Debate Speech on Budget Statement 2023 by Patrick Tay Assistant Secretary-General, NTUC and MP for Pioneer SMC on 23 February 2023

To support our workers as they navigate these uncertainties, we need a threefold approach with the three F’s – Financial support to cushion displaced workers in the short-term, Facilitated employment and training, as well as Fair access to PME roles.
23 Feb 2023
Mr Speaker Sir, I rise in support of Budget 2023. It is a thoughtful and forward-looking Budget which supports the diverse needs of society, while ensuring judicious spending as we build our resilience to embrace future challenges and opportunities.
The nature of our economy as we know, is shifting and changing, due to digital disruption and the green transition. We cannot shy away from these, and in fact, we must be at the forefront, to ensure that Singapore remains a competitive and attractive investment location. In the longer term, this will lead to better jobs, better wages, and better opportunities for our local workforce. 
However, because of this rapid restructuring, the nature of work is transforming, and the half-life of skills is shortening. Understandably, this has caused greater uncertainty and anxiety for our local workforce. This is further exacerbated by demand softening in various parts of the world resulting in cyclical headwinds in sectors such as manufacturing in the electronics and semi-conductor space.
On top of this, there is also the challenge of soaring energy prices, which is eroding profits of companies. DPM Lawrence Wong mentioned the extension of the Energy Efficiency Grant, which would be welcome by eligible businesses. I do hope the government will also consider helping other critical sectors to cope, such as through energy rebates for export-focused electronics firms, to keep these high-value industries afloat and ensure workers’ livelihoods.
Support for PMEs
In my past speeches, I have highlighted a segment of our workforce which has been impacted immensely. They are the Professionals, Managers and Executives – PMEs for short – especially those 40 to 60 years of age. They are in a particularly precarious position when they lose their jobs as they generally have more dependents. They also take a longer time to find a new job in view of their age and may lack of relevant skills to take on the new and growing areas and jobs. Upon re-entry to employment, there is also an increasing propensity for them to suffer from a drop in wages. 
As we move forward, we need to keep a look out for every worker and bring everyone along together on this journey of progress because every worker matters. To do so, we need a threefold approach, what I call the 3Fs :
a) First, Financial support for displaced workers, to cushion them and their families in the short-term as they actively search for new employment. 
b) Second, Facilitated employment and training, to upgrade workers and help them seize opportunities in the new economy.
c) Third, Fair access to PME roles, to allow our local PMEs to compete with foreign PMEs, regardless of age, on a level playing field and boost local PMEs’ employment outcomes and strengthen the Singaporean Core.
Some of these, such as the short-term financial support, are part of the recommendations presented by the joint NTUC-SNEF PME Taskforce which I co-chaired with SNEF. I also spoke about them in my last Budget speech. I am heartened that the government has taken these recommendations to help our local PMEs into serious consideration, but there is also still more that we can do to support our workers facing anxieties about unemployment. Allow me to elaborate.
Financial support for displaced workers 
First, short-term financial support for displaced workers.
Today, PMEs are generally less likely to receive support from the Government in view of their earlier higher income. However, as I shared earlier, PMEs are an increasingly vulnerable group because of rapid economic changes and cycles.
When complemented with active labour market interventions, unemployment support – or using another term, re-employment support – can help displaced PMEs in their job search journey. The support provides displaced workers the space to upgrade their skills and look out for suitable employment, with the knowledge that they would be able to continue supporting their family’s basic needs during this difficult period. This increases the likelihood of PMEs looking for jobs that are a good match to their skillsets or which offer progression opportunities. With a better job match, their employment duration at their next job could be longer, and any under-employment mitigated.
There are understandably concerns that with unemployment support, workers will remain unemployed for longer periods, making it harder for them to re-enter employment and causing a strain on government resources. However, in an online survey with 500 respondents conducted in April 2021 as part of the PME Taskforce work, almost 80% supported the introduction of unemployment support, with most citing that it would help workers cover their basic needs during their job search. This finding echoed the calls I made consistently since 2014 when I first started lobbying for some form of unemployment support for our PMEs and workers. We still hear the same today as we carried out our Every Worker Matters Conversations.
Indeed, we have seen how unemployment support can serve as a lifeline while facilitating workers to upgrade their skills and actively search for jobs. At the height of the pandemic, Ministry of Social and Family Development introduced the COVID-19 Recovery Grant – CRG for short – to provide temporary financial support to workers who experienced involuntary job loss, no-pay leave, or income loss. To be eligible, unemployed workers must prove that they have actively participated in job search or training, or attempted to improve their business revenue, if self-employed. NTUC’s e2i will contact individuals who are receiving their third tranche of CRG to refer them to resources that can support their job search efforts. In the same vein, we introduced the Self-Employed Persons Income Relief Scheme, SIRS for short, to help freelancers to tide through the first year of the pandemic for up to $1,000 per month and up to 9 months.
