Broad-based policy, Budget 2017 measures can help firms: Iswaran

He says the government is committed to helping firms to cope with short and medium-term challenges


SOUNDING a markedly sympathetic tone, Singapore's Minister for Industry S Iswaran reiterated on Tuesday the government's commitment to helping companies tackle immediate and medium-term concerns, and said that its fiscal budget for this coming year can adequately address these worries.

This is because broad-based policy support built up previously are in place to support companies, while the new measures introduced in Budget 2017 will reach out to specific sectors and companies needing more help, he told Parliament on Tuesday.

This comes as Singapore presses ahead with medium-term goals laid out in a recent economic restructuring report amid a slowing economy and brittle economic sentiment.

"The government recognises these immediate challenges that our SMEs are facing, and we'll continue to provide certain forms of short-term relief where necessary, and through the system of broad-based support we've built up over the years," he said.

"And in all of these efforts, SMEs are our central focus," he added. SMEs are small and medium enterprises.

Mr Iswaran returned to the theme of collaboration that has been at the forefront of the current government's policy approach. "The government looks forward to working closely with trade associations and chambers and unions to ensure a diverse enterprise eco-system, a thriving SME community, and a strong economy rich with opportunities."

He was responding to comments by Members of Parliament (MPs) on the first day of debate on the Budget speech delivered last week by Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat. Should budgetary plans get the approval of the House at the end of the two-week debate, the Budget will take effect on April 1.

For close to four hours on Tuesday, 17 backbenchers aired their views on Mr Heng's speech, with many bringing up issues such as companies' worries, stresses in the labour market, the proposed water price hike and fiscal prudence.

Since Mr Heng's speech, businesses have expressed unhappiness with the lack of support measures for them. The chiefs of the Singapore Business Federation (SBF) and the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises (Asme) have come out quickly to express disappointment with Budget 2017.

The perceived lack of short-term measures comes at a time when economic growth in 2016 was slow by historical standards, at 2 per cent.

MPs, in a change of tone from last year's Budget - when many called for businesses to rely less on state assistance, on Tuesday called on the government to be more sympathetic to the plight of struggling businesses and give them room to grow.

MP for Mountbatten Lim Biow Chuan said during the debate: "I don't believe that businesses are asking for handouts from the government. What they're appealing for is a business climate that is less costly and friendlier."

Mr Iswaran's response put the focus squarely on how Budget 2017, despite the seeming lack of help for firms, can support businesses.

Acknowledging that there were not many new broad-based measures in Budget 2017, he said that programmes already in place would continue to support businesses.

As for the targeted responses outlined in Budget 2017 - including those for the marine, process and construction sectors - they were made "in response to the varied needs in the economy".

But even as he soothed ruffled feathers, he also restated a point Mr Heng made - that firms should also do their part to buck up, or be left behind.

Mr Iswaran said: "The SMEs are key change agents. They have to accept the reality, they have to embrace the change and be change agents."

Expanding on the theme of collaboration, MPs also shared their views on labour issues, stressing that labour practices should reflect new realities.

In particular, union representative Desmond Choo was concerned about what can be done in the new economy so that workers' aspirations can be safeguarded.

He said that the growing emergence of a "gig economy" meant that part-time and freelance jobs will become more prevalent, and that this requires stronger workplace protection and retirement support.

"We'll need a robust framework to protect freelancers and the employers hiring them. Give them a sustaining ecosystem to grow," he said.

Mature workers were also a focus for MPs, as they pondered the role the silver generation can play in the new economy. They expressed concern that such workers may be displaced due to structural shifts in the economy, and urged the government to place an emphasis on jobs-matching for this segment of the labour force.

The MPs also said older workers are a valuable labour resource for demographically-challenged Singapore, and that the Industry Transformation Maps (ITMs), a key restructuring strategy in the recent Committee on the Future Economy report, is key to tapping their potential.

NTUC deputy secretary-general Heng Chee How said: "It is important for ITMs to include plans to fully utilise and continually sharpen this resource - and to do so as part of strategy, rather than as an accommodation or afterthought."

The Budget debate resumes on Wednesday.


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