Economic realities: 3 harsh takeaways from Budget 2017

Feb 21, 2017 07.00PM |
 

by Ryan Ong

BUDGET 2017 doesn’t have much of a theme, beyond upgrade yourself really quick. There’s a huge sense of urgency in this budget, and it’s not hard to see why. The events of 2016, which range from Brexit to the election of Donald Trump to China’s growing assertiveness, won’t be good for us. And the only way forward is, ironically, to look backward:

 

New budget, old strategy

Budget 2017 is out, and it’s all about forward progress in the industry. But in another sense, it’s also about looking backward, and returning to the root of what made Singapore successful in the first place.

When Singapore (unwillingly) gained its independence in 1965, the situation it faced was quite similiar to today. There was tension in South East Asia, and a sense that the future was a total unknown. In order to run our economy, we focused on producing a highly skilled and educated workforce. Singapore powered through its first decades on the back of that principle: That the Singaporean worker was more productive, more driven, and worth a higher salary than neighbouring counterparts.

But over the last decade, we’ve begun to lose steam. Not too long ago in 2015, for example, Minister for Trade and Industry Lim Hng Kiang pointed out that some industries had to restructure quickly, as productivity goals were not being hit.

Budget 2017 seems to be going back to an old formula. In the face of growing uncertainty, all we can do is rely on the Singaporean worker being better. Better skilled, better adapted, and hopefully better paid for it. That’s not an easy thing to ask, because our success in the mid-60s can be attributed to us being South East Asia’s (arguably) best workforce at the time. But our neighbours have had a lot of time to catch up since then.

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Here are the three harsh things that the budget implies:

 

1. Get with the programme or get left behind

Over $80 million will be spent on helping on Small to Medium Enterprises (SMEs) go digital, under the Go Digital Programme.

About $100 million is for the Global Innovation Alliance and Leadership Development Initiative, which basically encourages Singaporeans to go abroad and work.

Some $26 million will go to the Lifelong Learning Endowment Fund and Skills Development Fund, to train workers in skills relevant to fast growing industries.

A recent comment I read on Facebook asked: Does this mean we want a painter to become a programmer? The answer is yes. Budget 2017 is part of a life raft the government is building for workers.

Remember that retrenchments were at a seven year high, within the first nine months of 2016. Many workers, whom we assumed to be highly trained, were precisely the ones who found themselves out of a job. When you have large layoffs despite a (in terms of paper qualifications) highly skilled workforce, that means workers lack relevant skills.

That’s due to the rising number of disruptive business models (e.g. Uber and its effects on the transport industry), which have forced companies to value different skill sets. It’s bad news for Singaporean workers in their 30s and 40s, who may find their qualifications – which they paid good money to learn – become useless.

Now consider the urgency with which the G is driving at this:

Budget 2017 allocates $1.4 billion to upgrading jobs and the economy. Prior to that, Budget 2016 and Budget 2015 saw the development of the SkillsFuture programme, and emphasised support for robotics and digital technologies. It’s pretty clear what the G’s rescue plan is:

They want Singaporeans to be the innovative ones who are doing the disrupting, not the ones losing jobs from the industries that are disrupted.  Singaporeans who refuse to take big risks, and won’t step out of their comfort zone to learn new skills, are shark bait. The G isn’t taking steps to protect dying industries, or playing at protectionist moves.

 

2. Businesses might pass on the water costs

Pass it on to you, the buyer, that is. The price of water is increasing by 30 per cent, starting in July 2017. It’s estimated that this will come to less less than $25 a month, for 75 per cent of businesses; although I’d contend we don’t know how many businesses there are, and 25 per cent of all businesses in the country is still a huge number of businesses.

It wouldn’t be unreasonable to guess that certain businesses – such as laundromats or restaurants – will be hit much harder by rising water costs than others. Now the purpose of the hike is to “raise awareness” of the importance of water, because without the government doing that none of us would know we’d die without it. But businesses tend to react to price hikes in two ways:

One, the G could have “raised awareness” of the importance of water, and businesses take steps to cut back. Or two, businesses could just factor the costs into their pricing. So we may see more places charging for water, higher prices at laundromats and car washes, higher costs on canned drinks, and so forth.

Now I’m not totally against the government’s intentions, by the way. I’m sure they just want us to waste less water, because over-consumption is the result of cheap supply. But it would be just as easy to set a water cap, and then impose a fine on over-consumption. And have some way to notify the household via text message when they’re nearing the water use limit.

Why punish those who have been conscientious about water use?

 

3. Carbon taxes can mean higher costs to consumers

I like to think most of you aren’t reading this from your ivory-backed chairs, while eating fried Pangolin and resting your rhinoceros-horn water on a coaster made from an endangered tortoise. Like most of you, I’m entirely for carbon taxes.

I’ll even say it’s an admirable and gutsy move: after the Trump election, I expected our pragmatic government to pivot in the other direction, and abandon environmentalism. We have financial inclination to do so, since Singapore has deep penetration into the oil and gas sector.

Nonetheless, from 2019 carbon emitters will be charged $10 to $20 per tonne of greenhouse gas. As with the water situation, businesses can go either way. Some might try to cut down on emissions, but some will try to pass on the costs to consumers. Knowing what big corporations are like, we’d better get realistic and plan to spend more.

On a related note, diesel will be taxed at 10 cents per litre. Cars pay $100 less annual diesel tax, and taxis pay $850 less. Diesel is more environmentally friendly than gasoline, so hopefully transport businesses will consider moving in this direction, rather than raising prices.

 

Budget 2017, along with the last two budgets, seem to be a polite way to remind us the clock is ticking.

Last year may have been the tipping point, in the way the global economy has changed. Stragglers who can’t adapt to the new economy are trying to fight back, by electing governments that impose protectionist measures.

But Singapore hasn’t got the luxury of doing that – we’re too small, and too vulnerable, to play the isolationist game. It’s clear we’re not catering to those who can’t adapt; that’s what all these expensive incentives are about. The clock is ticking, especially for those who refuse to re-skill and upgrade.

 

Read the first part, Economic Realities: 3 harsh takeaways from the Committee on the Future Economy, here.

 

Featured image by Pixabay user jarmoluk. (CC0 1.0)

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