Budget 2013: Take a step back and look around

All this talk about the 2013 budget has made it very hard to actually take a step back and evaluate Singapore’s budget priorities.

As we all know, there’s a big difference between what government officials declare and what they actually do.

Often-times it’s not because they don’t want to do what they promised, but because the bureaucratic machine won’t allow them to put their announcements into actions or because their measures have unintended consequences.

It’s too early to tell if the government will actually go ahead with the measures it has announced, or if they will have the desired effects in the long-term.

But amid heartfelt and emotional reactions it seems like the right time to take a step back and put some perspective into earlier iterations of the budget (how far have we actually come?) and see how our priorities perform against other nations’ (are we going in the right direction?).

How far have we actually come?

Going through the Ministry of Finance’s budget archives is like stepping into a time machine; all past worries resurface and give us insights into our current priorities.

Budget 1996: the priority is to address rising global competition from new and big players (China, India, and other ASEAN nations), specifically in terms of attracting foreign investment.

Budget 1997: the priority is to adapt to the challenges of economic liberalisation, globalisation, and the rapid rate of technological advancement, three factors changing the way business is done.

Budget 1998: the priority is to prepare the economy for the trickle-down effects of the regional crisis, namely the negative impact it will have on the finance and tourism sectors.

Budget 1999: the priority is to cautiously prepare the economy for remaining uncertainties in the external environment.

Budget 2000: the priority is to surf on the slow recovery of the region to maintain growth momentum and sustain the favourable regional environment.

Budget 2001: the priority is to use the diversified economy as a shield from the effects of global recession.

Budget 2002: the priority is to navigate the economy within the clouded context of global political instability and regional security risks.

Budget 2003: the priority is to brace the economy for potential oil price hikes and to use ASEAN-led Free Trade Agreements as cushions to lower demand from the SU and Europe.

Budget 2004: the priority is to sustain the optimism and confidence of Singaporeans, businesses, and foreign investors.

Budget 2005: the priority is to continue growth initiatives with regional partners and to consolidate fiscal measures to attract foreign investments.

Budget 2006: the priority is to attract highly-skilled foreign talent, to nurture knowledge and leadership in the local workforce, and to invest in R&D.

Budget 2007: the priority is to harness globalisation to encourage the world’s talent to reach Singapore and to facilitate the internationalisation of Singaporean know-how.

Budget 2008: the priority is to foster innovation in all sectors of the economy through investment in tertiary education and enhanced business competitiveness.

Budget 2009: the priority is to help Singapore households face exceptionally difficult times and to stabilise the business environment.

Budget 2010: the priority is to build the capabilities needed to transform the economy thanks to skills, innovation, and productivity.

Budget 2011: the priority is to raise productivity, enhance social mobility, and alleviate rising costs of living.

Budget 2012: the priority is to strengthen Singapore through an upgraded and restructured economy based on better jobs, higher incomes, and more inclusive policies.

Budget 2013: the priority is to transform the economy so that quality growth provides all Singaporeans a better quality of life and so a more inclusive society benefits the most vulnerable.

It’s interesting to note that over the last 15 years budget priorities have progressively shifted from a broad economic perspective to a more pinpointed human dimension.

Another interesting exercise would be to examine budget priorities since the 1960s, which would have been geared towards making basic material comfort more accessible (housing, public transport, stable jobs, secondary/tertiary education, medical care, etc.), to the 1980s, when focus was more on making Singapore a financial and trading hub, all the way to today, where rising costs of living and changing demographics have brought us back to the basics (accessible housing, public transport, stable jobs, secondary/tertiary education, medical care, etc.).

Are we going in the right direction?

So are we going on in circles or are we actually making progress?

One way to look at things is through the lens of objective and measurable indicators.

In terms of economic indicators, Singapore is doing just fine: business is booming, property is valuable, land use is expanding, MNCs are prospering, manpower is plentiful, new technologies are innovating, entrepreneurs are succeeding, tourism is healthy, and the population is growing.

But looking through the lens of the man on the street, things aren’t as rosy as they seem: costs of living are going up, cars are over-priced, homes are expensive, public transport is overcrowded, inequalities have never been higher, small businesses are going through hard times, employers are choosy, employees are demanding, foreign labour is dominant, the elderly are broke, and young people are finding it harder and harder to get started in life.

All in all, t’s difficult to know if the current set of measures will find a solution to these complex issues; the real effects of any given set of policies take years to manifest themselves, and even then, it’s hard to determine what the outcome would have been had the measures not been implemented.

In absolute terms, yes, it’s necessary for the government to not only acknowledge but also respond to the difficulties many people are going through. That is, after all, its main mission.

But in more practical terms, it’s also right to wonder just how much will the government be able to take on without crumbling under the weight of its own duties.

That is, in fact, exactly what other highly developed nations with very thorough social protection systems (Western and Northern Europe, USA, Japan, etc.) are going through at this very moment…

And as of now none of them have found a miracle solution.

The good thing is that the way to finding a solution is actually already underway: giving an opinion and participating in direct consultations with elected officials is the surest way to make them aware of your needs.

The process isn’t a quick and simple one, but it’s the best system out there to work hand in hand with policy-makers to set collective priorities straight.

That’s why it’s encouraging to see Singaporeans express and share their opinions on what matters to them: whether it’s on social media, in coffee shops, or at political rallies, participation is what it’s all about!

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Najib A.

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