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Singapore Budget 2018: Leave no one behind, MPs urge government

More must be done to ensure that workers are not left behind as Singapore seeks to transform its economy, said Members of Parliament on the first day of the Budget 2018 debate.

MORE must be done to ensure that workers are not left behind as Singapore seeks to transform its economy, said Members of Parliament on the first day of the Budget 2018 debate.

Manpower issues dominated much of the air time during the six hours in Parliament.

Foo Mee Har, MP for West Coast group representation constituency (GRC) said: "The Budget does not address measures to deal with Singapore's shrinking workforce nor offer guidance on foreign manpower policy, despite calls for help by businesses struggling to deal with manpower shortages."

Many firms complain that they are unable to go digital and adopt technologies amid a severe tech talent crunch, she added.

The government thus ought to consider some adjustments to the mix of foreign manpower to support growth areas identified in the future economy, such as data analytics, artificial intelligence and cyber-security.

"In order to capitalise on the growth momentum, foreign manpower policies may need to evolve to include skill-based factors to prioritise types of foreign skills and expertise, like those adopted in other countries," she said.

MPs also spoke on the need for all segments of the population to be aligned with the industry transformation maps (ITMs) - a S$4.5 billion programme unveiled during Budget 2016.

Heng Chee How, Deputy Secretary-General of the National Trades Union Congress and MP for Jalan Besar GRC, noted: "If a company or industry focuses transformation only on one part of the workforce and neglects or dismisses the other parts, it is shortchanging itself."

In particular, neglecting mature workers would be both sacrificing potential capability as well as inviting higher tax burdens sooner, he added.

To address the issue, he proposed setting up a tripartite committee to assess the effective retirement age - the age at which people declare themselves retired - and to recommend measures to further raise the employment rate of older workers.

"This includes how the implementation of the Industry Transformation Maps must include the upgrading of older workers and the speeding up of progress toward more age-universal workplaces," he said.

The statutory retirement age is 62, but the age ceiling for re-employment - until which time employers have to offer eligible workers re-employment or a one-off payment if no job is available - was raised from 65 to 67 last year.

The committee should also consider if there is still need for a statutory retirement age or a ceiling for re-employment. If there is such a need, Mr Heng said the committee should look at the conditions under which the re-employment ceiling of 67 could be further raised.

Desmond Choo, director of NTUC and MP for Tampines GRC, pointed out that businesses and young people should not be left out of the transformation process.

A survey last month by Young NTUC among 400 students in universities and private educational institutions found that 83 per cent had not heard about the ITMs, indicating that students poised to enter the workforce have yet to understand the plans for the sectors they are about to join, he added.

Mr Choo also spoke about the "missing link", the last-mile connection of turning transformation plans into action.

"While the roll-out of ITMs is not yet complete, the communication of the ITMs need to be stepped up so that businesses, workers and students are plugged into the plans and development within their sectors."

To increase youth involvement in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), he suggested that seed funding be given to create internship opportunities managed by intermediaries such as NTUC or trade associations. "This can also give more SMEs access to young talent," he added.

MPs also aired their views on ensuring a talent base with the right skills to support transformation.

Darryl David, MP of Ang Mo Kio GRC, urged the government to use ITMs to help displaced workers make a transition into new roles in growing sectors; he also proposed a "robust continuous education framework" for workers in industries where jobs are increasingly being automated.

"As Singapore moves into its next phase of growth, we must ensure that we have the right mix of human capital to support that growth," he said.

The need to nurture an entrepreneurial spirit among the young was also emphasised.

Dr Tan Wu Meng, MP for Jurong GRC, said entrepreneurship is a skillset, and urged the government to look into ways to inculcate the entrepreneurial spirit and skills in schools.

"We also need to keep Singapore open to world-class talent. We must be where the brightest talent of tomorrow will want to settle down and raise children in, while creating jobs, wealth and opportunities for Singaporeans. It starts upstream," he said.

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