Speech by MOS Alvin Tan at the Budget Debate on The Third Supplementary Estimates

Speech by MOS Alvin Tan at the Budget Debate on The Third Supplementary Estimates

Mr Deputy Speaker Sir, 

1. COVID-19 has disrupted the lives and livelihoods of Singaporeans, and has also brought us together.

a. I would like to thank everyone for cooperating with the safety guidelines and regulations and taking necessary precautions to curb the spread of Covid-19.
b. This has been a difficult journey for all of us. Because of our collective effort and sacrifices, we have managed to flatten the Covid-19 infections curve and have kept the number of community infections low.

2. Based on MTI’s advance estimates released today, the Singapore economy contracted by 7.0 per cent on a year-on-year basis in the third quarter of 2020. 

a. This was an improvement from the 13.3 per cent contraction in the second quarter, and came on the back of the phased re-opening of our economy following the circuit breaker. But we are coming from a low base. 
b. Notwithstanding the improved performance in the third quarter, the recovery path ahead is expected to be slow and uneven across sectors.

Reopening our economy 

3. As the COVID-19 situation in Singapore stabilises, we have the opportunity to reopen our economy safely, in a careful and calibrated manner. The importance of reopening in a careful and calibrated manner cannot be overly emphasised as honourable Member Sharael Taha had mentioned earlier. 

a. Since we exited the Circuit Breaker on 2 Jun, we have been resuming more activities in a safe and progressive manner. We are currently in Phase Two, and have reopened most of our economy, subject to safe management measures in place. 

i. About 95% of businesses are now allowed to resume operations, and more people are returning to office. 
ii. About two weeks ago, we took another significant step towards restoring economic activities. We allowed more employees who have been working from home to return to their workplaces for up to half of their working time. We have also allowed work-related events at the workplace to resume.

b. As we strive to maintain Singapore’s position as a business and transport hub, we are progressively reopening our borders. 

i. We are establishing reciprocal green lane arrangements to conduct essential travel with other countries and regions, with the necessary safeguards in place to ensure the safety of Singaporeans and our international visitors.

c. We are piloting new concepts to support our businesses in the new operating environment. These efforts will also allow us to play a role in setting the global standards required to resume such activities safely. A few examples: 

i. Cruise. Some cruise lines will soon start to operate cruises, under stringent hygiene and safety measures for safe cruising. To ensure the highest hygiene and safety standards, Singapore is one of the first countries in the world to develop and implement a mandatory audit and certification programme for cruise lines. A CruiseSafe certification is required before a cruise can commence sailings. Cruise lines which have been allowed to operate have since reported an overwhelming number of bookings received. 

ii. Large events. We have also begun pilots of events and activities with a larger number of attendees. For instance, we are piloting the resumption of MICE events of up to 250 attendees. Under STB’s Safe Business Events Framework, event organisers are required to demonstrate their ability to meet specified health and safety outcomes before they are allowed to pilot events. We will continue to adapt and adjust our protocols, and assess how we can allow more large-scale events to proceed.

d. Critically, we have also ramped up our testing capacity and are evaluating alternative tests and sampling methods as new testing technologies become available, to ensure they can be deployed safely and effectively. 

4. In the immediate term, countries that manage the COVID-19 situation best can reap economic dividends, as they will be able to minimise any further disruptions to lives and livelihoods. To do so, our businesses and community continue to stay vigilant and exercise social responsibility, as we resume more activities. 

Supporting enterprises

5. In the past few months, many businesses have benefitted from the schemes and programmes that were rolled out earlier this year to help them tide over the immediate challenges. 

a. For instance, our loan schemes have helped firms to address immediate cashflow issues. 

i. I wish to update the House that as of September 2020, more than 18,000 enterprises have taken up loans under ESG’s loan schemes, such as the Temporary Bridging Loan Programme.
ii. As announced earlier this week, we will be extending and calibrating the loan schemes to ensure enterprises can continue to access financing for their cashflow, trade activities and project needs.

6. At the same time, there is a pressing need to help businesses build new capabilities, as Members have shared earlier, and adapt to new realities, because there is no going back to a pre-COVID world. 

a. We are encouraged that many businesses have taken the opportunity to strengthen capabilities and capture growth opportunities. For those that need it, support continues to be available through the Productivity Solutions Grant, Enterprise Development Grant and Market Readiness Assistance. 

i. Since the start of this year, ESG has supported over 28,000 projects under these schemes to help our companies increase productivity, build new capabilities and expand overseas. 

b. We have also announced enhancements to these schemes, as we continue to support companies to tap new sources of growth and adjust to the new operating environment. 

i. For instance, we are expanding the scope of the Market Readiness Assistance grant to include support for participation in virtual trade fairs, so that companies can find new business opportunities overseas without any physical travel.

7. But as I said earlier, our economic recovery will be uneven. Some sectors will progressively recover, while others will have to pivot or restructure. That is the reality. We must therefore also ensure, as Members had suggested, that our assistance is more nuanced and targeted. MTI looks at the sectors in three broad areas.  

a. First, for firms in sectors with good growth prospects, such as biomedical manufacturing, we will help them scale faster and create more jobs for our workers. 

b. Secondly, for firms in sectors that are facing a temporary drop in demand due to COVID-19 but will eventually recover, such as F&B and aerospace manufacturing, we will help them preserve capabilities, consolidate capacity and tide them through this period. 

c. Thirdly, for firms in sectors which have changed permanently, such as social entertainment, we will help them pivot into new markets and businesses. Earlier on, the honourable Member Dennis Tan had mentioned about discotheques, I just wanted to say that since March 2020, pubs, bars, nightclubs, discotheques and karaoke lounges have not been allowed to operate, as the operations pose higher risks of transmission arising from prolonged contact over a period of time. But I wanted to assure the House that the Government has been in consultation with the nightlife industry and we are finalising the support measures to assist them – the affected firms and their employees. We will announce more details shortly. 

