Yesterday, Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) & Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat unveiled the Fortitude Budget , which amounted to 49-pages, including annexes.
With the sheer breadth of measures and details for implementation, it is easy for some important points to be lost to the headlines and receive less attention than they should.
Thus, we’re presenting the 5 key announcements that the government made and every Singapore business and employee should be aware of and take action on.
#1 what the post-Covid-19 economy and workforce looks like
In his Fortitude Budget speech, DPM Heng shared that he had convened the Emerging Stronger Taskforce (EST) to work with the Future Economy Council (FEC) Sub-Committees to study how sectors can adjust to the various challenges that are to come.
Indeed, Covid-19 has accelerated structural changes in the economy, transformed consumer habits, and greatly altered how countries compete and co-operate with one another.
According to the Ministry of Trade and Industry, the EST is co-chaired by Minister for Social and Family Development and Second Minister for National Development Desmond Lee and PSA International CEO Tan Chong Meng. Joining the two co-chairs in the EST are 15 representatives from various sectors.
The taskforce has a mandate to 1) Identify systemic shifts arising from Covid-19; 2) Assess the impact of these shifts on the Singapore economy, and how these translate into challenges and opportunities; and 3) Provide recommendations on what Singapore can do to stay economically resilient in the post-Covid-19 world.
In the course of their work, the taskforce will consult various stakeholders, industry experts and consultancy firms, as well as invite Singaporeans to share views and suggestions.
The taskforce is expected to share its preliminary recommendations by early 2021.
What we can take away from the formation of the EST and FEC is that it is unrealistic to expect the country, the economy, our sector, and our jobs to return to “normal” after Singapore and the world recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Companies might need to rethink their business models. We might need to accept unpleasant changes to our job scope or expectations.
Just as Singapore cannot afford to just keep its heads down until everything blows over, we too as individuals need to pro-actively look at how our operating environment has changed, and what we can do to remain relevant.
Towards this end, the government is also figuring things out, and we can (and should) play our respective parts in contributing to the national effort, whether that’s sharing our feedback, responding when called upon to serve, or simply keeping ourselves abreast of the latest developments and helping inform those around us.
#2 national jobs council formed with Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam as chair
In his Fortitude Budget speech, DPM Heng said that Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for Social Policies Tharman Shanmugaratnam will be heading a National Jobs Council.
This council has the mammoth task of overseeing the implementation of the $2 billion SGUnited Jobs and Skills Package, which has an ambitious but critical goal of creating 100,000 jobs, traineeships and training opportunities.
As a well-respected leader who has a proven track record, SM Tharman also previously held appointments such as Deputy Prime Minister, Finance Minister, Manpower Minister and Education Minister.
His leadership of the council is apt, since it requires orchestrating job-creation efforts in both the private and public sectors amid a difficult economic climate, a traineeship placement exercise at an unprecedented scale, and a massive reskilling effort at short notice.
What Singaporeans can do is to be open to new job opportunities, being humble and hungry to undergo traineeships and pick up new skills, and be willing to open up books (or monitor screens) to learn completely new subjects again.
Companies can (and should) fully embrace the momentum of this national effort and be an integral part of Singapore’s recovery, as they revitalising their own businesses.
#3 finding new solutions to shared challenges via national innovation challenges
Companies, organisations and individuals alike are dealing with various challenges that arose from Covid-19 and the public health response, as well as the resulting economic impact.
The most pressing of challenges that require answers include how we can reopen workplaces, keep homes safe, ensure safety in schools, and commute safely.
Finding solutions to these problems sometimes require the pooling together of unique perspectives, capabilities and drive across the economy. To help catalyse these partnerships to tackle these problems, a new set of National Innovation Challenges will be introduced, using the framework of the Open Innovation Platforms.
How this works is that the government articulates problems to which solutions are sought. This effort is led by the National Research Foundation and other ministries.
Start-ups, technology providers, research institutes and companies would then be encouraged and incentivised to compete to create proofs of concept/prototypes that demonstrate how the problems can be solved.
These potential solutions would then be presented to stakeholders who would be involved in implementing the solutions for validation and feedback.
The entire process can be completed between 6 months to a year, which is relatively short for issues that have no prior precedent and could potentially be rolled out quickly soon after on a larger scale.
An open process like this gives big companies and small start-ups alike a common platform to share ideas, pool resources, and work together to create real solutions that can have a positive impact on Singapore and even the world.
#4 technology and pedagogical development underway to reimagine the future of learning
DPM Heng specifically mentioned that apart from businesses, schools and Institutes of Higher Learning (IHLs) must make full use of digital technologies for learning.
In his speech, DPM Heng articulated the challenge of the “digital divide” and immediate steps being taken to ensure all students have the resources for their learning.
Going a step further, DPM Heng said that the government will “harness the talents of our best software engineers, AI experts, learning scientists and educators” in order to build new digital platforms for online teaching and learning, integrating the latest advancements in AI and learning sciences.
Alongside the digital tools, the relevant pedagogy will be developed specifically for online learning.
For this, the Ministry of Education and National Research Foundation will be providing more details in due time.
This is significant, because this signals the intent to fully embrace all the benefits of digital technologies in schools, which will help students also seamlessly transition into the workplace of the future and be digital natives who are comfortable with concepts like AI, virtual reality, and augmented reality.
We can expect the creation of a lot more educational-focused digital solutions (assessment books, anyone?) and the need for parents to understand how these tools work.
#5 contingency funds set aside for speedy response to unforeseen situations in coming months
Contingency Funds are a mechanism in the Constitution to cater to urgent and unforeseen expenditure which have yet to be provided for under the Supply Act.
It was revealed that every year, $3 billion is set aside in the annual Budget to act as a buffer in the Contingencies Funds and Development Contingencies Fund.
Near the end of his Fortitude Budget statement, DPM Heng spoke about the need to stay nimble and adaptive amid the rapidly evolving situation.
Because of the unprecedented levels of uncertainty that Covid-19 has brought about, there is a need to set aside a larger sum in the Contingencies Funds.
Thus, a significantly larger sum of $13 billion has been set aside in the Contingencies Funds to allow the government to respond quickly to implement urgent public health or fiscal measures.
What it means for us is that it is clear that we’re not out of the woods yet when it comes to successfully containing the spread of Covid-19 in Singapore, and we need to be prepared for a subsequent wave of infections and possible retightening of safety measures.
Companies that plan to restart business operations need to do so with the utmost care and in exact accordance with the safe management guidelines set out by the Multi-Ministry Taskforce, and perhaps go above and beyond to protect their employees, customers and partners.
On an individual level, we need to continue to exercise prudence in managing our finances and our own mental and physical health, so that we can go the distance in this fight against Covid-19.
Our fate depends on the successful execution of these plans
Unlike past policies, masterplans and visions, the policy directions laid out in the Unity, Resilience, Solidarity and Fortitude Budgets have a particularly heavy significance for Singapore and Singaporeans.
It isn’t good enough for these policies to be announced and signed into law. Success in implementing these measures depends on the active co-operation of all areas of society.
Companies need to do their part to adjust to new business realities and do right by their workers. Employees need to take responsibility for their own professional development and make sacrifices.
We all need to ensure we tap on schemes we need and are eligible for, and not more than that.
These four Budget statements are a rallying call for everyone who live, work, and study in Singapore to do their collective parts to ensure the place we call home can continue to be a place of opportunity and where everyone can thrive together.
We are living in a momentous time, when our actions can have a real and lasting impact on what Singapore will be like in the next few decades, and beyond. Let’s do our part.
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This article was first published in Dollars and Sense.