I am grateful that the CRG has been extended till the end of 2023, as many workers are still recovering from the pandemic’s economic impact. However, I would like to reiterate the call for the government to go a step further and introduce a permanent scheme that would provide short-term unemployment support for all workers who are involuntarily displaced, including PMEs. Beneficiaries could similarly be required to prove that they are actively trying to re-enter the job market. In this way, it provides targeted support, coupled with upskilling and job matching which NTUC is well-placed to support, to help workers rebound and re-enter employment.
I acknowledge that a scheme of such scale will be challenging to introduce, but I implore the government to seriously consider this proposal. This scheme would reassure our workers that we will work hand-in-hand with them, to navigate through the exacting changes and challenges in the global economy.
Facilitated employment and training
The second important element is Facilitated employment and training.
Job-seeking can be a very daunting experience, especially when the individual is forced to seek new employment involuntarily. In another online survey with 1,000 respondents conducted in April 2021 as part of the PME Taskforce work, only 58% of mature PMEs were confident in getting a job with their current skills and capabilities. Our employment facilitation landscape must optimise the job-seeker experience by funnelling them seamlessly to the support they need at various stages.
a) This could be in the form of customised career counselling and advisory, or training that would equip them to take on jobs in growth areas or redesigned job roles.
b) Thereafter, we need to enable a good career match, via schemes such as the Career Conversion Programmes, which allow workers to be placed in new roles, and then undergo structured on-the-job training to transit into the new role.
c) Finally, we must continuously monitor outcomes for participants so we can come in and support them in a timely manner.
NTUC’s e2i is committed to working closely with the government to support jobseekers, particularly the more vulnerable, mature tech mid-careerists, as well as those most likely to be affected by the green transition, such as workers in the oil and gas industries. e2i’s Lift-and-Place model can be leveraged to facilitate the movement of workers from sectors that are declining, to adjacent sectors that require similar skills, or sectors that need to quickly ramp up operations.
Our unions will also work together to improve career matching and transition assistance to workers at the grassroots.
While we embark on these efforts, I hope employers will also do their part by recognising vocational certifications of mid-careerists who have upskilled or reskilled themselves and want to enter different sectors, such as the tech sector. In the long run, this will help the local talent pipeline and strengthen our Singaporean core.
Beyond supporting displaced workers, we must also facilitate upskilling and reskilling amongst those who are still in employment. I urge the government to consider incentivising more employers to send their employees for training, by providing higher funding support for Absentee Payroll and providing maximum funding for courses relevant to sectors where there is a shortage of local PMEs and workers.  This enhanced funding of both training and absentee payroll can also be extended to sectors and companies facing difficult cyclical challenges such as in the electronics sector even as most of our industries recover post pandemic.
We should also facilitate access to career coaching, to empower workers to chart their career paths. Beyond larger establishments like NTUC’s e2i and Workforce Singapore, there are numerous private sector career coaches that individuals can tap on.  I ask for Skillsfuture Singapore to consider extending the use of Skillsfuture Credits to engage personal career counselling and advisory as well as coaching services as these are currently limited to selected segments of the workforce.
Fair access to PME roles 
The last F is Fair access to PME roles for our locals.
We must ensure a level playing field for our local PMEs and the foreign talent that we bring in to complement our local workforce.
NTUC and the Labour Movement have been lobbying for and watching this space, whether it is discrimination with respect to age, gender, nationality or even disability, whether physical or mental, as well as all other forms of discriminatory practices. We now have the Tripartite Guidelines for Fair Employment Practices and the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices.
Employers should establish and implement policies and practices to foster a fair and inclusive workplace, and provide a safe environment for workers to report concerns. To do so effectively, it is crucial for companies to have certified Human Resource professionals, either by the Institute of Human Resource Professionals – IHRP for short – or other internationally recognised organisations. SMEs with lean manpower should also be equipped with such HR professionals, perhaps through the introduction of shared HR services.
I would like to call for the government and tripartite partners to generate more awareness on the importance of improving HR standards, possibly through IHRP certification, and to further collaborate to improve existing policies and practices. Where retrenchments are inevitable, the government must ensure fair and responsible retrenchment practices are adopted.
For the small proportion of egregious companies with discriminatory practices, there should be a penalty framework in place to bring them to task. I hope that the upcoming Workplace Fairness legislation will strike a good balance between protecting our local workforce and managing business needs.
To conclude, we cannot escape from disruptions and rapid structural changes in our economy. Our local workers, and especially mature PMEs, will continue to face volatility and uncertainty. What matters is that we remain resilient, seek out opportunities amidst these disruptions, and adapt to ride the waves of change.
To support our workers as they navigate these uncertainties, we need a threefold approach with the three F’s – Financial support to cushion displaced workers in the short-term, Facilitated employment and training, as well as Fair access to PME roles.
We at NTUC will continue to champion these for all workers, so that every worker can secure better wages, welfare and work prospects because every worker matters.
I believe we have the means, the resources, the capabilities, and the right people to make this happen in Singapore. The strong tripartite bond between government, employers and the Labour Movement has been our secret weapon for many years and will continue to do so as we transition into a new and prosperous future.
Mr Speaker Sir, I support the budget. Thank you.