Repositioning our economy to capture new opportunities

8. Moving forward, we need to reposition our economy to capture these new opportunities and support our enterprises as they transform and restructure. We must also set our sights on capturing key growth trends brought to fore by COVID-19, by positioning Singapore as a global-Asia node for technology, innovation and enterprise. In an increasingly complex global economy, we will not compromise on our hard-won reputation as a safe, trusted and well-connected business hub for companies and workers to pursue growth. Singapore has a good foundation; we have worked hard to create the right macro-conditions for cross-border trade and investments and innovation – even at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. What’s critical is that we have kept our supply chains moving, our businesses open and ensured that goods and services continued to flow freely and efficiently through Singapore, and we will continue to do so. In MTI’s discussions with foreign chambers and businesses, they have recognised these efforts and deeply appreciate our commitment to a free and open trading system. 

9. Earlier, Member Jessica Tan had mentioned new economic space in an increasingly digital world. This is very important as our interactions with the global marketplace and digital ideas are critical for new opportunities. I  will share about how we will help businesses to tap on these new growth opportunities in the region and beyond. 

a. The Digital Economy Agreement complements Singapore’s network of Free Trade Agreements through establishing international rules, setting benchmarks and aligning standards in areas of digital trade.

b. Singapore signed its first two Digital Economy Agreements this year, with Chile and New Zealand, and also with Australia. As we do so with more partners, this supports interoperability of Singapore’s digital platforms and systems, such as our e-payments or e-invoicing network or digital identities, with those in other countries. It is very important that we smoothen these out with different countries and we have mutual recognition and standards of interoperability. This will allow our companies, especially SMEs, to internationalise and do business overseas. 

10. We will continue to encourage innovation and support companies in the journey to develop new products and solutions. This will enable us to capture new opportunities, especially those led by changing preferences and needs, for example consumer needs. I think one of the Members mentioned earlier about purchasing online.  For instance, the growing concerns about supply chain disruptions and climate change have led to higher demand for sustainability-related products. The honourable Member Cheryl Chan spoke of the Agri-food industry earlier on. I would like to assure her that MTI is focused on developing this sector, and playing the role of a catalyst, and we are taking on an active role. 

a. Last week, I visited the Singapore Food Agency’s Marine Aquaculture Centre on St John’s Island, which houses a cluster of companies set up to innovate sustainable aquaculture solutions, such as feeding shrimp, sea bass fish in a sustainable RAS system as they call it. One of the companies was Adisseo, which announced the set-up of its first-in-the-world Global Aquaculture Research station in Singapore. The research station will focus on innovative nutrition, health and technologies to develop optimised aquaculture feed solutions for the region and beyond. 

b. Another example is homegrown start-up TurtleTree Labs, which uses biotech to recreate the full composition, functionality and taste of milk in a lab environment. This method of producing milk is 95% less resource consumptive as compared to regular milk production practices. This is a novel solution towards sustainable dairy production globally and could potentially  strengthen Singapore's long-term food diversification efforts.

c. We will continue to build on our public investment in research and innovation through the Research, Innovation and Enterprise (RIE) 2025 plan. We will take into account shifts arising from the COVID-19 situation, as we guide public sector R&D to identify critical technologies for Singapore and drive solutions that will meet the changing needs of Singapore and of our global partners. 

Supporting workers

11. For workers, as we restructure our economy and seek new growth opportunities, some jobs and livelihoods will be affected. The Government will continue to work closely with our workers, businesses and industry partners to help them seize the new opportunities available.

a. Our workers must keep an open mind and be nimble to capture opportunities, including entering sectors which may be new to them. The Government will support workers as they pick up new skills and prepare for new opportunities. We have been doing so through the SkillsFuture Credit, under the SGUnited Jobs and Skills Package, and WSG’s Professional Conversion Programmes. 
b. At the same time, our businesses must also do all they can to retain their workers, retrain them and treat them fairly. We will support you as you do so. For instance, businesses can use the SkillsFuture Enterprise Credit to cover expenses on workforce transformation initiatives, including job redesign and training courses for workers. The Jobs Growth Incentive also provides salary support to encourage businesses, especially those which are expanding, to hire more local employees, which Minister for Manpower had mentioned earlier. 

c. We are working with industry partners, including Trade Associations and Chambers (TACs) and unions, to provide valuable support in this journey, so you are not alone. For instance, their extensive network and industry knowledge enable TACs to reach out to companies and workers to facilitate job matching and training.
i. An example is the Singapore Semiconductor Industry Association (SSIA), whom I spoke to a couple of weeks ago. SSIA has been working with WSG on the Professional Conversion Programme to attract jobseekers who are new to the Electronics industry. This is a growing industry. SSIA also partnered training institutes such as Singapore Polytechnic and NUS School of Continuing and Lifelong Education (SCALE) to train and re-skill the workers as they make a career switch. Since 2016, SSIA has facilitated the placement of over 1,200 workers into the electronics industry through the programme.

d. We will continue to help our businesses and workers to adjust and transform. 

Pressing on with resilience

12. Our journey is fraught with challenges, as businesses and workers will need to make painful but necessary adjustments to adapt and transform. But as I mentioned in my maiden speech, Singaporeans are no strangers to difficulties and challenges - since our nation’s founding. We have been through many ups and downs over the years, but we have always risen above the challenges and bounced back from adversity. We will continue to press on with resilience, and overcome this challenge together. Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker Sir. 

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