority to social safety nets: Academics, economist

THE government should make it an even greater priority to improve Singapore's social support system during this uncertain economic period, say observers ahead of the upcoming Budget that will be delivered in Parliament on March 24.

Walter Theseira, an economist and senior lecturer at SIM University (UniSIM), told The Business Times in a recent interview that the role of social safety nets becomes more important during a downturn.

He explained that they serve as a means for Singaporeans to continue to provide for their families should they lose their jobs or see their income reduced at a time when many firms are slashing costs.

The transfers provided through the social safety nets also act as automatic stabilisers to keep consumption going, which is useful for stimulating the economy, he added.

Singapore Management University law don and political analyst Eugene Tan noted that the government rolled out a slew of major social measures at a fast pace in the last two Budgets.

Last year's Budget saw the inclusion of two new permanent schemes - Silver Support quarterly allowances for the low-income elderly and a SkillsFuture Credit for all Singaporeans aged 25 and above.

The highlight of the Budget in 2014 was the introduction of the S$8 billion Pioneer Generation Package to meet the healthcare needs of the country's seniors for the rest of their lives.

These measures need to undergo "consolidation and fine-tuning" to ensure that they are efficient and effective, said Prof Tan.

"Although Tan Chuan-Jin will be helming his first Committee of Supply (COS) for the Ministry of Social and Family Development, it is more likely to be stock-taking and reallocating financial resources for the various routine and long-standing programmes," he said.

The COS, a two-week debate that will take place in April, will see Parliament discuss the estimated budgets of the individual ministries and their plans for the new financial year.

"It's not about putting more financial resources but how to harness them well in order to meet the social policy objectives. Overall, I expect the government to maintain its expenditure on social and family development," Prof Tan added. "Social measures and social safety nets are expenditures for the long haul and require consistent committal of adequate resources."

OCBC economist Selena Ling singled out two groups of people that could do with more resources, infrastructure support and skilled manpower to help them level up in society. These are children with special needs and/or from disadvantaged families, and the needy elderly.

For the latter group, Ms Ling said the extra help should go beyond basic necessities and medical care as it involves issues like their quality of life and their aspirations for end-of-life care.

UniSIM's Dr Theseira, meanwhile, is hopeful that Singapore's social support structure will eventually have a comprehensive unemployment insurance or protection system in place.

"I don't think we should copy the unemployment insurance systems of other countries because of the well-known disincentives for work that these schemes have, but unemployment remains a major uninsurable risk for many Singaporeans and many people don't know how to get help when they lose their jobs," he said.

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat will unveil his first Budget speech since assuming his current portfolio just over five months ago, shortly after the Sept 11 general election.

While he has shared that this year's Budget will largely focus on the economy and how to help companies navigate their way through the slowdown, he also indicated that he will spend time to talk about social policies as well.

One existing initiative that will get some significant air time at the Budget is SkillsFuture, a national initiative to help workers build deep skills and expertise that are desired by employers. "Changes are coming quite rapidly and I think there is the need for us to continue to learn new skills, to be able to cope with change," said Mr Heng during a visit to a logistics firm in Tuas last week.

"We continue to have a focus on some social measures ... so that we can continue to build a society that allows individuals to thrive and provide targeted help to vulnerable groups. But at the same time, we'll put a strong focus on the economy," he said.

This article was first published on March 11, 2016.
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