Tharman Shanmugaratnam: Budget Is For Future, Not For Getting Votes

While some may be dissatisfied with certain aspects of government spending, budgets cannot be “all sweetness and light”, said Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

The Government shapes the Budget in the interest of Singapore’s future and not to win elections, and this may involve some measures that are unpopular, Mr Tharman said, speaking at a dialogue with about 400 youths organised by the People’s Association Youth Movement yesterday.

“You should be very worried if you have a government that disburses only nice measures … because that never lasts,” said Mr Tharman, who is also Finance Minister. When countries reverse policies, it is the poor who will be most affected and the Budget this year ensures the Government will not have to do that in years to come, he added.

Mr Tharman’s comments echo earlier remarks he made when wrapping up the Budget debate last Thursday, when he said the Republic has to sustain a fair and inclusive society for generations, “not one election at a time”, as has been the case in the United Kingdom and other advanced economies.

Yesterday, more than 30 questions were posed in the 90-minute dialogue on policies introduced in the Budget, including concerns about the SkillsFuture scheme, the Silver Support Scheme and the petrol duty hike.

Mr Tharman said SkillsFuture, which will provide credits to Singaporeans for use in training and enhancing vocational education through better internships and paid apprenticeships, will not only help make Singapore a more competitive economy, but also enhance social mobility. This is because it will provide learning opportunities for all Singaporeans throughout their lives, regardless of their education qualifications.

Mastery of skills is essential to keep Singapore competitive in the global economy and is possible regardless of one’s academic achievements, he said. Currently, learning is too “front-loaded” and involves too much “information cramming” and competition in the first 10 years of life. However, he said life beyond school is not a race, but a continuous discovery of one’s potential.

“SkillsFuture is for everyone: Those who dropped out early, those who went to university, those who are in mid-career, those who already have a Masters degree … If you’ve got a university degree, after a while, frankly, it doesn’t mean very much. So it’s for everyone regardless of qualifications,” said Mr Tharman.

Asked why the S$500 SkillsFuture Credit is not offered to Singaporeans before the age of 25, Mr Tharman said it is important for those fresh in the workforce to spend time learning on their jobs.

While he acknowledged the value of developing multiple specialisations, particularly how synergies among different skill sets can lead to innovation, Mr Tharman said that mastery takes time.

“To develop deep skills, you really need time … so don’t move too quickly,” he said.

In terms of education and career counselling, the minister said it is important for those as young as secondary-school age to gain exposure to the real world. For older students, career guidance can be geared more towards specialisations and internships.

Junior colleges should also explore offering some courses centred on applied learning, he said. “I think that provides a bit more fluidity because people don’t know for sure at that age if they are more interested in an applied pathway or a more conceptual route. So having a bit of both is useful.”

Mr Tharman added that getting employers on board SkillsFuture is vital but also challenging, because many small and medium enterprises may not have sufficient resources to invest in training and development. He added that employers must also adopt an “enlightened attitude” towards training.

“If we all keep thinking short term, we will be caught in a vicious circle, where the employer does not invest in the employee, and the employee as a result feels he does not have an important future in the firm and moves,” he said.



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